The windfall in Turkish-Russian relations

GÖRKEM DIRIK
Published 08.08.2019 00:33
The windfall in Turkish-Russian relations

If archenemies could become bona fide friends, Turkish-Russian relations would be the most suitable example. Despite its very late emergence in the 16th century, the Russian Empire was probably one of the main actors in the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire by constantly and consciously violating its borders and boosting "pan-Slavic" sentiments across the Ottoman provinces in the Balkans.

Furthermore, Russians have always sensed a visceral cultural threat from Turkic-Mongol people who were the most powerful actor in Russia until 1552. However, the fear of a potential reoccurrence of pan-Turkic movements has dominated the mindset of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and today's Russia.

Nevertheless, times have changed and none of Turkey's external relations have turned around as drastically as this one.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of the new Russia, the security perceptions of Turkey and Russia toward each other had visibly changed and turned into major opportunities – as partners in economic, political and even military spheres.

Even though there have been dramatic changes in bilateral relations, both sides could not eliminate their skeptical perceptions. Therefore, the first years after the re-emergence of Russia, Turkish-Russian relations went through a series of bluffs, retaliations and security threats.

For example, if Ankara supported the Chechen rebels, the Russians demonstratively did the same with the PKK. Although such retaliations continued for a while, both sides soon agreed on cutting ties with terrorist groups in 2004, which ultimately helped link Moscow and Ankara in their fight against separatism.

With the reciprocal removal of security perceptions and threats, a new era of normalizing and deepening relations began in Turkish-Russian relations. This new era was based upon mutual respect, the fight against terrorism and the "freezing of support for each other's separatists."

In this regard, then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's visit to Russia in 2004 marked a turning point in which he called for joint action against terrorism and the peaceful settlement of the Chechen issue within the framework of "Russia's territorial integrity."

This was the sign that both sides had abandoned hostile perceptions of each other and established a pragmatically minded strategic and economic partnership. Following, this rapprochement enabled Russia to soon become one of Turkey's largest trade partners, largest natural gas provider and the contractor building its first nuclear power plant.

Nevertheless, ideological differences over geopolitical issues between the two countries soon emerged. Among them, three are prominent: The Five-Day War in Georgia in 2008, the Ukrainian Crisis in 2014 and the Civil War in Syria in 2015, which culminated in some serious ruptures in bilateral relations.

Realpolitik strikes back

The Russian invasion during the Five-Day War in Georgia significantly damaged Turkish interests in the Caucasus. Despite this, Turkey refrained from actively supporting Georgia, a clear sign that Turkey avoided risking bilateral relations with Russia over its intervention in Georgia.

It was surprising for Turkish foreign policy to prioritize its economic interests over political gains. Therefore, preserving its neutral and passive stance toward the war in Georgia, Turkey was inclined to continue cooperating with Russia.

Remarkably, this increased bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia, particularly in the economic sphere. For instance, in the aftermath of the war, Russia and Turkey signed an agreement in May 2010 in which a subsidiary of the Russian state corporation ROSATOM would construct and operate a nuclear power plant in Turkey. This marked the beginning of the Eurasian Spring, which substantially improved the trade volume and tourism between the two countries.

Respectively, stats show that bilateral trade increased from around $23 billion in 2009 to around $33 billion in 2012 and remained above $30 billion in 2013 and 2014. Moreover, the number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey surpassed tourists from other countries.

Stories that changed the future

Second, Turkish-Russian relations bypassed a potential conflict during the war in Ukraine in 2014. A pro-Western government in Ukraine was interpreted as a Western-orchestrated coup d'état and was depicted as illegitimate by Russia. This was followed by the Russian move to annex Crimea, which was allegedly legitimized by a very suspicious referendum under Russian occupation and pressure. This marked a critical juncture for Russian-Turkish relations in terms of Crimea's geopolitical position as well as the ethno-cultural proximities of Crimean Tatars to Turkish people.

