By Andrei Kortunov*
It finally happened. November 24th, 2015 became a turning point for Russian-Turkish relations. The two sides will probably never agree on who is to blame for the SU-24 tragedy nor on whether this was an unfortunate accident or a deliberately planned action. However, at least one thing should be clear to everybody: a long optimistic chapter in this bilateral relationship is over, and we are now entering a new, still very unclear and potentially very dangerous period. From now on, there’ll be no business as usual between Moscow and Ankara.
But how can we define “business as usual” anyway? If Russian-Turkish cooperation was so great prior to November 24th, then why did one single accident – no matter how dramatic and emotionally sensitive it might have been – turn out to be sufficient enough to negatively change the entire fabric of Russian-Turkish partnership in various fields – from trade to joint energy projects through university partnerships to humanitarian contacts?
I would argue that the crisis between our two countries had been ripening for a long time, and the SU-24 grounding was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
For many years, Russians and Turks were trying to convince each other that they could “agree to disagree” on many controversial and potentially explosive political matters. The hope was that the impressive dynamics of bilateral trade, investments, tourism, cultural exchanges, binational marriages and so on would do the trick. Alas, they did not. Russian-Turkish relations demonstrated a spectacular lack of strategic depth – an evident deficit of the ability, courage and political will to look for and to find compromises and common denominators for the most fundamental problems that had been pushing the two states apart from one another.
Over the years, serious disagreements over the Caucasus, the Middle East, Iran, Ukraine, NATO, ballistic missile defense, gas pipelines and other matters were continually swept under the rug. But this mutual hypocrisy could not last forever. In a way, the ongoing crisis became possible only because the notion of a strategic partnership between Russia and Turkey had remained only on paper. Lacking the proper strategic depth, it failed to pass a reality check and collapsed like a house of cards.
Still, though the strategic partnership had been mostly imaginary, the losses appear to be more than real. Today Turkey arguably feels more pain than Russia. Grounding the Russian aircraft has not helped to protect the Syrian Turkmen population close to the Turkish border, on the contrary, Turkmen opposition groups are now more vulnerable than they ever were before. If Turkey aimed to instate a no-fly zone under its control over a part of Syrian territory, it worked the other way around: today such a zone exists, but under Russian tutelage backed by a newly installed S-400 air defense system. Russian air strikes on trucks crossing the Syrian-Turkish border in both directions – on the basis that this traffic supports the so-called Islamic State – do not make things any easier for Ankara either.
Nonetheless, if any exalted politicians or opinion makers in Moscow believe that Russia can “punish” Turkey without paying a high price itself, they are gravely mistaken. Ankara has many ways to make life harder for Moscow ranging from shifting its energy import preferences to the Gulf to utilizing its influence over the numerous communities of Crimean Tatar descendants in Turkey in ways that are detrimental to Russia’s interests. As for Russia’s economic sanctions against Turkey, in the end of the day they are going to hurt both countries and it would make little sense to argue that they are inflicting more pain on the Turks than the Russians.
Considering all of this, what could both sides do to start restoring the relationship? Yet before answering this question, we should also ask ourselves: what can we not afford in the near future? First, we should realize that mutual trust cannot be restored anytime soon – trust between the two national leaders and between the political elites in Moscow and Ankara is completely lost. Second, we cannot realistically discuss any strategic reconciliation between the two countries or a Russian-Turkish Grand Bargain – in the absence of mutual trust and with the deficit of strategic depth, the idea of both Putin and Erdogan confessing their sins and much less forgiving one another seems highly unlikely, if not outright ridiculous. Third, we should be fully aware of the fact that the downward spiral of hostility and mutual animosity is hastening, and both sides will have to spend a lot of energy and time to stop its negative momentum, not to mention reversing it.
Many proponents of better Russian-Turkish relations on both sides of the newly erected barricade argue that the only thing we can do now is to concentrate on non-state dimensions of the crippled relationship – trying to preserve and to expand human contacts, small business interaction, cultural links, joint NGO projects, education mobility, research partnerships and other ‘uncontroversial’ forms of bilateral engagement. In my view, this is an important goal to pursue, but we should not overestimate our ability to set a firewall between state and non-state dimensions of Russian-Turkish relations. In our two countries, the state traditionally exercises a great amount of influence over public opinion, civil society, the media, and cultural and educational institutions. The odds are that it will be increasingly difficult to maintain even the most ‘innocent’ forms of non-state cooperation if both states do not demonstrate at least a benign neglect towards these activities. In this sense, a Russian-Turkish rapprochement at the highest political level, no matter how limited or incomplete, appears to be indispensable.
It is often so that the solution should be searched for where the problem lies. The most critical bone of contention between Russia and Turkey today – all other disagreements and disputes notwithstanding – is the future of Syria. This is not so much related to the future of Bashar Assad, because it is clear that he will not run the country forever and that his days may be numbered, as it is to the future of Syrian statehood itself. Russia is committed to preserving the territorial integrity of Syria, while Turkey feels responsible for the future of the Syrian Turkmen and other Turkey oriented groups opposed to Damascus. This is supplemented by the fact that a number of external players including Iran and the Gulf states have their interests and their claims to protect particular factions of the Syrian population.
I do not like the term ‘soft partition’ because it emphasizes the noun ‘partition’ more than the adjective ‘soft’. But a potential solution to the Syrian riddle might well be connected to the concept of an ‘asymmetrical federation’ that will not question the principle of the county’s territorial integrity, but will guarantee sufficient autonomy for ethnic, religious, regional and political factions in Syria, including the preservation of their traditional links with neighboring countries. The concept of an ‘asymmetrical federation’ may become the platform for a compromise not only between Russia and Turkey, but between all the major players involved in the Syrian conflict. If we agree on the future of Syria, it would be much easier to move ahead on other burning issues.
As for the long term of bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey, a lot will depend on whether both sides can learn their lessons from the current crisis and whether the dialogue between Moscow and Ankara can gain true strategic depth. My modest suggestion would be to establish a high level second track channel of communication between the two countries through which they might compare the long term interests, priorities, threats and challenges that the two are likely to be focused on beyond the time frames of their current political cycles. If we demonstrate due imagination and foresight, we might be surprised to find out that our current disagreements and conflicts appear to be much less critical and irreconcilable if we look at them from a sufficient time distance.
The new strategic depth must embrace both the past and the future. The past should not be forgotten if we wish to maintain our core identities and to learn from our mistakes. But it is the future that has to inspire individuals and nations. The best days of the Russian-Turkish relations may well be ahead of us, not behind.
*Dr. Andrei Kortunov is the Director General at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC)
**Turkish version of this article was first published at Analist monthly journal’s January 2016 issue.