Dynamics of the Russia-Turkey relationship in 2016 and the reasons behind it

Guri Bakradze
Ph.D candidate in Political Philosophy

Introduction

On June 27 2016, Turkish President RecepTayyip Erdogan sent a letter to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in which he expressed his concern regarding the Russian Su-24 attack aircraft that was shot down by a Turkish interceptor on November 24 2015, extended condolences to the pilot’s family and offered an apology.[1]This fact, given the extremely tense air between Russia and Turkey for 7 months following the plane’s takedown, might turn into the first step of restoring the good relations between the two countries.

As it is widely known, an official apology is exactly what Russia demanded from Turkey. Russian demands also included compensation for the loss and punishment of the guilty. At the moment, however, Ankara withholds the compensation, while punishment of the pilot who shot down Su-24 will be carried out under a different motive, such as prosecution for participation in the military coup attempt on July 16.

 

Geopolitical and geostrategic reasons for the conflict

Over the last 10 years, the relationship between Russia and Turkey was special due to many things, but especially due to intensive growth of cooperation in the fields of economy and energy. Given such a background, Turkey taking down a Russian aircraft and thus souring the relationship was quite unexpected. [2] Aside from rather narrow economic interests, Ankara also actively utilized its relationship with Russia within the context of its own relations with the West. Erdogan administration, frequently criticized by the West for grievous human rights violations and defying other democratic principles, viewed deepening of relations with Russia as an alternative development scenario. However, it needs to be noted that of all announced strategically important Russian-Turkish projects (such as “Turkish Stream”, Turkey joining the Eurasian Union or construction of a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu), not a single one even came close to completion. The main reason for the relationship between the two countries going haywire though, are Moscow’s and Ankara’s different, sometimes wildly contradictory, approaches to the Syrian crisis and associated events.

Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and active involvement in ongoing warfare in Syria has considerably fortified his regime’s positions and forced Sunni rebels supported by Turkey into retreating. The positions of Syrian Kurds have also shown a tendency towards strengthening. For Turkey, which is aiming to aid in establishment of a Sunni regime in Syria, assist forces loyal to it and weaken the Kurdish forces as much as possible, Russia’s actions represent a direct opposition to its vital interests.[3] This was the reason for Turkey spending a certain period declining the West/Russia balancing strategy and aiming towards cooperation with the West, namely the U.S.

Due to Turkey’s inability to directly counteract Russia’s military actions in Syria, Ankara tried to get the West involved into a boots-on-the-ground scenario in both Syria and Iraq,[4] which would have given it the opportunity to establish control essentially over the entirety of central and southern Syria while denying Moscow the chance to ensure a long-term survival of the Assad regime.

However, this strategy by Ankara has failed. USA preferred to negotiate with Russia over the Syrian issue to yet another unpopular military campaign, which is not yet viewed as strategically important by Washington, to boot. Moreover, after the conflict in Syria heated up, the U.S. tried to increase its own influence on the Kurds, actively providing them with both military and humanitarian aid.[5] Washington even went as far as to force Ankara to cease military action against the Kurds. To be more precise, in February of 2016, with the help of Assad’s troops and Russian air force, Syrian Kurds have managed to organize an advance on the rebel positions located to the east of Arfin. Turkish government’s response was to open artillery fire on Kurdish positions. Both sides ceased firing at each other only after the U.S. issued a direct statement urging them to stop.[6]

Establishment of a Syrian Kurdistan at the southern border of Turkey, even as a federal entity, that would be ruled by Kurdistan Democratic Party (a wing of Kurdish Workers’ Party, designated a terrorist organization by Turkey) would amount to Turkish interests taking a massive hit. Such an occurrence would deny Turkey a land connection to the Arab Sunni world and, most importantly, will represent a very real chance of disruption of the country’s territorial integrity, due to the majority of Turkey’s Kurds being concentrated in the vicinity of their Syrian counterparts. What is currently going on in Kurd-inhabited regions of Turkey is nothing short of a civil war, with the scale of confrontations between PKK forces and the Turkish Army spiking. Armed clashes occur in Kurd towns as well, which used to be a very rare occurrence until now.

Erdogan’s expectations of settling down Turkey’s rocky relationship with the West have also failed, with his agreement with the EU regarding refugees a prime example. According to the agreement, Ankara would assume responsibility for halting refugees streaming through Turkey across the Greek border, while in return the EU would pay Turkey 3 billion USD. Besides, in June of 2016 it was planned to make a decision regarding providing Turkish citizens with visa-free access to the EU [7], which never happened. Despite a relative toning-down ofWestern criticism of Turkey regarding its disregard of democratic values, lately it intensified again, reaching its peak in the aftermath of a failed military coup on July 16 and Erdogan’s harsh punitive measures against its participants, along with his talk about bringing back the death penalty.[8] However, it also needs to be said that Western leaders doubled back on their comments regarding the lawfully elected government’s overthrow attempt and eventually extended their support to Erdogan administration on the issue.[9]

