By: Eren Oztunc
Turkey’s historically tumultuous relationship with Russia has experienced particular instability in the past two years after the shoot-down of a Russian Su-24 jet in November 2015 in response to a violation of Turkish airspace. The jet incident, which resulted in the death of a Russian pilot, spurred the immediate downward spiral of Turkish-Russian relations which had already been strained due to conflicting geopolitical ambitions and competition for regional influence. The incident marked the first destruction of a Russian warplane by a NATO member-state since the Korean War and soured the Russo-Turkish relationship to seemingly unsalvageable levels. While the jet incident brought Russo-Turkish relations to an all-time low, Russia and Turkey have been able to restore diplomatic relations via a fast-paced rapprochement process in a relatively short period of time. Despite a myriad of conflicting foreign policy goals, the need for mutual cooperation on Russia and Turkey’s mutual political and economic goals have magnified the importance of repairing the appearance of Russo-Turkish relations to provide leverage to each country in global affairs.
The 2015 jet incident prompted immediate Russian sanctions against Turkey, which significantly hurt the Turkish economy through a drastic decrease in Russian trade and tourism, both crucial sources of revenue to Turkey. The sanctions, which included the banning of charter flights, fruits, vegetables, and other agricultural imports, cost the Turkish economy an estimated $8 billion in 2016. Despite significant trade volume reductions, Turkey’s energy dependence on Russia remained intact. Turkey, Russia’s second largest energy market, continued to import over half of its gas from Russia via the Blue Stream pipe, and Turkey has gone so far to increase its energy reliance on Russia by approving the TurkStream pipeline, which will supply over 15 billion cubic meters of gas to Turkey and Southeastern Europe by the end of the decade. Furthermore, construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant under Russian state-owned Rosatom resumed after a brief pause in 2016, which has generated further concern over Turkish dependence on Russia and lack of energy diversification efforts. Although energy was largely unaffected by the jet incident, the economic strain of trade restrictions was particularly burdensome and eventually caused Erdogan and Putin to begin the process of repairing relations half a year after the jet incident. Erdogan apologized for the jet incident six months after it occurred, and Putin matched him by condemning Turkey’s failed coup. Only months later, the two agreed to revive the suspended TurkStream pipeline deal and pledged to increase bilateral trade at a meeting in St. Petersburg, demonstrating the commitment to restoring ties by both parties.
The speed of this rapprochement, much of which took place in the course of only a year, was a response on both sides to align interests and establish dialogue with a regional partner. From a Western viewpoint, Turkey and Russia are more alike than they are different; each nation has historically been on the geopolitical fringe of Europe and possesses ambitious political and economic goals that they have been unable to bring to fruition. Both Turkey and Russia are home to overreaching, abrasive leaders who have generated a great deal of scrutiny from the West. Erdogan’s conscious anti-Western rhetoric vis a vis the EU and the U.S. has come to resemble Russia’s own rocky relationship with the West. Erdogan has grown increasingly distant from the EU as accession talks begin to falter and bilateral relations weaken, and the Turkish-U.S. relations have hit a seemingly all-time low with the latest visa crisis despite the friendly dialogue between President Trump and President Erdogan. Russia’s own diplomatic relations with the U.S. have also plummeted with the leak of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and Russia’s controversial actions in Ukraine. As two major powers on the periphery of the EU but with fundamentally different political agendas than that of the West, Russia and Turkey perceive significant benefits from increased cooperation and alignment, especially as a threat for leverage in international relations. Russia and Turkey’s growing distance from the West have brought the two closer than ever, if only at surface level. Turkey’s frustration with NATO and consequential purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia, which is incompatible with NATO’s current air defense system, demonstrated its growing friendship with Russia and was met with outcry from Turkey’s Western allies. The United States showed significant opposition to the purchase, where U.S. Senator Ben Cardin pushed for the implementation of mandatory sanctions on Turkey for potentially violating U.S. regulations on the Russian defense industry. Although formal action by against Turkey has yet to be taken, the missile purchase severely damaged Turkey’s ties to its NATO alliances and served as another step along the fast-paced trajectory of restoring relations with Russia.
Since the downing of the Russian jet, Putin and Erdogan have met a total of five times, with the latest meeting this past November, where the two leaders reaffirmed their commitment to ending the Syrian civil war, albeit with different goals. In efforts to advance Turkish-Russian rapprochement, the leaders have been forced to sidestep their conflicting regional geopolitical interests. Russian and Turkish interests have clashed in regional affairs on multiple occasions in the last two decades, notably in the Caucuses, Black Sea, and Eastern Mediterranean, where each nation has tried for influence. The current area of conflict for the two nations is Syria, where both Russia and Turkey are working toward completely incompatible foreign policy goals. Putin’s goal of maintaining the status quo by propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war directly conflicts with Erdogan’s efforts to remove him. Russia, a longtime partner of Syria, can be credited with saving the collapse of Syrian government forces, directly undoing Turkey’s work of arming Syrian rebels. Despite this, Russia and Turkey have continued rapprochement efforts by taking steps to establish de-escalation zones in areas of conflict through talks in Astana in efforts to accelerate the ending of the war, a resolution both sides can support.
Despite the downturn the relationship took in 2015 and conflicting regional interests, the Russo-Turkish relationship has made vast strides towards recovery, much to the dismay of the West. Putin stated in May earlier this year that the relationship had “fully recovered,” although this may be an exaggeration. The majority of the Russian sanctions placed after the 2015 jet incident have been lifted, and while both Russia and Turkey have made steps toward the reduction of trade barriers, hurdles to cross still exist on both sides. Economic sanctions, along with a host of other topics, were the subject of Erdogan and Putin’s most recent meeting in late September in Ankara. Putin, who brought a delegation of top Russian officials including Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, reaffirmed his goal of increasing bilateral trade and achieving political cooperation in Syria. Although Erdogan was keen on discussing Syria and Kurdistan in-depth, no further progress besides the affirmation of preserving Iraq and Syria’s territorial integrity and continuing the establishment of de-escalation zones was made. The meeting did, however, make considerable strides in bilateral trade by agreeing to remove Russia’s embargo on Turkish tomatoes in the near future, which had been a source of tension in between the countries for over a year. Despite this, Erdogan and Putin still failed to discuss and resolve mutually conflicting issues that were supposed to be on the top of their agenda, notably Syria and the aftermath of the KRG referendum. The meeting ultimately propelled the countries’ rapprochement process forward by resolving less imminent issues and reaffirming ambiguous mutual goals while side-stepping deeper foreign policy conflicts in the broader region.
Measures to reduce trade barriers and increase in bilateral cooperation have made Russo-Turkish relations appear more advanced than they may be. In reality, the enormous strides claimed to have been taken in restoring diplomatic ties still face major setbacks. Putin and Erdogan’s contradicting interests not only in Syria but in the greater Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region are still a major obstacle to restoring relations. Turkey has utilized its fast-paced rapprochement with Russia as a vehicle to spite its Western counterparts for unsatisfactory EU accession talks and lack of support for Turkey’s PKK conflict. Both Russia and Turkey are well aware that the deepening of Russian-Turkish ties is of significant concern to NATO, especially after Turkey’s intended purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia, and that the threat of Turkish-Russian partnership has the potential to be a leveraging tool in meeting each countries’ geopolitical ambitions. Therefore, it is likely that Russo-Turkish relations will continue along this surface-level upward trajectory and that the EU and the U.S. will be forced to have to deal with the reality of a Turkish-Russian partnership.