Relations between Ankara and Moscow in recent years and its ups and downs have become a mystery to Western countries, especially Turkey’s neighbors. However, It is clear to Westerners that Erdogan’s political game with the West and Russia constitutes an unchangeable strategy for Turkish foreign policy. Turkey is now defined in the context of transatlantic relations in such a way that improving and maintaining Turkey’s fundamental relations with the West is no longer obvious. At the same time, Erdogan’s proximity to Russia and Putin does not indicate that the foundations of Ankara’s relations with the Kremlin are significantly strong and strategic.
Now, after the end of the Cold War and geopolitical and geostrategic changes in Europe, especially after the British withdrawal from the European Union and the breakdown of transatlantic relations led by Trump, Turkey’s position in Europe’s foreign policy is not as priviliged as it used to be.
Some Western countries have concluded that Russia and Turkey are seeking to form a group of “isolated countries”. Two powers that want to tactically resist the political and security dictates and the maximum pressures of the Western world. The signs of such an approach have become somewhat clearer between Moscow and Ankara in recent years. The frustration of both countries with the Western world has laid the groundwork for the relationship and reciprocal influence of Erdogan and Putin. The crisis in Ukraine in 2014, which led to Western pressure on Russia, and on the other hand, Turkey’s confidence in its long-held aspiration to join the European Union, which coincided with a military coup in that country, were other examples of suspicion that Russia and Ankara are close.
It can be said that 2016 was the beginning of close cooperation between Russia and Turkey in Syria. The military activities of the two countries in Syria, given their common goals, paved the way for the improvement of bilateral relations. After the tragic incident of the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, the two countries were able to return to normal relations with immediate consultations after being on the verge of a devastating war. Of course, with the difference that Turkey distanced itself from Western countries due to its proximity to Moscow.
Turkey’s proximity to Russia as an effective member of NATO has raised serious concerns among Western and NATO members, and has fueled strategic discussions about the nature of the partnership between the two important countries. In particular, Ankara’s purchase of an advanced Russian S-400 air defense system in 2017 prompted NATO to reconsider Turkey’s allegiance to the alliance and the Western Defense Union. There is no doubt that a NATO member’s strategic arms cooperation with Russia is unprecedented and is seen as a reversal of Ankara’s traditional pro-Western approach.
It is clear, of course, that in Moscow and Ankara, decision-making processes have become largely “personalized” in recent years, and that the entirety of policy-making has depended on Erdogan and Putin. Given the complexities of the personalities of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the question now is whether Russian-Turkish relations will lead to a “strategic alliance”, or whether new developments in relations between the two countries are a tactical and temporary approach.
A historical look at Moscow-Ankara relations shows that relations between the two countries were influenced by a number of wars, hostility between the Ottoman Empire and Tsarist Russia, and competition and suspicion in bilateral relations during the Cold War and afterwards due to West pressures. Therefore, the promotion of cooperation between Moscow and Ankara is now a source of surprise and doubt.
Throughout the five-hundred-year history of relations between Turkey and Russia, the situation has been the same, and relations between the two countries have been full of conflict, cooperation, friendship and enmity. It is clear what really made Ankara and Moscow put aside their differences and cooperate with each other in today’s world, and therefore predicting the future of Moscow- Ankara relations considering the historical animosity between the two countries is not difficult.
The United States, the European Union and NATO, having experienced such historical ups and downs of the two countries, express doubts about the stability and long-term proximity and cooperation between Russia and Turkey. They see this cooperation as an exception rather than a rule in the context of history, and they are closely monitoring the future of Turkish-Russian relations in light of the devaluation of the Turkish lira, part of which has led to improved relations with Moscow. As soon as the opportunity arises, they will destroy these expanding relations at any moment.
It can be said that several important and determining factors have made the partnership between Russia and Turkey dynamic. Both countries are trying to establish themselves as an energy hub. Russia has this position as a producer and Turkey as an energy transit route through Central Asia and Iran.
Energy has been the main driver of cooperation between the two countries since the late 1990s, which coincided with the agreement to build a “water flow” gas pipeline project between Ankara and Moscow. In the mid-2000s, when Turkey concluded that its security concerns were not being addressed by its Western allies, Moscow and Ankara’s dissatisfaction with the Western world’s position brought the two powers closer together. In fact, the arrogance of the United States and the West at this time created a sense in Russia and Turkey that they were being openly marginalized by the West, and therefore sought to improve bilateral relations, the most obvious example of which is cooperation on regional issues, especially in Syria and Azerbaijan.
The current strategy of Moscow-Ankara relations has two other important components, and that is the mutual understanding of Moscow and Ankara in the field of security interests and sensitivities. The dynamism of Russian-Turkish security cooperation is not only related to Syria, but also to other issues that were established and developed in the mid-1990s in the security and economic fields. The security understanding between Moscow and Ankara is of dual nature. Both countries have the same security concerns in their periphery, which has provided a different ground for cooperation and mutual support, and for the implementation of joint strategic and security plans and programs. It has let them see their positions and interests strengthened more than before, and rest assured about security competition in the region. The most important examples of such cooperation are Turkey’s support for Baku in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and Russia’s silence in this war against its ally Armenia.
Recent developments in the South Caucasus and the joint efforts and political understanding between Ankara and Moscow on the Karabakh conflict and the relative settlement of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia are clear reasons for this claim. Despite Erdogan’s sometimes dual stance on the Russia-West crisis over Ukraine, under the current circumstances it is unlikely that we will see Ankara move in favor of Ukraine or against Russia.
*Timothy Hopper, an international relations graduate of American University.