Then there is also the problem of Erdogan and Prime Minister Yildirim putting the blame for organization of the coup on a “Muslim cleric” and billionaire FethullahGyulen, who currently resides in the U.S. [10] Ankara demanded extradition of Gyulen, but Washington refused to comply, demanding evidence of his involvement in the coup while accusing the Turkish government of gross violation of human rights. Media and expert circles are now discussing the idea of Turkey’s NATO membership getting suspended. [11]

In turn, Ankara’s accusations of Gyulen represent an indirect accusation of Washington as well. This is due to the Turkish Army being considered the main force supporting secularization and, currently, the West. From the army’s nationalist point of view, Erdogan’s tendency towards the country’s Islamization is unacceptable. [12] Concern over a NATO state becoming Islamized is acute in the West as well. Turkish military representatives claim that it would be difficult for them to maintain secular and nationalistic positions in the region where the wave of Islamization the followed the Arab Spring and its results has reached its peak. At this stage, the only real power in the region that can stop this process is Washington. The U.S. has the greatest military and strategic reach in the area, even compared to Russia. Leading Arab countries in the region are allies of the U.S. and Washington has a lot of pull with them. It is in the West’s direct interest to stop Islamization of a NATO member country.

Eventually, Erdogan administration ended up burned on both sides: it failed to gain anything tangible from souring its relations with Russia and its relationship with the West has become extremely dense.

Despite Erdogan’s letter to Putin preceding the military coup attempt chronologically, these events can still be connected. In general, preparing a military coup requires an extensive period of time, especially in a country such as Turkey. [13] In a country with a government that is constantly accused of monopolizing power, restricting free speech and attempting to establish total control, organizing a coup would require a lot of time and resources. If we judge by the speed at which the coup was halted and the rebels pacified, it is obvious that the government possessed information about the coming coup. The result was also obvious – an inevitable confrontation with the West. So it’s hardly a surprise that Erdogan, facing a prospect of full political isolation, has decided to rekindle its relationship with Moscow.

Economical factors also might have influenced the Turkish government’s decision. In 2014, annual trade turnout between the two countries comprised 40 billion USD, and this figure was expected to double by 2020. However, currently trade between Turkey and Russia is reduced to a shadow of its former self (23.4 billion USD in 2015 and 18-19 billion in 2016).

It is also noteworthy that economic sanctions and catastrophic reduction in Russian tourist influx (-98.5% by June estimates) has harmed Turkey’s economy far more than it did Russia’s. According to various sources, Turkey has lost from 9 to 12 billion USD only in the field of tourism,[14] while Russia has managed to pull off popularization of internal tourism regions, previously largely disregarded. Turkish construction and agricultural sectors have also suffered due to prohibition of Turkish imports into Russia and restrictions for Turkish construction companies.[15]  Halting of negotiations on Akkuyu nuclear plant has also become a major headache for the Turkish side. At the moment, most of Turkish electricity is produced by thermal power plants, which ends up costing far more than maintaining a nuclear plant would, as Turkey is an energy-dependent states and has to import its natural gas. [16]

 

Russia’s position

Change of the Turkish government via a military coup is not, by estimates, included into Russia’s plans, as a politician of Erdogan’s type is relatively acceptable for Moscow. As it is being said, Russian and Turkish governments are united by three major factors: mass tourism and economic relations (which also implies human interaction), a focus on patriotism and traditional values as opposed to liberal ones, and finally, both leaders being viewed as autocrats by the West.[17] In case the current Turkish government was toppled, there is a high chance that its replacement would hold anti-Russian sentiments. Moscow has emphasized the anti-Russian disposition of the Turkish Army many times.

Turkey’s alignment with Moscow’s positions is also important for the latter in the context of Syria. To this day, Russia and the U.S. directly compete for influence over the local Kurds. On the first glance, Turkey’s position in this regard does not have a decisive role, but in case Moscow loses the competition to Washington, Turkey will transform into its natural ally in the region. [18] Therefore, it is exactly with the Syrian crisis in mind that Russia’s main request to Turkey is to soften its positions. It can be theorized that within a few days of receiving Erdogan’s letter, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talked about Ankara’s possible positive role from the viewpoint of settling the Syrian crisis. [19] However, it is hard to imagine what concession Ankara can make when the issue of Syria is on the table, given that Turkey considers any kind of concession a danger to its national interests.

Moscow might also be trying to use Turkey’s strategy of becoming an energy hub to its own benefit. Existence of Turkish Stream, even as an idea, allowed Russia an opportunity to compete with the EU in providing gas to Eastern and Southern Europe, by utilizing an alternative gas pipeline.

 

Conclusion

The tension in Russia-Turkey relations has noticeably dropped in the last few months. The Turkish government decided to normalize its relations with Russia for the following main reasons:

  • Failure of Ankara’s strategy in the Syrian crisis and the West’s refusal in launching a land campaign there;
  • Solution to the Kurdish question both in Turkey and Syria;
  • A coup attempt that was halted by Ankara and considerable straining of its relations with the West as a result;
  • Already difficult economic conditions further exacerbated by sanctions imposed by Russia.

