The Flaws of Turkish-Russian Relations

When Putin visited Turkey on December 1st few expected big results, except the subsequent and long overdue price reduction for Russian natural gas. It seemed that the emotionally charged common history of the countries and the fact that Turkey and Russia are somehow cornered hampers a far reaching deal. Both, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, proofed though that they are pragmatists when it comes to economic policy and have much more room for manoeuvre in their foreign policy approaches than “the west” likes to admit. This derives from the fact, that -at the first glance- both countries, especially under their respective current leaders, seem to have similar interests in different regards: First of all they do not (anymore) accept post-Cold War domination over key global issues by the west. Furthermore they are both increasingly isolated -although arguably in quite different ways- and therefore pursue more independent policies. Thirdly both were rapidly growing economies during most of the first decade of the 2000s but lost that momentum over the last few years and now are struggling with major structural deficits. And finally for exactly that reason both show willingness to orient eastwards to find new partners and to engage in new alliances but in both cases the scheme proves harder to pursue than planned – or at least less profitable than partnership with the west.

Many points of cooperation were identified during and shortly after Putins visit, highlighting both countries willingness to increase trade and collaborate closer on many projects, like the first Turkish nuclear plant built by Rosatom or major construction sites in Russias regions by Turkish companies1. The highly respected director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, Dimitri Trenin goes even further and identifies common interests in geopolitically critical questions, like Afghanistan or the southern Caucasus2. And although the headlines were dominated by the abandonment of the south stream project and its replacement with a bigger blue stream project, the geopolitical issues are far more controversial and potentially conflicting. While Putin and Erdoğan celebrate the admittedly considerable results of the visit, both countries have major disagreements over just about every major geopolitical conflict.

The currently most important ones being the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, with Russias focus clearly on the latter. Historically relations between Syria and Turkey were always strained, whether by both countries decision to join one party during the Cold War or by unyielding neighbourhood policies on both sides. That changed in the late 1990s when Turkey pursued a brinkmanship approach and forced the Hafiz al-Assad regime to relent and extradite Turkey’s state enemy number one, Abdullah Öcalan. Ever since relations gradually improved, going so far that Erdoğan and Bashir al-Assad, Syria’s potentate since 2000, became personal friends. The situation deteriorated quickly though after the outbreak of the Arab Spring. The AKP government not only distanced itself from the Syrian regime but was amongst the first to call for al-Assad’s resignation and became one of the leading voices of a military intervention in the ongoing conflict. Moscow on the contrary always had good relations with Damascus, which was its most important partner in the region during the Cold War. This continues until today and Russia once again is Syria’s most important ally, notwithstanding the massive human rights abuses and area bombing by the al-Assad government. Although Moscow always binds its support to certain conditions, like the chemical weapons deal or the recent call for reforms3, ultimately al-Assad is to stay in power. Russia’s and Turkey’s conflicting positions expresses in their respective, very controversial, support for either side of the Syrian civil war. Both are massively externally balancing and by any means try to undermine the other side, leading to a potentially conflicting situation between Moscow and Ankara.

The second big rift in interests is in the various conflicts that erupted after the collapse of the Soviet Union in the southern Caucasus. Amongst those conflicts are the ones between Georgia and Russia that escalated in 2008 and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict that is deemed one of the potentially most conflicting standoffs in the wider region. Although Turkey by no means is very close to Tbilisi, it is a potential NATO member (remember: Turkey is NATO member since 1952) and therefore ally in regional security issues. But more important is Turkish-Georgian cooperation in Ankara’s intentions to diversify the natural gas supply (see below). What Moscow thinks of Tbilisi’s plans to extend its influence and become a NATO member4 has been displayed quite plainly in 2008. The re-emergence of Russia as a great power and its therewith connected unwillingness to tolerate NATO’s plan to geographically constrain the country has caused several conflicts already -as seen in Ukraine- and is unlikely to change anytime soon.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict the situation is quite different: Turkey traditionally has very adversarial relations with Armenia who on the contrary has very good ones with Russia. For example when the Ottoman Empire collapsed Russia sponsored the Armenian territorial expansion into central Anatolia. On the other hand, Turkey has very good relations with Azerbaijan (one nation, two states5) with which Russia on the contrary has differences. Baku for example fends off Russian intentions to control its gas market, with substantial Turkish support. Although there is a gradual rapprochement between Turkey and Russia itself, both countries are not willing to use their leverage over either Armenia or Azerbaijan to solve the crisis. Although all involved players would benefit from a solution of the problem, mutual mistrust and fear of losing influence, especially from Ankara and Moscow, keeps the conflict alive.

The third conflict is Turkey’s common interest with the European Union to diversify gas routes to and through the country. Major potential suppliers being Turkmenistan, Iran, Azerbaijan and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. Other smaller possible providers of fossil fuels would be Israel, Cyprus and Syria, all three of whom have little prospect of exporting gas or oil to Turkey at the current situation. While Russia has as good as no stake in the KRG’s and Iran’s intentions in exporting oil via or to Turkey, the situation is quite different in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan. Russia for a long time wants to control the Azeri gas market, which Baku is reluctant to allow. Turkey has a strong interest in keeping the gas market away from Russia for two reasons: first Ankara wants to diversify its gas supply market to be less dependent on Moscow and secondly Turkey wants to extend its influence in Azerbaijan itself for simple geopolitical reasons – A strategy that so far seems to work out well.

The situation is completely different in central Asia, in this case particularly in Turkmenistan. While being a Turkic nation, just as Turkey (or Uzbekistan and others for that matter) Ankara never really came close to extend its influence beyond the Caspian Sea. This can be observed in the still missing formal commitment of the government in Aşgabat to ship oil across the Caspian Sea – informally that promise has been made (again) in late November this year when Erdoğan visited Turkmenistan6. Russia, that influences most parts of central Asia since the regency of Katherine the Great, has little interest in allowing Turkey to expand its influence. And although Russia itself loses leverage in the region towards China who has become the biggest consumer of its oil and gas it still is the most important power player there making it the potentially biggest loser in a trade deal between Turkmenistan and Turkey or the EU. Turkey though will keep on putting much emphasis on extending influence in central Asia to further diversify its gas supplies and to keep up to its promises in becoming a regional power house.

Although the intensified economic cooperation and potential trade volume increase were celebrated by both sides, the number of completely converse geopolitical interests in Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood limit both protagonists room for manoeuvre significantly and even poses a serious threat to the young stability between the two countries. Turkey and Russia both feel outmanoeuvred by the west, but the youngest round of rapprochement talks does not mean differences on the above named issues will vanish. More likely both sides will continue their more or less subtle balancing acts in the named conflicts and therefore keep them alive. Both protagonists will try to extend their influence and defend their interests, not only against western exertion of influence but also against each other. The NATO member Turkey will not align with Russia’s great power strategy and neither will Russia seriously bandwagon in any of the named conflicts with the wannabe regional hegemon Turkey.