The acrimony between Turkey and Russia over the November,2015 downing of a Russian Su-24 over Turkey is all but obliterated as Turkish president Erdogan met “his friend” Putin in August 2016 ,in the latter’s home town of St. Petersburg ,in aspirations of turning an unwonted page in the relations of two nations. It was their first meeting since diplomatic ties between the two countries became frosty cold in late 2015. Russo-Turkish relations had also been energized in December 2016 when both nations brokered a nation-wide ceasefire deal in Syria and also with a sudden change in rhetoric of unpredictable Erdogan as he accused US of supporting terrorist outfits like ISIS in Syria. This change in rhetoric of Erdogan also reflected how with warming of relations with Russia, he was able to muster up strength to charge US (a traditional ally) with such accusations. Even the assassination of Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov in Ankara in December,2016 failed badly to spoil Russo-Turkish relations before an important meeting of Turkish, Russian and Iranian foreign ministers in Moscow over political situation in Syria after the fall of Aleppo.
Two renascent political heavyweights with regional aspirations, formidable leadership, mounting flag-waving, and an impassioned mistrust of the West there was every reason for Russia and Turkey to establish a long-lasting concordat. Had the amity between Russia’s Putin and Turkey’s Erdogan evolved in a more lasting partnership, they could have engendered an invincible countervailing power to the Western alliance in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But history seldom transpires as anticipated. Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 over Turkey in November 2015 led to an abrupt and vexatious rift in the thriving relationship. Economic ties to a greater extent crumpled; Russian antagonism towards Turkey brimmed into Syria; jingoistic bombast from leaders harmonized with public indignation. In November, 2015, a day after Turkish jets downed a Russian Su-24 along the Syrian frontier, an indignant Russian President Putin castigated, calling the incident “a stab in the back by the terrorists’ accomplices.” His Turkish counterpart, Erdogan, riposted with his own chest-thumping and finger pointing: “I think if there is a party that needs to apologize, it is not us. Those who violated our airspace are the ones who need to apologize.” The global media reportage of the adversity following the downing of the Russian Su-24 was befouled with citations of the historic rivalry between the Tsarist and Ottoman Empire. There was a conception that countries and regions squeezed in between their latter-day successors, from Nagorno-Karabakh in the South Caucasus to Bosnia and Herzegovina, imperil turning into areas of proxy confrontation. This situation seemed plausible at first sight but was not true especially in the case of Balkans.
Russia and Turkey may have seen their diplomatic and economic influence augmenting over the past decade or so, but to cast them as foes in Balkans was stretching it too far. In the mid-2000s, Moscow teamed up with Serbia to fight back against Kosovo’s independence and forestall Western moves on a predicament which had ramifications in the post-Soviet space too.
Embittered by the impasse in its EU accession talks, Turkey developed an independent neighborhood strategy and inserted itself as mediator in Bosnia, following the failure of the now forgotten Butmir talks in 2010.
The point is that Moscow and Ankara have never clashed, even when their views diverged or were antithetical (e.g. on Kosovo).
The Early 2016 Karabakh confrontation was on the brink of turning into a proxy wrangle between two regional powers – Turkey and Russia. Ankara exasperated Moscow with explicit statements of succour for Azerbaijan, a country with which Turkey has strong linguistic and cultural bonds. “We are today standing side-by-side with our brothers in Azerbaijan,” Turkish President Erdogan told an Ankara audience on April 4, 2016“but this persecution will not continue forever. Karabakh will one day return to its original owner. It will be Azerbaijan’s.” Taking his cue from the president, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu reverberated in the next day that “Turkey will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Azerbaijan until doomsday against Armenia’s aggression and occupation.”
The purple prose of Turkish officials seized hold of the attention of Armenian and Russian media, which asserted that Turkey is intervening on Azerbaijan’s side, and thus complicating efforts to bring cessation to the skirmishes.
Government-linked or financed Russian media launched a broad-based smear campaign against Turkey. The Sputnik news service regularly reposted claims from Armenian politicians and officials that casted Turkey as a regional mischief-maker. “Syria is not the only place where the Turkish government keeps putting spokes into others’ wheels,” one article observed.
Other Russian outlets not scrupled to disseminate ill-founded rumors. For example, citing an unnamed “military source,” LifeNews TV, an outlet allegedly close to the Russian security services, reported on April 4,2016 that “between 50 and 60” Azerbaijani ISIS fighters were traveling back home from Syria via Turkey to join the Karabakh fight.
Russia’s media strategy accentuated the Kremlin’s sensitivity to Turkey’s perceived efforts to intrude geopolitically in the Caucasus. Questions were being raised at that time that if heavy fighting flares up again in Karabakh region, will Russia start siding more plainly with Armenia to countervail Turkish succor for Azerbaijan?
