The Russo-Turkish friendship or the World on a Brink

Ivan Chikalo – Intern at Caucasian House

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and may not coincide with the official position of Caucasian House

The 19th century is an age of political opportunism. The European pentarchy – a system of the five great powers balancing each other – was a Congress of Vienna direct consequence. The system guaranteed security and stability in continental Europe not allowing the large-scale confrontation between great powers, but at the same time encouraging the regional and colonial power struggles. The great powers did not hesitate to take selfish advantage and momentary gains when consequence allowed.

The once mighty Ottoman Empire faced its decline in the 19th century and became a ‘dying man of Europe’. The Russo-Ottoman confrontation reached its peak during this period making wars between countries a routine. In order to examine current relations between two states we have to keep in mind that a constant opposition to each other characterizes the history of the bilateral relations. The Russian involvement in to the Syrian crisis demonstrated how rapidly the friendship could degrade and the conflict escalate. It seems, Moscow did forget that “the East is tricky” (Восток – дело тонкое).

The President of Turkey – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – threatened Moscow to stop purchasing Russian gas and cease the contract with RosAtom concerning the nuclear power plant construction.[1] Being a second largest Gazprom client, Turkey has a considerable economic leverage in negotiations with Russia. Moreover, the ‘Turkey Stream’ – a pipeline that Moscow plans to build as an alternative to the ‘South Stream’- yet another sensitive issue that could be used by Ankara in case of confrontation. The refusal to carry out this project could be a severe blow to the Russian’s ambitions to secure an alternative natural gas supply line to Europe. The loss of a growing multibillion market and a strategic southern friend’s disposition could make Russian an outcast in the Black Sea region and in the Middle East as well. Still, regardless of the Turkish importance, Kremlin does not hesitate to test bilateral relations. The Russian military operation in Syria is a direct intervention to the Ankara’s foreign policy agenda. The incident with Russian jets breaching Turkish air space was a provocation Erdoğan was waiting to show Moscow his muscles.


The recent confrontation between two countries became a surprise for many political analytics in the West. The presidents of both countries managed to build a close personal relations and Mr. Putin relied on the Turkish support concerning the Western economic sanctions, sanctions against Crimea, war on terrorism, and energetic security. While the Turkish interest in Russia being purely economics.

Ankara have to support its growing appetite in natural gas, secure Russian market for its construction industry and accommodate millions of Russian tourists each year.[2] Thus, there is a misbalance in the bilateral relations, because while Russia relies on Turkey as on the political and geo-strategic partner, the economic interests stands before all for Turkey.

Nevertheless, it would be wrong to underestimate the economic part of the bilateral relations. The size of a mutual trade reached 33 bil USD in 2015.[3] Although the large portion of it goes to the energy sector, economic cooperation brings large dividends for both countries. Moreover, the nuclear power plant “Akkuyu” is being build mainly through Russian investments. Kremlin plans to spend more than 20 bil USD on its construction by 2020.[4] However, the energetic sphere remains the milestone of a friendship. The 60% of the Turkish hydrocarbons import is coming from Russia.[5] Finally, of course tourism being another strategic Turkish source of income. The Russian tourists constitute the second largest group after Germany, and annually leave 4 bil USD on a Turkish soil.

Although, economic interest and energetic dependency on Russia are the major factors that invest in to the bilateral relations development, Ankara’s accident ‘alliance’ with Russia was also provoked by the EU’s policies regarding Turkish accession in to the union. The years of a candidate country status and obvious unwillingness of Brussels to see Turkey as a future member state resulted in the gradual shift from the Euro integration strategy to the establishing itself as a self-sufficient regional power.

This latest trend over lapses with the Kremlin’s ‘multi-polar world’ doctrine, which aims to divide the world into a number of spheres of influences and granting more decision power to the regional hegemons. Moreover, the Presidents of the both countries established a consensus on this matter. The Erdoğan’s idea of a ‘neo-sultanate’, which he was steadily pushing over the years with a final goal of transforming Turkey in to a strong presidential republic, correlates with Putin’s ‘neo-tsarism’.[6] Thus, building up amiable bilateral relations with Moscow was a natural development. Unfortunately, it seems that the ‘tsarism’ is much wider, than Ankara is willing to accept.

