For some, the quick Russia and Turkey rapprochement comes as a surprise. And, indeed, it is not welcomed by everyone, especially in some hard-line political circles in Russia. The swift actions taken by the Russian leadership for warming up the relations with Turkey stem from the fact that Russia and Turkey are crucial political actors and need each other for resolving the civil war in Syria, and the reignited conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the ongoing Kurdish war for independence. They have to restore bilateral trade in order to improve their economies; they need each other for transnational energy projects, and for resolving the Ukrainian crisis.
On Monday, June 27th, 2016, the President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, sent a letter to the Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, in which he expressed regret and offered condolences over the downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber on November 24th, 2015 in Syria by Turkey[i]. Two days later, on June 29th, 2016, Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan held a 40-minute phone conversation, the first since Turkey’s downing of the Russian military plane. According to the official reports, the topics discussed between the two heads of states were terrorism, revival of economic ties and tourism. A day later, on June 30th, 2016, President Putin signed a decree, lifting the ban on chartered flights to Turkey for Russian tourists[ii]. Apparently, the Russian energy giant, Gazprom started an immediate lobbying for renewing the talks for the Turkish Stream pipeline and possibly revisiting the doomed South Stream gas project. On July 1, 2016 Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov met in Sochi with the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, during a meeting on the sidelines of the Council of Foreign Ministers from the member states of the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation. It is quite likely that the two Foreign Ministers discussed an upcoming meeting between the Presidents of the estranged countries, an event that could happen as soon as in late July or early August[iii][iv]. During the past seven months, the centuries old rivals – Russia and Turkey – revived their thorny points, which sent shockwaves across the region and affected the relations between their foes and allies.
Resolving the differences will be a long process, which hardly will run smoothly. Recep Erdogan has been trying to reach out in vain to Vladimir Putin for several months. For many, Putin’s quick actions taken after receiving Erdogan’s official apology letter is seen as precipitous. The key to understanding Erdogan’s official apology and Vladimir Putin’s consecutive actions lies in the fact that Russia and Turkey need each other[v]. Russia can withstand the affects of the swift sanctions it implemented immediately after Turkey’s downing of SU-24 bomber. However, Russia needs Turkey’s cooperation in the international arena. On the other hand, Turkey is in a much less enviable position. Its economy is hugely affected by the Russian sanctions on the tourism, agriculture and construction sectors, which combined with the fact that it has become a frequent target of terrorist attacks with the latest attack on June 28th, 2016, at the Atatürk International Airport in Istanbul, killing 45 and injuring 230 people, has made the country unattractive destination. Turkey’s attempts to blackmail the European Union with the goal of extracting money and huge concessions such as visa-free regime and accelerated negotiations for an EU membership in exchange of curbing the refugee flow from Turkey, did not bring the desired results, either. Moreover, Turkey is basically in a state of civil war with its large Kurdish minority. Turkey’s relations with Washington have been strained over its actions in Syria and the treatment of the Turkish Kurds. Simply said, Turkey has run out of friends. That is why, just before Erdogan reached out to Kremlin, Turkey signed a reconciliation agreement with Israel, which ended the bilateral crisis that began in May 2010 with the killing of Turkish nationals during an Israeli military raid on a Gaza-bound aid flotilla[vi].
There are several crucial points where Russia and Turkey will have to cooperate. Each will be examined with the caution that the rapprochement is still very much in the early stages of development. Given the complicated situation in the Middle East and North Africa, in Turkey, along Russia’s western borders, and the unfolding crisis in the European Union, any change in the current state of the affairs could affect negatively any possible closer cooperation between Russia and Turkey. Also, as the history points out, there will be no lack of external forces and factors that may exploit the differences between these two former imperial rivals in attempts to bring them back into a conflict.
- Russia-Turkey post-sanction economic ties. While Turkey did not really impose strict sanctions on Russia in the wake of the SU-24 downing, Russian government swiftly and strictly imposed sanctions on the most vital economic sectors for Turkey – tourism, agriculture, textile industry and construction. In 2014, 3.3 million Russian tourists visited Turkey. The revenue from Russian tourists was $3.5billion. At the end of 2014, the Turkish export to Russia in agricultural products and textile was worth $6billion[vii]. While President Putin almost immediately after receiving the apology letter from Mr. Erdogan signed a decree lifting the ban on chartered flights from Russia to Turkey, the effects for Turkish tourism from that decree will remain bleak in the foreseeable future[viii]. In addition to the civil war in the southeastern part of the country, Turkey will remain a target for terrorist attacks, aiming especially at tourist hotspots. Removal of the sanctions on the agriculture and construction projects is expected to be forthcoming as well, albeit possibly with some conditions from Russia, which will be attached to her grander geopolitical goals.
