Towards a neo-Turkish-Russian détente: Economic partnership as a means of tactical alliance
by Eşref Yalınkılıçlı
Oct 13, 2016 - 12:00 am GMT+3
by Eşref Yalınkılıçlı
Oct 13, 2016 12:00 am
Russia and Turkey need each other to keep stability and peace in Eurasia and the Middle East where the West has either had some natural limits or failed to bring solutions to long-lasting problems
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in St. Petersburg in August, Turkish-Russian relations are believed to be on the right track. That meeting put an end to eight months of turbulence in bilateral relations in the wake of last year's fighter jet crisis. Moreover, Erdoğan's visit to Russia following a foiled coup in Turkey on July 15 gave the presidential meeting added importance at a time when the parties had expressed disappointment with the West.
Unlike Western leaders, Russia frankly condemned the coup attempt without "ifs-and-buts" from the very beginning. Thus, for Ankara, Moscow seemed "a friend in need is a friend indeed" on the geopolitical front. As for Russia, the significance of Turkey appeared when Ankara did not join the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow as a result of the Ukrainian crisis. Considering this realpolitik, both leaders set forth sound decisiveness in mending relations and pledged to carry economic cooperation beyond the level prior to the jet crisis.
TURKEY'S INDISPENSABILITY TO RUSSIA'S ENERGY BONANZA
Given the importance of mutual relations, Putin visited Istanbul on Monday to attend the 23rd World Energy Congress. Putin's appearance at the congress was not coincidental; rather, the Russian leadership came to Turkey to further normalize relations by sealing the long-anticipated Turkish Stream Gas Pipeline deal.
Needless to say, energy ties have been the driving force behind Turkish-Russian rapprochement since the beginning of this century. As a consumer and transit country, Turkey has come to the fore in Russia's energy gamble, which is adroitly played as soft power diplomacy against the West. Turkey's increasing demand for energy resources concurrently with its booming economy in the last decade rendered the country an indispensable client of the Russian gas market, after Germany in Europe. Ankara and Moscow developed inter-dependent energy relations that subjected Turkey to buying half of its domestic natural gas needs from Russia, while the Russian side gradually leaned on Turkey's transit role in Europe's southern corridor.
In the current situation, the proposed Turkish Stream project seems to be a panacea in terms of confidence building and enhancing economic cooperation between Moscow and Ankara. The 12 billion euro Russian-Turkish joint pipeline is expected to bring more than 15 bcm natural gas for Turkey's domestic consumption via the Black Sea route to Thrace by 2019. As a second goal, the pipeline is designed to supply another 15 bcm to European markets through Greek and Italian pipelines in the southern corridor after it is fully constructed. But, Europe's unwillingness to cooperate with Russia in energy supply security raises some questions for a predictable future and overshadows the project's prospective utilities together with its high cost and feasibility.
Nevertheless, the Kremlin seems ready to implement the project as it bypasses Ukraine and the eastern Balkan countries in its energy security and supply routes to the West. For Turkey however, Russia's energy leverage also helps the country's long-standing objective to become an energy hub between East and West. Hence, the parties have reinvigorated the same old good relations, frequently defined as a win-win partnership, aiming to reach $100 billion in trade volume in the medium term.
Russia knows that as long as Turkey continues to purchase its hydrocarbon resources, the trade deficit will also increase in favor of Moscow thanks to its comparative advantage vis-à-vis Ankara. Russia's Rosatom is constructing Turkey's first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, and its space agency, Roscosmos, is helping nascent space work in Turkey. Besides, Russian energy monopoly Gazprom and Turkey's BOTAŞ are planning more joint projects if TurkStream and Akkuyu projects are successful in the near future.
Given that its economy has been shrinking in recent years, Russia cannot discard Turkey, especially at a time when relations with the West are in crisis. Therefore, one might say that energy relations and commercial partnerships will continue to define the essence of Turkish-Russian relations, which started evolving again toward a tactical alliance in Eurasia.
RUSSO-TURKISH RAPPROCHEMENT: SOME CONNOTATIONS FOR THE WEST
Turkey has for decades been a part of European institutions that made the country one of the most important and staunchest allies of the West. Having the second largest army in NATO and negotiating full membership in the European Union, the Turkish public closely watches exclusive debates considering its prospective status in Western institutions. The country is fed up with the double standards that have been meted out to Ankara in the past few years.