Like an elephant in a China shop

The Russian interference to the Georgian-Ossetian conflict in 2008 (The Five Days War) and the Syrian military intervention were those two factors that upset Turkish plans for the regional dominance. In both cases, Moscow challenges Turkish positions in the region, imposing its will against the Turkish one. Ankara considers Georgia as its door to the Eurasia, while Syria to the Middle East.[7] Thus, viewing them as strategic countries for its security. At the same time, Moscow also view them as strategic for its security. Hence, this where the interests intersect and bring potential for a crisis.

During the Five-Days War (2008), Russia dramatically increased its military presence in the South Caucasia through quick and aggressive interference. Before the war, Ankara was building an axis of support in the region that included Georgia and Azerbaijan as strategic partners and allies.[8] It was investing in to the Georgian infrastructure in order to facilitate trade and population movement across borders. Needless, to say that Baku established itself as a loyal Turkish ally right after the USSR collapse. Thus, through the soft power means Ankara desired to secure Southern Caucasus as its natural sphere of influence. However, the Moscow’s ‘come back’ seriously shaken those plans. Today, Putin intervened in to the Syrian civil war – a conflict, which became a homeland security matter for Turkey.

From the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, Ankara was firmly opposing Assad and supporting the moderate opposition.[9] Moreover, its interest and involvement in to the conflict was growing each year. Taking in to consideration all the Turkish investments in to the Syrian opposition, the crude oil black market, and the Kurdish issue, the costs of losing the war to Assad became too steep. Thus, the possibility of a proxy war between Russia and Turkey is no longer a matter of science fiction and the consequences of such conflict could be more disastrous for the both countries then any imaginable sanctions.

As mentioned above, Syria is a gate to the Middle East for Turkey – its southern border – and is strategic for the state’s security. During the Arab Spring, Turkey was supporting the movements targeted against the dictatorship regimes in the region. Because, of the strategic position Syrian uprising became of a major interest for it. The overthrow of the Assad regime and establishment of a pro-Turkish democratic government would have allowed Ankara to control and influence the new regime, thus gaining more grounds to interfere and affect the political process in the Middle East. Thus, the Assad’s fail is a matter of the state’s interest.

Following is the issue of oil smuggling. The Islamic State is a fusion of a terrorist organization with a state. It is a first terrorist organization with the 1 bil USD annual budget. The majority of it comes from the oil smuggling business, with Turkey and Jordan being a major clients. The oil comes from the ISIS controlled territories in Syria and Iraq to a small Turkish border town – Besalan.[10] Traders sell a one liter of oil for approximately 1 USD which almost half of the market price. The ISIS control over 60% of the oil-producing resource in Syria and marginal oil fields in Iraq.[11] The trade estimates for a 1 mil USD a day.[12]

Of course, the Turkish state does not profit from the smuggling directly, however both business and corrupt officials involved in to the trade, thus the black market money still come to the state’s budget in a form of taxes. Finally, a literal absence of the border between Syria and Turkey allows the refuges flow to the EU and the radical Islamists inflow to the ISIS. In addition, the refuges issue lately brought an unexpected dividends to Ankara, when the German chancellor arrived to Istanbul promising the re-opening of the Turkish EU accession talks in return for the more strict immigration control.[13] However, the success of the Russian military intervention could put an end to the processes mentioned above.

Finally, is the Kurdish issue that have significant importance for the Turkish President. The Erdoğan’s plan for a constitutional reform that would transform Turket in to a strong presidential republic, failed because his party did not succeeded on the latest elections and were not able to form a government. The Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) blame pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which for the first time managed to overcome the 10% voters threshold and secured seats in the parliament. The tactic Erdoğan chose was “pushing the country into chaos in order to portray himself as a strong leader and risking a civil war in order to win the Nov. 1 elections.”[14] Hence, the fight against the PPK, the recent terrorist attack Suruç and Ankara, could marginalized the HDP and portray Kurdish minority as the inner enemies. Hence, securing necessary amount of votes in the up-coming November elections. However, without a war in Syria, the President would not be able to build up the ‘state’s defender role’. As the Russian Empire Internal Affairs Minister Viacheslav Pleve said: “In order to stop revolution, we need small victorious war.” The one-century-old statement clearly correlates with the Erdoğan’s logic.

