Russia and Turkey have managed to build a pragmatic relationship despite diverging interests and a historical regional rivalry. It’s in both countries interest that it survives past elections.
Turkey-Russia relations are unique and can be described as volatile characterised by ebbs and flows. Just two and a half years ago, relations were at a low after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet flying over Turkish airspace. However today, relations between the two—politically and economically—are at a peak.
New opportunities for cooperation are abound as both powers experience their most intense relations with the outside world. Turkey and Russia have significantly divergent and conflicting interests, yet both see a common goal in conflict resolution.
Russia, Turkey and the west
Both Russia and Turkey have a similar approach to the west and their bilateral relations share a strategically coherent foundation. There is mutual caution and skepticism, and both are well aware of one another’s “red lines” on core interests.
Relating to Syria, a significant achievement for the Russian administration would be to cause friction within NATO and damage relations between allies like Washington and Ankara. The US-Turkey clash over Syria became a major card for Russia. Washington allied itself with the YPG; the Syrian branch of the PKK, a cause of great friction between Ankara and Washington.
Turkey and Russia have significantly divergent and conflicting interests, but both see the other as a reliable partner to put an end to the war in Syria. There’s a fragile balance between pursuing interests and accommodating each other’s needs – and Russia is cognisant of considering Turkey’s influence over the region and is aware that working with Turkey has greater prospects for success.
Turkey’s tensions with its traditional western allies provided Russia with new opportunities to fill the vacuum left by the west. During this critical time, Turkey held dominance over the Russian market by attracting additional Russian investors who would be forced to cease cooperation with the US because of the mutual sanctions. By offering its market, Ankara can provide pharmaceutical products, agricultural goods, and new equipment for development of oil and gas fields. Turkey has an opportunity to capitalise on the economic sanctions between the US and Russia, and try to occupy the vacuum created by the trade wars.
Gas, guns and trade
Energy is a a significant issue between Russia and Turkey. Currently, these multi-dimensional relations have a pragmatic face, and Putin has been trying to maximise mutual advantages.
Both parties are eager to boost energy collaboration in a growing number of fields, including nuclear power by investing in major national projects to gain the highest economic and political impact on the domestic financial market.
One of them, the already signed Akkuyu nuclear power plant, set to be inaugurated in 2023, presents itself as the most prominent joint project between the two countries. The $20 billion project is expected to enable Turkey to be promoted to the Nuclear League, which will meet 12 percent of Turkey’s electricity needs.
The Akkuyu Project is a win-win situation from every angle for both countries.
For Russia, for instance, this project has given it leverage in its relations with Turkey. Indisputably, this project has reduced Turkey’s dependence on energy, but it has visibly increased Turkey’s dependence on Russia. This is important to note considering Turkey’s prominence in NATO, which Russia has long been trying to destabilise.
For Turkey, it is our contention that the first joint project with Russia is a clear indication to the west that Turkey has other alternatives in case of a detachment from the western sphere.
Needless to say, the continuation of this project highly depends on the political stability in both countries. From the Russian perspective, we contend that Putin’s victory in Russian elections has not only solidified his position within the state but has also guaranteed the future of Turkish-Russian relations. From the Turkish perspective, a new government and a president could mean drastic changes in bilateral relations with Russia, particularly if the new president opts for reconciliation with the west.
Turkey has also taken greater interest in Russian military equipment as part of its attempt to modernise its armed forces with advanced military systems. This interest became more visible as a result of the first serious crisis, particularly when the US denied providing Turkey with advanced ground-to-air missiles (PATRIOT). This, undoubtedly, pushed Turkey to find other alternative systems that would allay its need.
Noting the fragmentation between Turkey and its traditional western allies, Russia took the benefit from this crisis and got involved in the process by offering its S-400 air defence systems. Despite opposition and harsh criticism from abroad, Turkey and Russia agreed on the terms to purchase S-400 systems.
Moreover, Turkey has also proposed Russia the joint production of the new generation S-500 anti-ballistic missile systems. This marked the first military agreement between Russia (then the Soviet Union) and Turkey since the founding of modern Turkey in 1923, which underlined the drastic changes in Russian-Turkish relations.
A new dawn?
Nonetheless, it should be kept in mind that Turkey’s military ties with the west are still more profound than its growing ties with Russia. Hence, a possible change in the government may compel new decision-makers in Turkish politics to renounce the military agreements with Russia.
Whether there will be a change in the upcoming elections or not, Turkey should be cautious in its joint projects with Russia, whether in energy or military. That is to say, detaching itself from the west in the name of liberalising its military and technological dependence on the west should not mean creating dependency on another country, let alone Russia, which throughout history perceives Turkey as its imminent cultural and military rival in the region.
Moscow wishes to preserve the status-quo in its relations with Turkey. The new Russian foreign policy, under Putin’s leadership, strives to stabilise relations with its historical, cultural and geographical rival. Indisputably, a detente in Russian-Turkish ties have allowed Russia to concentrate more on its contention with NATO in particular, and with the west in general.
Hence, it was logical for Russia to offer carrots to Turkey while utilising its stick against the west. This was the exact reason why Turkish-Russian relations did not fracture but rather gradually cooled off after the downing of the jet in 2015.
The process leading up to Turkey’s elections on June 24 have received tremendous, and positive, attention in the Russian media. The greater enthusiasm by Moscow for the Turkish elections is due to the stability that Putin wants to maintain through the political status quo in Ankara.