Turkey's improving relations with Russia might be worrying the West, which has already been alarmed by Moscow's increasing military presence in Eastern Europe. In such a political atmosphere, the normalization of Turkish-Russian ties is perceived as unprecedented for both nations since it sends significant messages to the West. Moreover, the Russian public would now be in a better position to understand that Turkey is not a follower taken for granted by the Western political agenda.
Turkey's developing ties with Russia should not mean the country's total geopolitical shift to the East. For the time being, it just appears as a necessity of regional politics in which Moscow and Ankara have more to say and do than Western capitals. Turkey will also resume its age-old relations with the West as far as Westerners are keen to work with Turks since the country is a part of Euro-Atlantic institutions. Current trends only demonstrate that Turkey has several options as counter measures if the West completely discards Ankara from its political, security and economic calculations.
On the other hand, Russia and Turkey need each other to keep stability and peace in Eurasia and the Middle East where the West has either had some natural limits or failed to bring solutions to long-lasting problems. This partnership might succeed if the parties find common ground in Syria in the short term and for issues surrounding the Turkic world in the long run. For this reason, both Russia and Turkey will have to review their current approaches with the necessities of realpolitik that entails a mutual understanding of geopolitical and security challenges in the region.
THE DEADLOCK IN SYRIA: ROCKY ROAD AHEAD
People who follow Turkish-Russian relations know very well that a number of issues, ranging from the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008 to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, as well as Moscow's fueling of the separatist war in east Ukraine, have already created some tectonic waves in relations - at least from Ankara's point of view. Turkey's foreign diplomacy has responded to what the West called Russian aggression with a level of conformism for the sake of the aforementioned flourishing economic partnership.
However, the ongoing war in Syria has been and will be a real litmus test for Russia and Turkey, as they position themselves in opposite camps regarding the future of the Assad regime. Turkey's idealistic moralism on the Syrian conflict has clashed with Russia's strategic realism since the Geneva talks were first held in 2014. The divergence eventually culminated with Turkey's downing of the Russian fighter jet almost a year ago, which Ankara says had violated Turkish air space on the Syrian border, which Moscow has often denied. Russia's constant stance in Syria undoubtedly worries the Turkish leadership, whose apprehensions have already crested with a massive refugee influx from its war-torn neighbor. In addition, Moscow's support for armed Kurdish groups in northern Syria near the Turkish border, notably the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara considers the Syrian branch of the terrorist PKK, constitutes a source of mistrust and discontent for Turkey.
Turkey has already launched Operation Euphrates Shield to provide security on its 911-kilometer-long border with Syria. The Turkish leadership is determined to eradicate both Daish and the People's Protection Units (YPG) components near the borders and eager to institute a demilitarized no-fly zone to prevent more refugees coming from Syria. Although Russia has responded with a low tone to Turkish military involvement in Syria, the parties have yet to compromise over the fate of the Damascus regime.
Seemingly, as far as the Syrian crisis goes, the normalization of ties between Ankara and Moscow will take some time and the issue remains a nuisance that continues to poison diplomatic efforts aiming at full-fledged rapprochement. In a prospective positive scenario, Turkey and Russia may cooperate on the power transition to terminate bloodshed in Syria where the West has so far failed to offer solutions beyond a futile rhetoric. Meanwhile, Russia is also responsible for the prolongation of the civil war in Syria as it unilaterally vetoed several U.N. Security Council resolutions proposed by the West.
During the Monday meeting, Putin and Erdoğan again called for an end to conflicts in and around Aleppo. The Russian president blamed the U.S. for the failure of Geneva talks and expressed more cooperation with Ankara. Turkey has already proven that it is the only country, for the time being, that can conduct ground operation in Syria. In a recent visit to Ankara, Russian Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov discussed further military collaboration with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar.
No doubt Russian-Turkish cooperation over Syria may bring a solution in Syria. If this materializes, one might then picture a glittering Russo-Turkish partnership that transcends economic interests and commercial pragmatism; thus, serving peace and stability in the Middle East and Eurasia. Otherwise, the stalemate over Syria has the potential to harm relations even more than the recent jet crisis.