The points discussed support an argument that the protracted conflict in Syria is beneficial to Ankara. Hence, a Russian interference which main goal is to strengthen Assad’s positions through gaining control of the ISIS occupied territories and provide military advantage in a fight against ‘moderate opposition’ as well, could result in severe blow to the Turkish foreign policy goals and the general state’s prestige. Thus, form the Turkish stance such intervention is an obvious discrepancy of the Moscow’s multi-polar world doctrine, because the Erdoğan’s neo-sultanism include Syria in to its sphere of influence, thus it has to protect it, otherwise the concept fails to be competitive against the Putin’s neo-tsarism. The threat to shoot on sight all military jets trespassing Turkish air space have solid grounds.[15]


Back to the 19th century: The clash of two Empires

The Syrian Civil War became a place where the Russian and Turkish interests collided for the second time after the USSR collapse. The clash puts at risk the political and economic cooperation. Although, the stakes are high for both states, but there is a possibility for a proxy conflict between them. Hence, the recent years of a steady mutual relationships development could turn again in to the Russo-Turkish contest for the spheres of influence.

Although the conflict areas changed and the methods of a conflict as well, the final aim remains – whether or not Russia would be able to cut down Turkey’s regional ambitions. Hence, the threats of the gas supply diversification and the ‘Akkuyu’ power plant building annulment are solid threats, which could severely impact Russian economy. While some political analytics argue that, the threats are part of the Erdogan’s party pre-election campaign, it is not possible to exclude the escalation.

Recently, after Turkey shoot down an unidentified Russian-made drone, the Prime Minister Davutoglu said in a press conference “Whoever violates our borders, we will give them the necessary answer.”[16] Hence, a single incident of a Russian jet trespassing the Turkish air space, and it already happened two times, could become a point of a non-return.[17] Moreover, considering the Ankara’s NATO membership the consequences could be global. Nevertheless, in any case scenario Moscow would suffer economic loss. The theoretical conflict would remind the Crimean War of 1853 – a disastrous defeat for the Russian Empire, when major European powers united against Russia to protect the Ottoman Empire.

Although, it is hard to believe in such drastic scenario, but the stakes for Turkey to give up Syria to Russia are too high, especially before the elections. Thus, the confrontation, in one form or another, is inevitable.

The geo-political interests of states remain for centuries and lead to confrontation. For example, the concept of a British ‘splendid isolation’ remains one of the major ideologies until now.[18] Moreover, former colonial powers such as France, UK, or Netherlands continue to rely on their former colonies on trade, work force, and exercise their political will through the ‘soft power’ methods. The same could be applied to the cases of Russia and Turkey.

The major Russian southern geo-political interest is to secure its free access to the Mediterranean Sea through the Bosfor strait. During the 19th century, it tried to achieve it through gradual weakening of the ottoman military potential by securing Russian dominance in Balkans and the Caucasian region. The main strategy during 21st century was to establish an amiable relations with Turkey based on primarily economic interest.  The strategy partially succeeded, until Moscow decided to secure Turkish frontiers for itself, as it did in the 19th century. And as it used to be, Turkey responded. Moreover, the security of the Russian Mediterranean navy base in the Syrian port Tarsus was another incentive to Russia to interfere in to the conflict.

Although, the Ottoman Empire would have send troops, the modern Turkey posed threats, which could cast a larger damage to Russia then any Ottoman army. Hence, the Turkish natural geo-political interest is to have a controlled buffer from Russia on the Caucasus, and to remain authoritative figure in its backyard – the Middle East. Thus, the intervention of a foreign power (especially Russia) in those strategic regions becomes a matter of international prestige and a homeland security for Ankara. Hence, the current situation fits the pattern of a classical Russo-Ottoman antagonism. However, a new condition that bring obscurity is an economic interdependency – a condition that have never appeared before and has a potential to deter a conflict.






