How important is Turkey to the Russians after all?
Dubai - Turkish-Russian relations look to be back on track following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Both leaders are somewhat unpredictable but respected for their political guile. That has come to the fore as they sweep recent disagreements under the carpet.
The November 2015 downing of a Russian warplane deployed to Syria by Turkish aircraft threatened to undo years of progress and efforts by Moscow and Ankara to court one another.
Russia punished Turkey with economic sanctions because of the incident and deploying the highly capable S-400 air defence system in Syria — putting the country’s airspace effectively beyond the reach of the Turkish Air Force.
The Russian response was measured: The Turks could not be let off the hook but any punishment needed to avoid the possibility of dangerously escalating military tensions with NATO, of which Turkey is a member. The other motive for Moscow’s measured response was to leave a door open for Ankara.
Turkey is viewed by the Russians as a country of special significance. There is much Russia can gain from courting and deepening ties with Turkey. Alternatively, shutting the door on Turkey could complicate the geostrategic environment for Russia and reinvigorate historical rivalries at a time when there is great need for collaboration on both sides.
Differing Russian and Turkish policy towards Syria has, of course, been the epicentre of recent tensions but both will recognise that their long-term interests in Syria remain threatened unless they can narrow their differences. Ironically, Syria could represent the ideal opportunity for Russian and Turkish collaboration to move to new levels.
Russia has bolstered the authority of the Assad regime but it remains delegitimised for far too many Syrians and the wider Arab citizenry to have strong long-term survival prospects. Kurdish separatism is a deep concern for Turkey and, as the United States nurtures Kurdish political autonomy and activism, Ankara cannot afford to lose Russia as an ally.
Geography also makes Turkey and Russia strategic partners in the Transcaucasian region. Turkey is a dialogue partner in the Sino-Russian Shanghai Cooperation Organisation project, and, despite its NATO membership, it is a prospective member as publicly declared by Erdogan.
Since their spat, Turkey has intensified military engagement with Georgia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. Turkey is deepening defence industrial cooperation with Ukraine and the countries have conducted a series of joint naval exercises in the Black Sea in recent months to enhance their ability to operate together “in accordance with NATO standards”. Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan have also expanded joint military drills over the past year, largely driven by concerns related to Russia.
As such, Russia prefers engagement and its lucrative benefits over the risks of confrontation and hostile rivalry with Turkey. Turkey is the second largest buyer of Russian gas after Germany, and the TurkStream pipeline will cement their energy-security relationship to truly strategic dimensions. Russia is the fourth largest supplier of oil and related by-products to Turkey, which is also planning a Russian-built nuclear power plant.
Together with Egypt, Turkey is the largest buyer of Russian wheat and the Turkish economy is also hungry for Russian steel and machinery. Even in defence trade and collaboration, Turkey has shown openness to Russia beyond what its EU and NATO partners may feel comfortable with.
For lack of options, cooperation in Syria and ending the civil war is in the mutual interest of Russia and Turkey and both seem to have the flexibility required to work more closely together. The political context of poor Russian relations with the West and deteriorating Turkish relations with Western capitals provide an added impetus to Russian- Turkish rapprochement.
Turkey could drop its bid for EU membership altogether and even decide to leave NATO. Both scenarios would draw Turkey closer to Russia and Moscow would actively facilitate such posturing through deepening strategic cooperation with Ankara at the economic, political and military levels.
When bilateral relations have been attended to with greater care they have shown promise, and Putin and Erdogan may finally now be able to give the attention Russia-Turkey ties actually need.