In particular, the annexation of Crimea put a concrete end to Turkey's naval and strategic superiority in the Black Sea, which made Russia the emerging hegemonic power with an offensive capability that threatened all the littoral states of the Black Sea, including Turkey.

In other words, geopolitically, Russia now became the greatest military threat to Turkey. The second concern was about the future of Crimean Tatars. Although there are only 300,000 Tatars residing in Crimea, the number of Crimean Tatars in Turkey surpassed a million. This raised awareness of the ongoing repressive policies perpetrated by Russia toward the Crimean Tatars.

Putting aside its historical responsibilities (Crimean Tatars) and geopolitical losses (superiority in the Black Sea), Turkey, once again, prioritized its economic relations with Russia and cooperation continued without a break. In this regard, Turkey did not participate in Western sanctions imposed on Russia and put itself in a privileged position as the only route available to Russians to access Europe.

The third and the most critical disagreement between Russia and Turkey took place in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war, particularly, when Russia decided to actively preserve the Assad regime.

Historically, Russia and Syria have enjoyed a fruitful relationship. When the pro-Soviet Baath party came into power in 1963, the Russians were allowed to establish a military base in Tartus, Syria. The Russian military base in Tartus is important because it was the first and the only Russian military base in the Mediterranean in history. This is precisely why Russia further assisted the Assad regime by providing equipment, weapons and training. However, this was not adequate to extricate the Syrian regime from the quagmire.

Hence, Putin felt obliged to take a more active stance in the Syrian quagmire to evade the overall eradication of the Assad regime, and consequently Russia's massive military intervention began on Sept. 1, 2015, in which they supervised Assad's forces in targeting anti-government forces in Syria.

The End of Canicular Days

The active Russian involvement in Syria has drastically changed the balance of power in the region in favor of the Russia-backed Assad regime. This compelled Turkey to take tangible steps to commeasure this changing balance of power in favor of Turkish-backed groups in Syria.

This clash of interest between Russia and Turkey took a dramatic turn, particularly when the Russian air force began bombing Turkish-backed Syrian opposition forces, including ethnic Turkmens, who had kinship with the Turkish people.

The Turkish electorate demanded President Erdoğan take retaliatory steps in response to Russian aggression, which resuscitated forgotten enmities and ancient hatreds against Russia. The pressure on Erdoğan reached its peak with the daily infringements of Turkish airspace by Russian aircraft.

Obviously, this Russian strategy of testing the second-largest, non-European, and the most aggressive army in NATO, in the end exhausted the Turkish public's patience. In fact, Russia had long ago proceeded with its policy of driving a wedge between Turkey and NATO to debilitate its military capability.

In response to the growing anti-Russian sentiments and the nationalistic wave, a Russian SU-24 that violated Turkish airspace for more than 17 seconds, was shot down by a Turkish F-16 on Nov. 24, 2015. The accumulation of disagreements between Turkey and Russia, not limited to the Georgian and Ukrainian wars, had indisputably deteriorated Russian-Turkish relations. The pragmatic attitude in Turkish-Russian relations was eventually and inevitably replaced by realist-minded security perceptions and threats.

The shooting down of the Russian SU-24 bomber aircraft shook the world and was interpreted as the primary cause of the most spectacular crisis in Russian-Turkish relations in the 21st century. Reciprocal accusations came from both sides, which resulted in sour relations between the two countries.

However, Russia began taking unilateral steps to cut its ties with Turkey in revenge for the downing of the jet. The first Russian reaction came with the elimination of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens. Charter flights were canceled, and Russians were prohibited from traveling to Turkey.

All military and public contracts were either postponed or abolished. Turkish businessmen and students were expelled, intimidated or forced to leave Russia. Bilateral trade almost vanished, resulting in an approximate loss of $10 billion, according to then-Deputy Minister Mehmet Şimşek.

Apart from this, Russia also took politically motivated steps to castigate Turkey. It increased its support to People's Protection Units (YPG) terrorists in northern Syria and stepped up its military assistance to the PKK's offshoot, which Russia had long attempted to include in the Geneva talks.