Although, the article describes the situation with an international relations realist standpoint, the constructivist argument could prevail and the personal relations of the both Presidents together with the economic interdependency factor would prevent a conflict escalation. Nevertheless, the recent events in Ukraine and the so-called ‘hybrid war’ in the South-East of the country, proves that there are not many constructivists advisors in the Putin’s office. The soft power methods are not those, which the Kremlin applies while defending its foreign agenda. Rather, crude power, ‘old-school’ methods. The neo-tsarism concept allows for such policies.

The 19th century has gone, but its inheritance still haunts the world. The age of colonialism and multi-national empires, with its solid international relations realist’s methods, stays in scars of an old disputes, separated ethnicities, and ambitions of once glorious and mighty empires. However, a long forgotten age could be easily resurrected, and the example of the Crimean annexation proves that point. Maybe the Europe, once again, stands on the edge of a World War. In the end, Gavrilo Princip while planning the assassination of the crown Prince Ferdinand could hardly imagined the consequences of his actions. Thus, a Turkish soldier operating on an anti-aircraft defense unit, and executing the higher officer’s orders, would not think about the consequences, when pushing a button. The world is on a brink.



Şener Aktürk. “Russia-Turkish Relations in the 21st Century, 2000-2012”. Russian Analytical Digest, no, 125, 2015.

Bechev, Dimitar. The Politics of the Black Sea Region: EU Neighborhood, Conflict Zone or Future Security Community? By Carol Weaver (Review). Slavik Review, Vol. 74, No. 1. 2015

Majstorovic, Steven. “Ancient Hatreds or Elite Manipulation? Memory and Politics in the Former Yugoslavia”. World Affairs, Vol. 159, No. 4 pp. 170-182, 1997.

Myers, Steven Lee. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. Published: Random House, New York. 2015

Oskanian, Kevork. “Turkey and the Caucasus”. LSE Publishing, Working Paper. London, 2014

Roider, Karl. “Metternich, the Great Powers, and the Eastern Question by Miroslav Šedivý (Review)”. Slavik Review, Vol. 73, No. 3 , 2014

Schimmelfennig, Frank. “Russia vs. the EU: The Competition for Influence in Post-Soviet States by Jakob Tolstrup (Review)”. Slavik Review, Vol. 74, No. 1, 2015

[1] Johnson, Keith. “Turkey Slams Russia for Syria Attacks, Warns Could Sever Energy Ties”. Foreign Policy, oct 8, 2015.

[2] «Торгово-экономическое сотрудничество между Российской Федерацией и Турецкой Республикой», Портал Внешнеэкономической Информации.


[4] Пресс – служба АО «Аккую Нуклевар».

[5] «Турция не намерена отказываться от российского газа». Подробности, сен 14, 2015.

[6] Myers, Steven Lee. The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. Published: Random House, New York. 2015

[7] Jacinto, Leela. “The Sultan of Swing’s Dangerous Gamble”. Foreign Policy, July 29, 2015.

[8] Oskanian, Kevork. “Turkey and the Caucasus”. LSE Publishing, Working Paper. London, 2014

[9] Мирзаян, Геворг. «Турция обиделась». Expert Online, окт. 09б 2015.

[10]  Giglio, Mike. “This is How ISIS Smuggles Oil”. BuzzFeedNews, nov. 3, 2014.

[11] Fazel Hawramy, Luke Harding. “Inside Islamic State’s oil empire: How captured oil fields fuel Isis insurgency”. The Guardian, nov. 19, 2014.

[12]Fazel Hawramy, Luke Harding. “Inside Islamic State’s oil empire: How captured oil fields fuel Isis insurgency

[13] Arango, Tim. “Merkel Links Turkey’s EU Hopes to Stemming Flow of Refugees”. The New York Times, oct.18, 2015


[15] Johnson, Keith. “Turkey Slams Russia for Syria Attacks, Warns Could Sever Energy Ties”.

[16] Smith, Oli. “Turley threatens to shoot Down Putin’s planes as it drags West closer to war with Russia”. The Express, oct. 20, 2015.

[17] Ünal Çeviköz. “Testing Times in Turkey’s Relations With Russia”. Turkish Policy Quarterly, Oct. 13, 2015

[18] Jones, Nigel. “Very well, alone! Splendid isolation has always been Britain’s default position”. Mail Online, 11 Dec. 2011.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *