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Russia and Turkey: Competitive Partners

On 10 March 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, a visit later hailed by Russia as a concrete demonstration of the successful normalization of Russian-Turkish relations. Evidently, the parties have overcome the grave crisis triggered in November 2015 after the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish Air force. After an official apology made by Ankara in June 2016, both parties have engaged in a pragmatic “reboot” of their partnership, mainly focusing on economic and security issues. The fall of east Aleppo in December 2016 and the subsequent launch of the Astana platform for Syrian peace talks in January 2017 were made possible by constructive dialogue between Ankara and Moscow. However, persisting disagreements on a number of issues across the Middle East and in their shared neighborhood – especially on Syria – still linger and are weakening the fragile state of bilateral relations. Their shared frustration towards the Euro-Atlantic community, converging economic interests, and the high degree of resiliency characterizing their bilateral ties should nevertheless provide Moscow and Ankara with the ability to avoid a new confrontation.

Economics: A “Safety Net”

Since 1991, Turkey and Russia have forged a geo-economic partnership while acknowledging that they are geopolitical competitors in the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Middle East and, to a lesser extent, in the Balkans and in the Caspian Sea region. Agriculture, energy, banking, and building sectors have emerged as key drivers for the development of bilateral economic ties. After a seven-month dispute, Moscow and Ankara have given new impetus to their economic partnership that had started to stall even before the November 2015 incident.

Beyond Syria, Moscow and Ankara do not see eye-to-eye in Egypt, where they support totally opposing parties.

During President Erdoğan’s visit, both partners acknowledged that 2016 was an annus horribilis for their relationship (in 2016, bilateral trade dropped by 32 percent to 16 billion dollars, in comparison with 24 billion dollars in 2015), and restated their objective to reach a 100 billion dollar trade volume – although this amount has been a long-standing goal since the late 2000’s. Beyond “flagship” projects, namely, the first Turkish nuclear power plant under construction by Russian-owned Rosatom in Mersin-Akkuyu and the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, other projects were discussed. The High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council was reactivated and held its sixth session in Moscow during President Erdoğan’s March visit. The partners have created a Joint Investment Fund with a one billion dollar reserve to finance projects in Russia and Turkey. Furthermore, Ankara has agreed to take every necessary measure to open its market to Russia’s Mir (Russian “MasterCard”) payment system. This decision intended to isolate Russian and Turkish business from the risk of potential Western sanctions.

The meeting between the two presidents took place within the dual context of persisting tensions between Moscow and the Euro-Atlantic community on the one hand, and Ankara and the European Union (EU) on the other hand. This context emboldened both leaders and comforted them in their shared frustration toward the West. However, bilateral economic relations have not completely normalized yet. Russia has not cancelled all the sanctions it imposed on Turkish agricultural products after the November 2015 incident, nor has the visa-free regime been reinstated. Regarding cooperation on a military-technical level, Turkish officials regularly express interest in buying Russia’s S-400 SAM system. However, it is unlikely that Moscow would agree. By selling the system, Russia would run the risk of dramatically enhancing Turkish – and therefore NATO – anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the Black Sea or in the Levant – which goes against Russian interests.

Persisting Divergences

Despite a normalization of relations and what has been interpreted by Moscow as a “Turkish U-turn” on Syria, Russia and Turkey still have deep differences related to the Syrian crisis. Nevertheless, they have set up the necessary mechanisms to avoid dramatic miscalculation, and even cooperated in al-Bab (northern Syria) in January, when Russian jets bombed ISIL positions during a Turkish offensive. However, tactical rapprochement between Russia and Turkey in northern Syria seems to have reached its maximum. The third meeting of the Astana process, held in Kazakhstan’s capital on 14-15 March, not only lacked any substantial results, but also called attention to Turkey’s waning interest for the process. Ankara was not able to bring or compel the Syrian armed opposition that it sponsors even to attend the meeting, and showed little appetite for the ongoing work led by Russia on Syria’s future Constitution. Moscow’s cooperation with the Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has angered Turkey which, unlike Russia, considers the group to be a terrorist organization. From a Russian point of view, the Kurds are objectively speaking a converging point with Washington – whose military cooperation with the People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been far more intense than Russia’s – and a potential channel to mend its relations with the US within the framework of an offensive against ISIL and its self-proclaimed capital in Syria, Raqqa. Ankara has warned that it would not accept the YPG’s participation in any offensive against Raqqa, whereas the US has displayed a steadfast interest for cooperating with the Kurds. In addition, Russia would like to see the rebel groups vetted by Turkey and based in the Idlib region disbanded, which could be the next potential hotspot between the Russians and the Turkish. Should the Astana process not deliver concrete results, it could mean a resumption of fighting between the Syrian army and the armed opposition sponsored by Turkey, and clashes between Russian and Turkish forces in Idlib.

Russia and Turkey have embarked on a strategy of damage control using economic measures and tactical rapprochement in northern Syria – where trust is missing, but not required.

Beyond Syria, Moscow and Ankara do not see eye-to-eye in Egypt, where they support totally opposing parties. Russia has been forging a robust partnership with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, while Turkey has had no official relations with Cairo since the July 2013 military coup. In Libya, where Russia’s influence has grown during the past months, Turkey has been supporting the armed factions which Marechal Khalifa Haftar, Moscow’s new Libyan friend, has been fighting. In the Caucasus, both parties are at odds in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, although both agree that any escalation is not in their respective interest.

Crimea is another thorny issue. Although Turkey did not join the sanctions against Russia following the annexation of the peninsula, it harshly criticized the annexation and has been concerned with the fate of the Crimean Tatars. In short, today, Crimea is a card in Turkey’s hand to modulate Russia’s ambitions in the Black Sea region and the Middle East. However, it remains to be seen to what extent this card will be useful. One should not exclude that in the medium-term, Ankara may try to strike a deal with Moscow similar to the July 2005 agreement between Erdoğan and Putin. Back then, both leaders decided to support each other’s positions on Chechnya and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).[1] Today, a potential agreement would see Turkey ceasing to raise the issue of the Crimean Tatars and Russia closing the PYD office in Moscow.

Russia and Turkey have embarked on a strategy of damage control using economic measures and tactical rapprochement in northern Syria – where trust is missing, but not required. Yet, the US operation against Raqqa, a potential collapse of the Astana platform, as well as the conditions of settling the crisis in Syria – primarily regarding the Kurds – could spark new tensions between them. In the meantime, the growing Iranian influence in Syria, fueled by Moscow’s military intervention, and deepening rift with the EU are challenging Ankara’s own influence in its neighborhood. By the same token, it compels Turkey to maintain constructive relations with Moscow while pursuing normalization with Israel.

[1] Fiona Hill and Omer Taspinar, “Turkey and Russia: Axis of the Excluded?” Survival, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring 2006, p. 84.

Igor Delanoe
Igor Delanoe

Dr. Igor Delanoe is Deputy-Head of the Analytical Center, Observo (French-Russian Chamber of Commerce, Moscow) and Research Associate at Kadir Has University, Istanbul.

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