When examining Russo Turkish relations, the first question which comes in mind is that where to start the timeline. Should it go back to the Ottoman and Russian empires, which had 17 wars from the fifteenth century onwards-all instigated and won by Russia? Or should it start from the Erdogan-Putin era, which countermanded decades of Cold war freeze and resulted in an era of economic cooperation, with Russia even at one point becoming Turkey’s top trade partner. Wherever the inquiry begins, historical baggage will always be a factor in Turkish-Russian relations. At times, the weight of the past has led Turkey to make critical choices, such as joining NATO in 1952 to counterbalance the Soviet Union. Turkey and the Soviet Union were on the opposite sides of the Iron Curtain throughout the Cold War, and relations were slow to kick off in the post-Cold War era. For much of the 1990s, Turkey had a keen interest in expanding its sphere of political and economic influence in the newly independent Central Asian states, often at Russia’s expense. It was an overt Turkish policy to anchor Central Asian republics, especially the Turkic-speaking ones, to the international community – and away from the Russian sphere. Turks also remained sympathetic to their Turkic Muslim Chechen brothers during Chechen independence wars against Russia and also their insurgency which involved terrorist attacks on Russian civilians. During this period, as Russia was stepping back from its superpower role, Turkey was positioning itself as an indispensable ally to the victors of the Cold War, and as a link between the Muslim world and the West. When Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002, it maintained the pro-Europe direction of foreign policy, and much of its early years were exclusively focused on accession negotiations with the EU. These were also the early years of Putin, before the Russian leader’s strong-willed foreign policy and contentious relationship with the West had fully emerged. In December 2004, Putin became the first Russian head of state to visit Turkey since the Russian and Ottoman empires established relations in the fifteenth century. This was followed by Erdogan’s visit to Moscow in January 2005 and another short visit several months later. Starting in 2005, Turkish-Russian relations took on a new importance, in the form of energy. While trade had increased incrementally since the end of the Cold War, the real boost came with the growth in Russian natural gas exports to Turkey. The value of the countries’ trade increased from $6.8 billion in 2003 up to $9.4 billion in the first 11 months of the following year, and then to $38 billion by 2008, largely due to Russian exports. (It has since fallen slightly due to the decline in oil prices and Turkey’s efforts to diversify its energy supply.) This was the commencement of a long economic rally for both countries.
Over the next decade, the frequency of bilateral visits and the volume of trade increased steadily. By 2015, Russia was Turkey’s top energy supplier, providing 55 percent of Turkish domestic consumption of natural gas and crude oil at a combined price of roughly $15 billion. This made Turkey Russia’s second-largest gas export market after Germany. There were other significant strategic projects on the table too.
In line with Turkey’s decision in the 1990s to become an east-west energy hub, the 1,213km Blue Stream pipeline connected mainland Russia with Turkey across the Black Sea and delivered up to 16 billion cubic meters of gas to the Turkish market, with the cooperation of Russian energy giant Gazprom. Inaugurated in 2005, by 2015 the pipeline delivered almost half of Turkey’s natural gas imports, despite long-running controversies about pricing and about Turkey’s dependence on Russia for energy. Russians were the second-largest group of tourists, after Germans, and spent an estimated $3 billion in 2014, or around 0.4 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), fueling a vital tourism industry.
Whether it was dependence or interdependence, the highly individualized decision-making of Erdogan and Putin brought Turkey and Russia even closer. The connection between the two leaders was the keystone for the mushrooming new alliance. All of this created co-dependency between the Turkish and Russian economies. Despite the political tensions from the downing of the Russian plane over Syria in November 2015, a significant amount of unadvertised economic activity remained between the two countries – particularly in terms of Russian energy exports. While Russia imposed a strict embargo on Turkish exports and curbed tourism – activities that largely affected the Turkish side of bilateral trade – Moscow continued to be Turkey’s biggest supplier of natural gas. Turkey remained Russia’s second-largest gas customer. Russia is the main contractor for two lucrative nuclear power plant projects in Turkey. Russian direct investment in key Turkish markets – including by Gazprom, Lukoil, and Sberbank – has effectively anchored Russia in the Turkish market and established a level of mutual dependence that may not in itself be enough to avert a political crisis, but could limit its destructive impact. Turkish officials cited economic co-dependency as the reason for their optimism. Most Turkish political experts also had an optimistic outlook on the potential of rapprochement than their Russian counterparts-often citing Russia’s financial needs and the countries’ mutual economic dependency. Turkey’s economy had performed reasonably well in early 2016, while Russia’s was suffering from low oil prices and the effects of international sanctions. To decision makers in Ankara, this was a safeguard against further escalation and direct confrontation with Russia.
