Good relations between Turkey and Russia are short term

Written 21 May 2015

Russia and Turkey are not natural friends. The Black Sea which separates them has been a battleground between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire multiple times throughout history. With Russia’s increased power in the maritime region, Turkey is no doubt concerned. However, if you were to read the headlines, it would seem that Erdogan and Putin are best friends, cooperating on energy projects and trade agreements. Indeed, the two leaders share similar authoritarian trends, but this is probably one of the only reasons they are close right now, another being the fact that both have been rejected by Europe.

A partnership between Turkey and Russia is only strategic for the time being. Seeing that Vladimir Putin has been left with no friends in Europe, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken the opportunity to get closer with the former and benefit from the natural resources of the world’s largest country. Indeed, the blocked South Stream has been replaced with the Turkish Stream which will pass through Thrace, the European part of Turkey, and construction will begin next month. Given the sanctions that Russia is under, Putin has been looking for alternative partners, and one of them happens to be Turkey.

The partnership has already come upon rough grounds, with Erdogan lambasting Putin for the latter’s recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Indeed, Erdogan made mention of Russia’s current actions in Ukraine when responding, and also declined to participate in Russia’s Victory Day parade. Even though Russia and Turkey may have good strategic reason to form a partnership, there are multiple other issues which will complicate this, Russia’s alliance with Armenia being only one of them.

One of the more important current major points of contention is Syria. While Russia has been actively supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has taken a clear stance against the Baathist government. However, Syria is not as important to Russia’s grand strategic calculus as it is to Turkey’s. Russia sees Syria as a way to distract Western policy from other more strategic regions, such as Ukraine. Therefore, there have been partnerships between Turkey and Russia, despite the conflict in Syria. Nevertheless, considering that Syria is one of the main strategic priorities for Turkey (whether because of the refugee crisis or because of geopolitics), there will be further contention over this issue in the future.

Both Russia and Turkey have played prominent historical roles in the Balkans. The region was part of the core of the Ottoman Empire, and Russia played a significant role in liberating the various Orthodox countries in the region from Turkish rule. Both countries still have significant influence in the region. Turkey is a major trade partner with all of the countries of the region, while also having significant soft power through TV shows and soaps, such as the Magnificent Century. Russia also has economic partnerships in the region, most prominently through energy politics: Serbia’s major oil & gas company is majority-owned by Gazprom, and Bulgaria’s largest oil refinery (the largest in the region) is owned by Lukoil.

Putin has been pushing a Balkan offensive since early this year, first coming on as a potential bailout partner for Greece (I said that this would not actually happen). As such, Russia’s government is more popular in Greece than the EU leadership. While Serbia has always had a partnership with Russia, Macedonia is now going closer to the Kremlin’s orbit, with the latter declaring that it is wary of another “color revolution engineered by the West” in a friendly state. Indeed, both Serbia and Macedonia participated in Russia’s Victory Day parades this year (whereas most other European states refused). Meanwhile, Turkey has increased military and political partnerships with states such as Albania, Kosovo, and even Macedonia (both Kosovo and Macedonia have significant Turkish minorities). Furthermore, Erdogan was for a while considered forming an offshoot of his AK Party in these states.

The major issue of contention in this region will be the status of Kosovo. Although Russia refuses to recognize the unilateral declaration of independence of the country, Turkey was one of the first to develop a relationship with the new state. Again, Kosovo is much less important to Russia than it is to Turkey, but if a successful Balkan strategy is to be pursued by the Kremlin, Kosovo is key. On the other hand, Turkey needs to ensure the independence of Kosovo if it is to see a successful “neo-Ottoman” strategy, considering that the Albanians are among Turkey’s most important partners in the region. If Russia gathers too much influence in the Balkans, Turkey will become extremely worried and relations will worsen.

Another region of contention already alluded to is the Caucasus. While Turkey has historical problems with Armenia regarding the Genocide issue, Russia is a partner with Yerevan. As seen above, a bone of contention has already formed between Russia and Turkey over this issue. Georgia is much more important to Russia than it is to Turkey, but it is important to note that Erdogan has family roots from Georgia. And when it comes to the North Caucasus, there is little Turkey can do because it is part of Russia territorially. Nevertheless, the main religion of the region is Islam and Turkey has been engaged in mosque-building projects and other similar religious projects. Turkey is also home to many who fled the advance of Russian forces in their conquest of the region in the 19th century. This includes many Circassians who are lobbying to have a genocide of their people recognized. It is unlikely, however, that Turkey will pick a bone with a much larger Russia over this issue.

Whatever the case, there is an even more geopolitically important country in the region for both states: Azerbaijan. The country is at a very important crossroad for both Russia and Turkey — for Russia, it forms a link to Iran and the Middle East; for Turkey, it forms a link to Central Asia. The Azeris speak a language which is mutually intelligible with Turkish, but have historically been ruled over by Moscow in the past two centuries. Ilham Aliyev, the President of Azerbaijan, tries to skirt a relationship between both Ankara and Moscow, forming energy and diplomatic partnerships with each. Turkey is important to Azerbaijan because it allows the latter’s vast oil and gas deposits to be transported to Europe and the rest of the world. Russia is important not only because it is the giant in the region, but also because it is the country’s main arms supplier. As important as Azerbaijan is to both Russia and Turkey, it is likely that some sort of tussle over it will happen in the future.

Despite these issues, Turkey will continue to develop good relations with Russia in the short term. There is much to gain for Erdogan, who is also becoming isolated in the international arena like Putin is. With few other partners to turn to, Putin is now building such relations with Turkey. However, there are many points at which relations could worsen. Turkey’s sphere of influence overlaps with Russia’s, creating much room for conflict. I foresee in the short term a continuation of the Turkish Stream project. However, it would not be surprising if some sort of conflict were to erupt over this. The key state to pay attention to is Macedonia. Turkey, and now Russia, have interests in the country and if it becomes unstable there will likely be finger-pointing and disagreement over the country’s status.