Turkish-Russian relations in decline

Turkish-Russian relations in decline

Fatih Özbay
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to attend the opening ceremony of the newly reconstructed Moscow Central Mosque this week. However, we can say that such a visit was quite unexpected when recent developments in the relations between the two countries are concerned. Both countries are having a difficult time, both economically and politically. The first critical problem between the two countries emerged in April 2015. “Genocide” statements made in Russia during the 100th anniversary of the so-called Armenian genocide disturbed Ankara. Following that, Turkey’s official remarks calling Russia to mind its own history prolonged the tension. 

Russia is concerned about the abeyance in the construction of the “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline which will transport Russian natural gas to European markets through Turkey, running beneath the Black Sea and bypassing Ukraine. The two countries have not signed any official document on the Turkish Stream yet. Ankara expects Russia to grant a discount for natural gas prices before signing any document. Besides, the Turkish Stream project got stuck in the uncertain political environment after the June 7 elections in Turkey. 

Moscow is also disturbed by Turkey’s interest in Crimean Tatars. Turkey does not officially recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Actually, Turkey displayed a softer stance than expected in Moscow. Nevertheless, meetings and statements made in Turkey about Crimean Tatars are bothering Moscow. For instance, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry announced the report about the current conditions of Crimean Tatars prepared by the Turkish delegation after a visit to Crimea on April 27-30 was “disappointing.” 

Turkey’s Syria and Iraq policies are also criticized by Moscow from time to time. Lately Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave a statement to Egypt’s El-Ahram newspaper, saying, “Military operations by Turkish warplanes on [outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK positions in Iraq are suspicious in terms of legitimacy.”This statement was another indicator of this attitude. President Erdoğan said, “Russia’s statements were quite shocking for me. I have difficulty understanding that,” as a guest on Becky Anderson’s program “Connect the World” at CNN International. Those sentences were implying that Ankara feels uncomfortable with Moscow’s attitude. 

Turkey faces two terrorist threats in the south: The PKK and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Turkey officially recognizes the PKK and ISIL as terrorist organizations but this is not the case for Russia. Russia officially recognizes ISIL as a terrorist organization, but the PKK has never been included in Russia’s official list of terrorist organizations. Russia is charging Turkey with going to extremes in its fight against the PKK but at the same time, it accuses Turkey of incompetency in its fight against ISIL. On the other hand, Turkey could not get the desired reaction from Russia about the PKK issue. 

The most important problem is observed in the Syrian crisis. From the outset, the two countries adopted different approaches in the Syria issue, and they have not taken any step backward. Russia has supported the Syrian regime on every occasion while Turkey has stood against it. Russia is seeking for a solution with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but Turkey wants an al-Assad-free way. U.S.-led coalition forces’ plans to launch a joint military operation on ISIL positions and to create a buffer zone have been a source of concern for Moscow. Russia believes the Libyan experience will be repeated in Syria and there is an effort to topple the al-Assad regime under the guise of fighting with ISIL. Turkey’s opening the İncirlik Airbase to U.S. warplanes has further escalated Moscow’s concerns. As a counterattack, Moscow has boosted its longstanding military relations with Syria. 

To sum up, Turkish-Russian relations are passing through a tough time. Strengthening mutual ties that have been established in the last two decades and maintaining high-level dialogue will sustain the relations. The two countries have practically strategic relations in certain areas, but there are also some disagreeable points that are not clearly uttered. Both Turkey and Russia should review some policies in order to keep up the relations that have been put on the right track in the last two decades. However, this is not an easy task.

The two countries seem like they are growing away from each other. That’s why President Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow on Sept. 23 will define the atmosphere in bilateral relations. 

*Assoc. Prof. Fatih Özbay is a senior fellow at the Caspian Strategy Institute and professor at Istanbul Technical University Faculty of Arts and Sciences Department of Humanities and Social Sciences