This also underlined the fact that Russia's policy soon turned into a quasi-American approach toward the YPG, seen as Turkey's Achilles heel. However, after a careful period of observation, Ankara decided to avoid taking any retaliatory measures against Russia and took a more "wait-and-see" stance.

The Syrian War and the downing of the Russian jet led to clashes of interests between Turkey and Russia. Initially, Erdoğan's primary desire to transform Turkey into an influential country in the region clashed with Putin's ambitions to establish buffer zones for Russia in Syria.

Losing Syria would mean the loss of control in the Mediterranean; thus, diminishing the Russian role in the region.

Second, after the downing of the Russian jet, Putin became highly skeptical about the role of "political Islam." This caused a dramatic change in Russia's policy toward it and "radical Islamic groups," as a result of which Putin soon started to embrace them as a real threat to his country, given Russia is home to Europe's largest Muslim community, 20% of the Russian population.

Reluctant partners

However, turbulence in Turkish-Russian relations did not last very long. The rapid reconciliation between the two countries stems from the fact that they are in dire need of each other economically and politically. From the Russian perspective, it can be said that the loss of Turkey would mean a sharp reduction in Russia's sphere of influence, especially in the face of the growing threat from NATO. If Russia wants to preserve its great power status, it needs to collaborate with Turkey in regional affairs. Thus, Russia aims to form a new balance of power in the region by pulling Turkey away from the West.

From the Turkish perspective, Ankara's proximity to Moscow strengthens its political leverage against the U.S. and European countries, with which Turkey does not enjoy good relations at the moment.

For instance, Turkey's recent purchase of the S-400 missile system shouldn't be considered as just a military move but also a diplomatic step. By having closer relations with Russia, Turkey intended to render the country more autonomous vis-à-vis NATO, and using the S-400 deal as a bargaining chip.

Nevertheless, this did not produce the desired outcome for Turkey. Instead, Turkey's decision to acquire the S-400 has caused serious economic, geopolitical and military consequences for the country that Russia cannot compensate.

First, Turkey was recently removed from the F-35 project in which the country has already invested more than $1.5 billion. Thus, Turkey's initial plan to diversify its foreign policy options as well as acquiring military equipment from different blocs has not produced the desired outcomes so far.

Following the elimination of Turkish companies from the joint F-35 project, U.S. officials threatened Turkey with the introduction of CAATSA (Countering America`s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). This would mean that 100 Turkish defense firms would be expelled from joint military programs, bringing a loss of $12 billion to the Turkish economy, which, once more, Russia cannot compensate.

Another important aspect of the S-400 deal is that Turkey will never receive total control over the sophisticated S-400 weapon system. That is to say, Russia still reserves the possibility to meddle with and hinder the use of the system, which, in practice, will be open to Russian influence and manipulation.

This becomes even more critical, considering that Russia does not perceive Turkey as a genuine partner. For instance, recent declarations from the Russian side criticizing Turkey for its activities in and around Cyprus and the deliberate handing back of Turkish goods diminish the Turkish-Russian romance as an alternative partner to the West.

Consequently, all these factors must be kept in mind by Turkish policymakers, given the inconsistency, ebbs and flows in Turkish-Russian relations, which in the end might obligate Turkey to ask for further assurances from NATO.

Hence, NATO deterrence and its nuclear umbrella is still indispensable for Turkey in the face of a revanchist, irredentist and ever-aggressive Russia, which is geographically closer to Turkey than many other Western countries.

Thus, Turkey must apply conciliatory methods to alleviate and eliminate ongoing problems with its traditional Western allies, increasing Turkey's indispensability to both

the West and Russia. Thus, Turkey must continue implementing a multi-vector and balancing foreign policy between the clashing blocs. To achieve this, Turkish policymakers must refrain from depending on Russia, while attempting to reduce the country's economic, military and industrial dependence on the West.

* Op-ed contributor holding a Master of Science degree in Conflict Studies and Nationalism from the London School of Economics (LSE)

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