Why Russia remains crucial to Turkey’s future
Dubai - In late June, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had his first telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in almost seven months. Months of turmoil in Turkish-Russian relations following the downing of a Russian warplane by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015 should be turning a corner as Erdogan tendered an apology.
Erdogan had taken the stance that the downing of the plane was a regrettable incident but fell short of an apology. Moscow could not be totally absolved of blame for the incident and the Turkish leadership assumed geopolitical necessities would override challenges arising from what was genuinely a one-off incident.
Putin, like much of Russia, interpreted the saga as a “stab in the back” and Turkish-Russian relations deteriorated to their lowest point in decades. Having won his apology, Putin swiftly moved to normalise relations between the two countries.
The Kremlin understood the importance of Russia to Turkey’s future as a resurgent transregional power. The self-harm Turkish policy was inflicting was irrational according to Moscow’s calculations and the Russians expected greater wisdom to eventually prevail in Ankara.
Whether Russian jets had violated Turkish airspace as Ankara charged and whether this was part of a Russian tactic were less relevant than the fact that the Turkish government had miscalculated the costs of its political relationship with Russia.
For Turkey, Russia remains crucial for key economic and security interests (with Syria the most prominent but by no means only security dimension) and for geostrategic balancing as Turkey carves out an enhanced international role for itself.
More than five years ago, Turkey and Russia signed a number of important bilateral agreements, including one for visa-free travel, and set a target to grow trade from about $40 billion to $100 billion. Indeed, the potential for trade growth remains substantial considering that only 4% of Turkish exports (mainly textiles and food) were to Russia in 2014.
Turkey has been hugely popular for Russian tourists, representing the second-largest number of tourist arrivals to the country. In 2014, 4.4 million Russians visited Turkey. Prior to the November incident, tour operators had been expecting Russian tourist flows to increase after Moscow halted flights to Egypt following the downing of a civilian airliner in the Sinai. Instead, Russia banned chartered flights to Turkey.
Russia is Turkey’s largest natural gas supplier, accounting for an estimated 60% of its annual natural gas requirements, as well as being a major supplier of oil and oil products. Turkey has ambitious plans to transport Russian gas to Europe — with the flagship TurkStream Pipeline project, which is a leading alternative to the proposed South Stream pipeline that would bypass Ukraine to transport Russian gas to Europe but which was recently dropped following European opposition.
Even as Russian energy firm Gazprom reportedly halved planned capacity for TurkStream to 32 billion cubic metres per year, Turkey views the project as crucial for it to become a major gateway for Russian, Central Asian and Middle Eastern energy resources heading to Europe, which promises billions in revenue and strategic prominence.
In 2013, Turkey also commissioned Russian company Atomstroyexport to build four 1,200-megawatt nuclear reactors in a deal worth $20 billion. The Akkuyu facility would be the first Russian-built and -owned nuclear power plant abroad. The agreement represented a watershed moment for Turkey, Russia and, indeed, bilateral ties between them.
Turkish-Russian trade, however, has fallen sharply in recent months and was expected to slide further, according to Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey.
“In January, the volume of Turkish exports to Russia fell by two-thirds and there are also the so-called invisible exports — construction, tourism, transport — that amounted to $15 billion annually, including about $4.5 billion in tourism… Turkey will miss millions of Russian tourists,” Karlov said.
Developments in Syria have been largely unfavourable to Turkey. It is facing increasing fallout from the actions of the Islamic State and from Kurdish separatists. Russia is a key stakeholder in Syria and to lose all influence with the Kremlin would be a foreign policy disaster for Ankara.
As the United States continues to court Kurdish militias in northern Syria — providing support in terms of training and equipment and joint operations against the protests of the Turkish government — so Turkey needs to keep Russia on-side more than ever.
Despite its NATO membership, Turkey is a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, led by Russia and China, and the bloc could offer interesting opportunities for a Turkey increasingly shunned by the West. In any event, Turkey is unlikely to choose investing all of its policy attention only with Western partners.
Erdogan has become an increasingly detested figure in Western capitals, many of which see his style as dictatorial and his policies — especially in Syria — as dangerous. Turkey is struggling to move its case forward for full membership of the European Union after almost two decades of negotiations, so safeguarding and developing ties with non-Western partners is crucial and Russia remains perhaps the most important in that strategic context.