After the escalation of tensions between Russia and Turkey in November, 2015, it is no surprise that Turkey and Russia were so eager to fall back on historical cultural stereotypes. Both regimes relied upon the rhetoric of global conspiracy to impel popular support both accused each other of having “imperial” ambitions and they had little cultural affinity to count on in a time of crisis. Trade and gas were good – but even during the zenith of the relationship, there was never a real strategic friendship involving institutional dialogue and policy coordination between Turkey and Russia. In many ways, Turks and Russians found the “perfect enemy” in one another, providing an excuse for their overseas adventures. For Russians, Turkey was once again “the sick man of Europe” – a term coined for the Ottomans by the Tsar Nicholas I before the Crimean War of 1853 – that needs to be reminded of its limitations. For Turks, Russia provided a convenient excuse not to own up to its mistakes on the Kurdish problem and its weak Syrian policy.
The reconciliation between Russia and Turkey in August, 2016 reflected how broader issues have pushed Moscow and Ankara closer together, “including the aspiration to teach the West a lesson and shared interests in dealing with the regional security threat.” Ankara also appreciated the fact that Moscow gave its explicit support to Turkey following the failed coup in July 2016.
“We appreciate the fact that the Russian Federation assumed a clear position on this issue,” Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan’s spokesman, told Russian news agency Tass in August, 2016. This tone is at odds with Ankara’s rhetoric towards its allies. Erdogan has repeatedly lambasted the US for its response to the coup attempt and its failure to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the 75-year-old former imam accused of orchestrating the plot from his self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania — a charge he strongly confutes.
One Turkish diplomat in Moscow said: “Our relations with the US are the worst in 50 years. . . and that definitely makes engaging Russia an attractive option.” For Putin, the tension between the NATO allies is welcome — Moscow has for two decades condemned NATO expansion and recently stepped up its criticism that the alliance was a threat to Russia. Mr. Malashenko talked of a “revival of the theory that Russia and Turkey should be close because both are former empires. . . simultaneously European and somehow unique.”Also in October,2016 Putin took advantage of a meeting with Turkish officials during World Energy Congress 2016 in Istanbul to advance the Kremlin’s reconciliation with Turkey through an agreement to revive a suspended natural gas pipeline project which is being known as Turkish stream and will run under the Black Sea to Turkey and then to Greece. Through this pipeline project, Russia will be able to ensure that Russian gas reaches Western markets without using existing Russian export pipelines through Eastern Europe. Putin cleverly utilized the forum of international energy conference in Istanbul in October, 2016 to Russian advantage through revival of this pipeline project. Putin’s visit to this conference in Istanbul was his first visit to Turkey since a period of strained Russo-Turkish relations after the downing of Russian fighter jet. After the assassination of Russian ambassador in Ankara, Erdogan also stressed on how this assassination was an attempt to destroy the normalization process of Russo-Turkish relations and he further added that both governments won’t fall into the trap of such provocation. Putin on the other hand emphasized on eradicating the menace of terrorism which reflected how this assassination has ironically more strengthened Russo-Turkish relations. Keyboard warriors on Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere on social media called it a repeat of what happened in Sarajevo in 1914 but fortunately Russian and Turkish leadership didn’t blow this incident out of proportion. Some Russian keyboard warriors spewed venomous hatred too against Turkey but a good majority of them like their Turkish counterparts expressed their faith in strong Russo-Turkish bond of friendship. Some Turkish tweeter users also tweeted their sorrow over assassination with hash tags like #RusyaTurkiyedostlukyasasin (Long live Russian Turkish friendship) and #Basimizsagolsun (Sorry for our loss).Putin during the energy conference in October,2016 also gave signals of a potential political settlement in Syria through joint Russo-Turkish efforts as he said “Both Russia and Turkey stand for the earliest cessation of bloodshed in Syria”.Erdogan also gave hints about a Russo-Turkish brokered ceasefire in Syria during that energy conference by saying “Regarding Aleppo, we discussed strategies that could be applied on humanitarian aid, so that the inhabitants who are in a dire situation there can quickly attain peace and calm.”Also recently in July, 2017 according to a senior Turkish military official’s interview to Bloomberg, Turkey will be purchasing the most sophisticated Russian missile-defense system the S-400 according to a $2.5 billion agreement reached between Russia and Turkey under which Ankara would receive two batteries of the antiaircraft missile from Moscow within the coming year and then produce two more batteries in Turkey. This agreement is again reflective of how Turks are now shifting their focus away from Europe and the US and towards Russians. This Russo-Turkish deal which Turks think will consolidate their defense-industry capacity is in contrast with the Western reticence to exchange advanced technology with Turkey.
I have burgeoned an interest in closely scrutinizing the Russo-Turkish relations owing to the significance attached to the rise of both regional powers in Eurasia which is a highly crucial Geopolitical ground with its natural resources and strategic benefits for regional and global powers.
*Sarmad Iqbal is a Pakistani writer,blogger and student who has a penchant for reading, writing, learning languages, studying cultures, religions and Geo-Political affairs. He can be reached at his twitter id @sarmadiqbal7.
This article appeared at Times of Israel, and is reprinted with permission.