- Russia-Turkey pipeline – Turkish Stream. Soon after the official announcement from Kremlin for a reset in the Russian–Turkish relations, the speculations over restoration of the Turkish Stream natural gas pipeline and even of the canceled South Stream project resurfaced. It is too soon to predict what will happen with the Turkish Stream pipeline[ix][x]. It is certain that Gazprom will lobby Kremlin for continuation of the project. However, the unpredictability of the current Turkish leadership, combined with the extensive upfront capital investment for commencement of such project, will force Kremlin to proceed cautiously. Also, Israel is a strategic partner of Russia with growing appetite for gas exports to Turkey and Greece. Therefore, both Russia and Turkey will have to coordinate a possible Turkish Stream pipeline in such a manner that it does not upset Israel’s export ambitions. As for the South Stream gas pipeline, the previous unsuccessful attempts and the unreliability of the Bulgarian political elite vis-a-vis Russia’s energy projects, make that project unfeasible, as long as it has to pass through Bulgaria[xi].
- Cooperation on Syria. The Syrian civil war is probably the most vital aspect for the cooperation between Russia and Turkey. Russia has strategic interests in Syria and is determined to come out of this conflict as a winner. For Turkey on the other hand, this war is of existential character. Ankara has not only seen its New-Ottoman ambitions in Syria doomed but also risks losing part of its territory, should a Kurdish state become a reality. In addition, Turkey’s blind eye toward the Islamic terrorists coming in and out of Syria has tremendously backfired on it through perpetual terrorist attacks inside Turkey. The most likely scenario in the current situation is for Russia to gain an upper hand over Turkey’s involvement in Syria. In that sense, Turkey has already softened its stance on Syria, including its position on “Assad must go” and has very recently renewed the bilateral working groups for fighting terrorism. Ankara insists for a restart of the Geneva negotiation process as soon as possible and would like to have its voice taken into consideration in the negotiation process, which includes prevention of the formation of an independent Kurdish state and protecting the Turkmen minorities in Northern Latakia and in Aleppo[xii]. If Turkey maintains good relations with Russia, which de facto has become the mediator between the different parties in the Syrian civil war, it will have Russia’s support in guaranteeing Turkey’s interests in Syria.
- Will Russia abandon Kurdish separatist support? Until November 24, 2015, Russia has been shying away from openly supporting the Kurdish war for an independent state. However, in the last seven months, Moscow has not hidden its support for the Kurds, including providing military assistance. In this aspect, we will see Ankara putting pressure on Russia to abandon its support for a Kurdish independent state. Most likely, the Kurdish support from Moscow will diminish but will not end, not at least immediately.
- Crimea and relations between Turkey and Ukraine. This vector is of vital importance for Russia. In the past months, Turkey has increased its influence in Crimea through the Tatar population, most notably through the Crimean Tatar Mejlis Ukrainian activists, which are connected to the Turkish Grey Wolves organization. Russia has been actively monitoring the Tatar activities in Crimea, outlawing any organization that could be remotely connected with possible Islamic radicalization. On the other hand, Turkey has been working on infiltrating the Tatar Muslim population with radical elements[xiii]. In addition, Turkey has begun military cooperation with Ukraine by signing a memorandum of understanding to combine forces on joint development and production of a satellite technology[xiv]. While Russia will be able to monitor and curb Tatar’s radicalization in Crimea, Turkey-Ukraine military cooperation, the first a full-fledged NATO member, and the latter an aspiring NATO member, will remain a thorny point in the relations between Moscow and Ankara, simply because Russia has virtually no influence over the current regime in power in Kiev, and Ankara does not have reasons to abandon its partnership with Kiev.
- The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia is in a precarious position with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. First, it does not want to take sides, despite its preferences for her traditional ally Armenia. At the same time, Russia has maintained friendly relations with Ilham Aliyev’s regime of Azerbaijan, a traditional Turkish ally. While this conflict may become more subtle and with fewer casualties in the near future thanks to Russia’s diplomatic efforts, it will remain to be exploited if any future disagreement between Russia and Turkey arises. Azerbaijan, similarly to Turkey, has a Sunni Muslim majority, which, if internal factors allow, could easily become receptive to a more conservative form of Islam, and possibly become a fertile ground for extremism. Obviously, this is not in Russia’s interest. Russia will have to run a delicate balance between Armenia and Azerbaijan and in that sense it needs Turkey’s cooperation in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Both Russia and Turkey need each other to secure their respective geopolitical goals. Turkey has run out of friends. It has been shaken by perpetual terrorist attacks and as a result of the terrorist activities on its soil and the Russian sanctions its once steadily growing economy is in shambles. Furthermore, it faces a civil war with its Kurdish minority. Russia, encircled by NATO members, feels increasingly insecure for her national security; its economy is adversely affected by the sanctions imposed by the West and the low oil prices[xv].
