By: James Bieszka
On April 26, 2016, the Atlantic Council hosted “The Future of the Russo-Turkish Relationship.” The event was moderated by Karoun Demirjian of the Washington Post and featured opening remarks from Senator Gerry Connelly (D-VA). Former Ambassadors, James Jeffrey and John Herbst, and Dr. Soner Cağaptay of the Washington Institute joined Mr. Connelly for the panel discussion. All speakers reflected on the formerly positive relationship between Russia and Turkey in the early 2000s. The panelists focused on the energy and trade relations between Russia and Turkey but also noted the once strong personal ties between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. All panelists agreed that the near future of the Russo-Turkish relationship is bleak, not the least due to competing geopolitical goals in Syria. While the heightened tensions between Turkey and Russia after the November 24, 2015 plane incident have receded, the war in Syria is a continued point of tension. Despite Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria in March 2016, Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles placed on the Turkish border after the plan incident have remained (1). This perpetuates military tension between Turkey and Russia, and thus NATO and Russia, making the Russo-Turkish relationship critical. Beyond military relations, Turkey and Russia have engaged in a sort of economic war since the plane incident. This has impacted everything from foreign investment, to tourism, to Turkish agricultural exports to Russia. However, despite initial predictions of significant economic loss, Turkey’s economy has remained not only intact but, in recent months, has improved(2). According to April 2016 reports, Turkish exports have risen, the overall trade deficit has continued to shrink, and the lira had recovered (3). Certainly, as Dr. Soner Cağaptay noted, Turkey does seem able to withstand economic clashes with Russia. However, the prospects for renewed relations between Russia and Turkey are doubtful, largely due to the conflict in Syria.
Panelists Dr. Cağaptay and Ambassador Jeffrey discussed the role of executive leadership in the Turkey – Russia relationship. Dr. Cağaptay argued that Putin focused his critique toward President Erdoğan and his administration following the plane incident, instead of attacking Turkey as a whole. This tactic showed Putin’s awareness of Turkey’s increasing polarization and likely sought to further destabilize Turkey internally by enhancing criticism and rhetoric against Erdoğan and the AKP. Ambassador Jeffrey also noted that while Putin’s foreign policy in Ukraine and Syria has seemingly enhanced his popularity in Russia, President Erdoğan has not enjoyed the same positive response to Turkey’s own foreign policy in recent years. In fact, according to a December 2015 Kadir Has University poll, roughly 50% of Turks see the government’s policy in Syria as “unsuccessful” or “completely unsuccessful,” whereas only 30% see the policy as “successful” or “completely successful.” Respondents also were less confident in the government’s ability to solve security issues militarily and reportedly see Russia as Turkey’s greatest threat (4).
All panelists identified this as an opportune moment for Turkey to move closer to its traditional western alliance. However, as Senator Connelly noted, the EU accession process will continue to be negatively impacted by Turkey’s recent issues with media freedom and human rights. NATO is perhaps an even more pressing issue given the proximity of Russian military forces to Turkey. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg recently said, NATO is committed to protecting Turkey and will carry out “military activities in Turkey to protect Turkey against aggression (5).” Turkey’s security and relations with Russia will continue to be impacted by evolving relations with the EU and NATO.
As the panelists explained, Turkey-Russia relations greatly improved in the 2000s decade through enhanced trade and economic development. Nevertheless, Russia’s foreign policy actions in Ukraine, and more notably in Syria, has effectively stunted this once growing relationship between Ankara and Moscow. All panelists agreed that the developments in Syria will preclude any Turkey-Russia rapprochement in the near future. Thanks largely to declining energy prices, Turkey’s economy has weathered Russia’s sanctions well and NATO has reaffirmed its commitment to defending Turkey along the Syrian border. As the recent refugee deal shows, Turkey is also developing its ties with the EU. However, Russia is challenging Turkey’s position in Syria and the war in Syria is also straining relations with Washington. Public opinion in Turkey is increasingly critical of the government’s policies at the same time that Vladimir Putin still enjoys relative support from the Russian population for his regional campaigns. This reality is incredibly troubling for President Erdoğan and may impact his policies moving forward. However, it seems perfectly clear that Russo-Turkish relations in the near future will not return to their previous state and may even decline further.
- “Russia To Retain S-400 Air Defense System In Syria.” Defenseworld.net. 15 Mar. 2016. Web. 3 May 2016.
- “Russian Sanctions on Agricultural Products to Cost Turkey $764 Million: Minister.” Hurriyetdailynews.com. 3 Dec. 2015. Web. 2 May 2016.
- Hacaoglu, Selcan. “Turkish Exports Rise for Second Month in Row; Trade Gap Shrinks.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, 29 Apr. 2016. Web. 05 May 2016.
- “Survey of Social-Political Trends in Turkey.” Kadir Has University, 12 Jan. 2016. Web. 5 May 2016.
- “Remarks by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs and Its Subcommittee on Security and Defence.” Nato.int. NATO, 23 Feb. 2016. Web. 05 Feb. 2016.