In turn, Moscow will attempt to benefit from the situation as much as possible. It will use all available opportunities to try and get the Turkish government’s position on the Syrian crisis aligned with its own. Besides, a consolidated Turkey is not in Russia’s interests to begin with. Internal political strife and Turkey’s confrontation with the West suit Russia’s goals for the moment.

 

 

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[1]Putin Receives an Adress from Turkey President Erdogan; 27.06.2016; Official web page of the President of Russian Federation. See: http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52282

[2]„Turkey Makes Up With Russia; America Also Needs To End New Cold War With Moscow“; Doug Bandow; 05.07.2016; Forbes; Available from: http://www.forbes.com/sites/dougbandow/2016/07/05/turkey-makes-up-with-russia-america-also-needs-to-end-new-cold-war-with-moscow/#54f938f8332b

[3] With friends like these: Turkey, Russia, and the end of an unlikely alliance; AsliAydıntaşbaş; 23.06.2016; European Council of Foreign Relations, official page, available from: http://www.ecfr.eu/publications/summary/with_friends_like_these_turkey_russia_and_the_end_of_an_unlikely_7048

[4]Erdogan’s Advisor: Turkey will use force in case of national security threat; 26.02.2016; Available from.:http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/2698127

[5]Erdogan: Turkey is helping Syrian Kurds under US pressure; 24.10.2014; available from.:http://warsonline.info/siriya/erdogan-turtsiya-pomogaet-siriyskim-kurdam-pod-davleniem-ssha.html

[6]US calls on Turkey to stop shelling the positions of Syrian Kurs; 16.02.2016; News Agency “Ria Novosti”
Available from.:http://ria.ru/world/20160216/1375727957.html
[7]EU-Turkey deal to return refugees from Greece comes into force; Jennifer Rankin; 20.03.2016;

Per The Guardian, available from:https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/18/refugees-will-be-sent-back-across-aegean-in-eu-turkey-deal

[8] Turkey’s long road to EU membership just got longer; Jennifer Rankin; 20.07.2016

Per The Guardian, available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/20/turkeys-long-road-to-eu-membership-just-got-longer

[9]Le Figaro: почему Запад поддержал “демократического диктатора” Эрдогана?; 18.07.2016; per ‘Kursor Info” News Agency. Available from: http://cursorinfo.co.il/news/pressa/2016/07/18/Le-Figaro–pochemu-zapad-podderzhal-demokraticheskogo-diktatora-erdogana-/

[10]Turkey coup attempt: Erdoğan demands US arrest exiled cleric Gülen amid crackdown on army – as it happened; Alan Yuhas, Jamie Grierson, Claire PhippsSam Levin and Kevin Rawlinson (earlier); 16.07.2016 (განახლებულია 18.07.2016); Per The Guardian, available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2016/jul/15/turkey-coup-attempt-military-gunfire-ankara

იხ.: https://www.theguardian.com/world/live/2016/jul/15/turkey-coup-attempt-military-gunfire-ankara

[11]It’s Time to Kick Erdogan’s Turkey Out of NATO; Stanley Weiss; 24.02.2016;

Per Huffington Post, available from:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/stanley-weiss/its-time-to-kick-erdogans_b_9300670.html

„Erdogan’s purge may give Nato no choice but to expel Turkey from the alliance; Con Couglin; Per The Telegraph Uk. Available from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/19/erdogans-purge-may-give-nato-no-choice-but-to-expel-turkey-from/

[12]„Now Turkey can become strategic partner of Russia”; Petr Akopov, Per “Vzgliad” online newspaper; 19.07.2016; available from.: http://www.vz.ru/politics/2016/7/19/822264.html

[13]Military coup was well planned and very nearly succeeded, say Turkish officials; Kareem Shaheen; 16.07.2016; Per The Guardian, available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/18/military-coup-was-well-planned-and-very-nearly-succeeded-say-turkish-officials

[14]Has Turkey finally made nice with Russia?; Maxim A. Suchkov; 30.06.2016; Analytical Outlet “LMonitor”, available from:http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/06/turkey-russia-relations-erdogan-apology.html

[15]Russo-Turkish World, Yana Milyukova, Polina Khimshiashvili, Anna Levinskaya, Timofey Dziadko; 28.06.2016; “Russian Business Consulting”, online edition, available from: http://www.rbc.ru/newspaper/2016/06/28/577157b89a7947239346aba3

[16]Turkey will find it difficult to get relations with Russia back to the previous level; Olga Samofalova; 08.06.2016; Per “Vzgliad” online newspaper; available from: http://www.vz.ru/economy/2016/6/28/818471.html

[17]Эксперт: российско-турецкие отношения испортила Сирия; Леонид Исаев;24.11.2015; BBC Russian Service; available from.:http://www.bbc.com/russian/international/2015/11/151124_russia_turkey_plane_comment

[18]‘West’s Criticisim’ Prodded Erdogan to Restore Relations With Moscow; 05.07.2016; Sputnik News Agency: http://sputniknews.com/world/20160705/1042441883/russia-turkey-relations-west.html

[19]Lavrov: Better relations with Ankara will aid the conflict resolution in Syria; 12.07.2016; “Mir 24” Channel, available from:http://mir24.tv/news/politics/14714154

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