Improving Russia-Turkish relations will alleviate military tensions in the Black Sea region, with NATO and US forces stationed in Romania and Bulgaria and obviously directed at Russia. After the Warsaw NATO summit in the second week of July 2016, Russia will face an additional NATO pressure near her borders. During this summit, the US President Barack Obama stated that the United States will deploy 1,000 additional troops to Poland. The United Kingdom will send 500 military forces to Estonia, and Canada and Germany will bring two battalions to Lithuania and Latvia[xvi]. Russia may play the Turkish guilt card and ask Turkey as a NATO member to broker concessions from NATO to alleviate some of the military pressure along its borders. However, it is questionable how much influence Turkey currently has within NATO and how reliable partner Recep Erdogan will prove to be. Should Russia not succeed with the carrot, it will definitely resort to the stick in order to protect her interests and above all her borders. And should this happen, the situation will become again less stable. While it is unlikely we will see a smooth Russia-Turkey cooperation at each and every point, because of complex and sometimes opposing interests, at least for the time being, Russia and Turkey are poised for a less bumpy road ahead. It remains to be seen if Turkey can win Russia’s trust and whether both countries will rebuild their partnership on the pre-November 24, 2015 level. One thing is for sure – it will be a long and test-prone process.
[i]Reuters. (2016). Kremlin says Turkey apologized for shooting down Russian jet. Available: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-turkey-jet-idUSKCN0ZD1PR. Last accessed June 27, 2016.
[ii]Sputnik News (2016). Putin Signs Decree Lifting Restrictions against Turkey. Available: http://sputniknews.com/politics/20160630/1042247495/putin-turkey-restrictions.html. Last accessed June 30, 2016.
[iii]RT. (2016). Russia, Turkey back at negotiating table after 7-month crisis over downed jet. Available: https://www.rt.com/news/349165-lavrov-cavusoglu-talks-relations/. Last accessed July 1, 2016
[iv]Daily Sabah. (2016). Erdoğan, Putin to meet in late July or early August. Available: http://www.dailysabah.com/diplomacy/2016/07/09/erdogan-putin-to-meet-in-late-july-or-early-august. Last accessed July 7, 2016.
[v]Тарасов С. (2016). Почему Путин и Эрдоган так быстро помирились. Available: http://politobzor.net/show-98094-pochemu-putin-i-erdogan-tak-bystro-pomirilis.html. Last accessed June 30, 2016.
[vi]Haaretz. (2016). Israel and Turkey Reach Reconciliation Deal; Formal Announcement Postponed Until Monday. Available: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-1.727205. Last accessed July 2, 2016
[vii]Reuters. (2016). Factbox: Impact of Russian sanctions on trade ties with Turkey. Available: http://in.reuters.com/article/mideast-crisis-russia-turkey-ties-idINL8N19J3R1. Last accessed July 9, 2016.
[viii]BBC News. (2016) Russia’s Putin lifts ban on charter holidays to Turkey. Available: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36676516. Last accessed July 9, 2016.
[ix]TASS. (2016). Turkish Stream project may resume only after EC confirms its priority in writing — Gazprom. Available: http://tass.ru/en/economy/885838. Last accessed July 9, 2016.
[x]TASS. (2016). Kremlin says premature to speak about Turkish Stream project resumption. Available: http://tass.ru/en/economy/885706. Last accessed July 9, 2016.
[xi]Mercouris, A. (2014). The Real Reason Russia Cancelled South Stream. Available: http://russia-insider.com/en/2014/12/18/1517. Last accessed July 9, 2016.
[xii]Зайнашев, Ю. (2016) Турция перенимает российскую точку зрения на ИГИЛ. Available: http://www.vz.ru/politics/2016/7/1/819198.html. Last accessed July 1, 2016.
[xiii]Fort Russ. (2015). Erdogan sends ‘Grey Wolves’ to Crimea – A History Lesson, Translated by Ollie Richardson for Fort Russ. Available: http://www.fort-russ.com/2015/12/erdogan-sends-grey-wolves-to-crimea.html. Last accessed July 1, 2016.
[xiv]Bekdil, Burak E. (2016). Turkey, Ukraine to Develop, Build Satellites. Available: http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/policy-budget/industry/2016/04/12/turkey-ukraine-satellites-joint/82949546/. Last accessed July 1, 2016.
[xv]RT. (2016). EU extends sanctions against Russia for another six months. Available: https://www.rt.com/business/349136-eu-extends-russia-sanctions/. Last accessed July 1, 2016.
[xvi]Borger, J. (2016). Nato summit: US says it will deploy 1,000 extra troops to Poland. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/08/nato-summit-warsaw-brexit-russia. Last accessed July 9, 2016.
Image credit: Wikipedia