Historically, Russia and Turkey have always been rivals, geopolitically speaking. In recent times they have, however, managed to forge a working partnership in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, but it is one that depends heavily on their current relations with what is still the world’s biggest power – the United States.
Ankara and Washington are allies in Nato but they have been at odds over some big issues, such as Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system – a move that resulted in the US imposing sanctions last year. Then there are significant differences on regional policy – namely, America’s support for the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units in Syria and Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, the Turkish cleric who has been living in Pennsylvania since the late 1990s but is regarded by the Turkish government as a dangerous dissident who incited the 2016 attempted coup.
From Ankara’s point of view, that all makes Russia a better bet than the US as a strategic partner – and the Turkish people seem to agree. A recent survey revealed that nearly 79 percent of respondents would prefer that Turkey partners with Russia rather than the United States. When asked, “Do you think Turkey should cooperate with the US while conducting its foreign policy?” 73 percent responded, “No.”
From the Kremlin’s perspective, a rupture in US-Turkish relations could lead to the destruction of the old world order and undermine the unity of the West. Not so long ago, Turkey used its power of veto to water down an official condemnation by Nato of the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. Turkish officials reportedly insisted that Nato should not collectively oppose Belarus or demand the release of political prisoners. Unless Ankara changes tack, it will be very difficult for Nato to take a united position on Belarus, Russia’s only ally in Europe.
But won’t Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who once called Vladimir Putin “dear friend,” expect something in return? And what might that be?
In April, Russia suspended flights to Turkish airports, allegedly because of the rising number of Covid-19 cases in Turkey. The reality is a different story; this was Moscow putting pressure on Ankara over another matter altogether.
At the time, Erdogan was hosting the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, in Istanbul, along with their respective defense chiefs to discuss strengthening their “strategic partnership.” It is no secret that Ukraine is interested in purchasing Turkish-made Bayraktar drones that played such a crucial role during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia last autumn, and wants to deploy them in its ongoing struggle against pro-Russian forces in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine.
Moscow denies that the cancellation of flights and the warming relations between Ankara and Kiev are in any way connected. But the Kremlin has a track record of finding imaginative ways to show its displeasure.
In 2015, Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet in Syria. Russia retaliated by banning all tomato imports from Turkey. At the time, some regarded Moscow’s response as too feeble. But not only did the move badly affect Turkish exporters (Russia was Turkey’s biggest export market for tomatoes), it actually strengthened domestic production in Russia as the government invested in greenhouse projects.
Erdogan’s independence of mind and method in foreign policy may have raised Turkey’s global status, but the economy remains his weak spot. According to Turkish tourism operators, Russia’s flight ban is likely to cost the country around $500 million in lost business – a situation serious enough to warrant inviting a Russian health delegation to visit Turkey to review the safety measures in place at Turkish resorts, and for Ankara to keep petitioning Moscow to reconsider.
As with the tomato ban, which lasted two years, the issue will no doubt be resolved sooner or later, and Russia and Turkey will resume cooperation, primarily in the field of energy. Russia is heavily involved in building the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Turkey’s Mersin province and has completed construction of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline. The recent discovery of new natural gas deposits in the Black Sea means that Ankara could become less dependent on Russia for energy eventually, but in the meantime the Akkuyu project and the S-400 missile system are likely to ensure a long-term Russian presence in Turkey.
That does not mean Russia and Turkey are, or ever will be, friends, however. They may agree on ceasefires and control their proxies on the ground in Syria and Libya, but their goals are diametrically opposed.
Judging by his current actions, Erdogan intends to persist with ensuring that Turkey is an influential player in the region’s energy-rich territories. Any “partnership” between Moscow and Ankara will consist of ramping up any local tensions, for which there is ample potential.
In the Eastern Mediterranean, the dispute over gas exploration could escalate into conflict. In Libya, Turkey’s signing of a controversial maritime boundary treaty with the UN-backed Government of National Accord is a blatant move to secure a share of the country’s oil and gas reserves. Even the potential for more upheaval in the Middle East and Central Asia cannot be discounted.
What is certain is that any opportunity for more muscle-flexing by Russia and Turkey means that new conflicts, wars and territorial claims are inevitable.
Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and “pipeline politics.”