Turkey’s ties with Russia no alternative to NATO, EU
On Dec. 28, this column concluded that one of Turkey’s priorities in foreign policy would be to balance its ties between Russia and its Western partners to avoid being excluded from the trans-Atlantic alliance once the Biden administration comes to power on Jan. 20.
That’s why the messages conveyed by Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from Sochi, where he held his last in-person diplomatic meeting of 2020 with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, were important.
The information provided by Turkey’s top diplomat was quite indicative of the intensification in Turkish-Russian dialogue: The two ministers held six in-person meetings, 14 phone conversations and two videoconferences in the year we’re leaving behind. The two countries’ presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, had just one in-person meeting due to COVID-19 but talked on the phone 20 times in 2020, he said.
2021 will also mark important events as the two countries celebrate the centennial of the Ankara Agreement, one of the first deals the Turkish Parliament brokered during the Atatürk-led Independence War. Again next year, Erdoğan and Putin will co-chair the next Turkish-Russian High-Level Cooperation Council in Turkey with a joint commitment to further deepen bilateral ties.
The main pillars of the Turkish-Russian relationship are, without question, the economy, trade and energy. The trade volume is around $20 billion, although that’s mostly to the advantage of Russia. The two countries hope to increase the volume to $100 billion, but there was no improvement on this front in 2020 due to the pandemic. Turkey welcomed 7 million Russian tourists in 2019, but this figure dropped to just 2 million this year because of COVID-19.
Turkey is trying to further liberalize the trade between the countries, since Russia maintains tariffs and restrictions on a number of goods, particularly agricultural products. Energy is another field in which Ankara and Moscow are working together, as the latter is constructing Turkey’s first nuclear plant in Mersin.
But aside from all these fields, the area that really makes the international headlines is the Turkish-Russian cooperation on defense, including Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 air defense systems from Russia. And since mid-2019, there have even been reports that Turkey is also interested in purchasing Russian SU-57 warplanes after it was expelled from the U.S.-led F-35 project, as well as a second batch of S-400s, but Ankara has yet to confirm the speculation.
What’s more, suggestions that Turkish-Russian ties have become strategic don’t find supporters in either country. It’s true that Turkey and Russia cooperate in different conflict theaters, but they also compete for more influence in the said areas.
As Lavrov hinted at the press conference, the continued defense cooperation with Turkey is to the benefit of Russia for both economic and political reasons. But one should not expect, in the short and medium term, that Ankara will conclude another serious military equipment transaction from Russia.
As Çavuşoğlu underlined, Turkey’s relationship with Russia is not an alternative to its ties with the Western bloc, namely, NATO and European Union. It was notable that the Turkish foreign minister, unlike Lavrov, did not cite the field of defense as a promising area of cooperation with Russia.
It was symbolically important for Çavuşoğlu to reiterate how Turkey sees its ties with Russia and the West at a press conference with Lavrov in Sochi and to give indications about the course of Turkish foreign policy in the year to come.