The Turkey-Russia Relationship: Why “Compartmentalization” and Not Conflict?
Russia and Turkey maintain an interesting and volatile geopolitical relationship. The two states share many common interests and have significant economic ties to one another, and the leaders of both states have a good personal relationship. Despite the many areas of cooperation, there are still many areas of competition that fuel conflict from North Africa to Central Asia. Many experts assert that the Russia-Turkey relationship is one of cooperation based on “compartmentalization” of differences that allows the two to pursue shared goals while clashing on many fronts.
Turkey is a country primed to advance many Russian goals; it pursues a distinctively different foreign policy than the European Union and has provoked conflict with NATO allies in the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya and Syria. Turkey does, however, clash with Russia over the annexation of Crimea, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, its position in Libya and its political initiatives, such as the Turkic Council and continued membership in NATO. There are also instances of direct confrontation between the two states in Syria, including the downing of a Russian Sukhoi fighter jet in 2015, which severely impacted diplomatic relations.
That incident in particular, and the subsequent repair of diplomatic relations, shed light on this complicated relationship. What holds the relationship together? What keeps the two sides from open confrontation? And how does the unique relationship between Turkey and Russia fuel conflict in various theatres?
Turkey and Russia share similar outlooks on the current Western-led world order. In Russia, the West is seen as an adversary which actively works to stifle Russia’s return to great power status and interferes within Russia’s sphere of influence. Turkey also views the West in a similar light. Despite being a member of NATO and previously harboring ambitions to join the EU, Turkey believes the West interferes in internal affairs and seeks to establish itself as an independent player in global affairs beholden to no one. President Putin and President Erdoğan both resent commentary by Western powers regarding their respective human rights records, both have scapegoated the West during times of internal strife, such as the 2011 Bolotnaya Square protests in Russia and the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Both states also share a common illiberal approach to governance as well as frequently refer to imperial greatness and harbor irredentist sentiments—Russia over some parts of the former Soviet Union and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean. It is also important to note the personal relationship between Putin and Erdoğan. The two have met frequently, and the personal rapport between the two strongmen leaders has been essential to navigating troublesome periods in the Russian-Turkish diplomatic relations. The relations between the two countries were salvaged when President Erdoğan personally apologized to President Putin in a 2016 letter following months of fallout from the fighter jet incident.
Economic cooperation between Russia and Turkey is a key factor that sustains the relationship between the two states despite many areas of confrontation. Turkey is Russia’s 5th largest trading partner, and Russia is Turkey’s 2nd largest behind only the EU. The two states have prominent joint-investment projects and Turkish investment in Russia is around 10 billion USD with Russian investment in Turkey totaling similarly significant sums. Russian tourists are the largest contingent of foreigners in Turkey representing 16% of all tourist arrivals in 2019. Turkey and Russia are key partners in the energy trade. Russia is Turkey’s main supplier of oil and gas products—41% of all Turkish gas imports in August 2020 were from Russia. Turkey’s geographic location as a chokehold between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean makes it an essential transit route for Russian hydrocarbon resources. There are several pipelines including Turkstream and Blue Stream natural gas pipelines that allow Russia to bypass Ukraine transit routes. Although Russian oil and gas exports to Turkey are falling as Turkey seeks to transition towards LNG and renewable resources, Russia will remain a key player in the Turkish energy market. Turkey is currently constructing the Akkuyu nuclear power plant and has contracted the Russian nuclear company Rosatom to own, operate and supply the facility further strengthening cooperation between the two states on energy projects.
The true influence of economic ties between the two states on diplomatic affairs is best evidenced by the fallout of the 2015 fighter jet incident on Turkey’s economy. Due to the diplomatic freeze between Russia and Turkey, Russia imposed economic sanctions on Turkey and discouraged Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey. Turkish exports to Russia fell by 48%, tourism dropped by 75%, and the economic impact on Turkey was severe; it is estimated that Turkey lost 1% of GDP between 2015-2016 due to punitive measures imposed by Russia.
Militarily, the two sides have worked closely on several occasions. Despite its NATO membership, Turkey recently made a highly controversial purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system. This high-profile acquisition was decried unanimously by NATO members who believed Turkey’s use of the S-400 would jeopardize the integrity of NATO weapons systems. This purchase caused Turkey to be ejected from the NATO F-35 and patriot missile programs and prompted some to question the future viability of the alliance.
Russia and Turkey are also both essential power brokers in active conflicts in North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Although the two often find themselves supporting opposing factions in these conflicts, their cooperation has been a catalyst for uneasy ceasefires in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Both Russia and Turkey are likely to play a larger role in Afghanistan following the departure of U.S. and NATO forces in the country. Turkey’s closeness to Russia also stems from its diplomatic isolation within the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey’s relations with the neighboring states, such as Egypt and Israel, are quite poor, while its relationship with the fellow NATO member Greece is openly hostile with Turkey’s search for natural gas deposits in disputed waters remaining a major bone of contention between the two in addition to the long-standing historical grievances. Russia benefits from cooperation with Turkey in this respect as it supports Turkey in driving a wedge within the NATO alliance and between Turkey and the EU.
Although there are many instances of cooperation between Turkey and Russia, the two states are in active competition. Competition between Russia and Turkey is unique as most of the competition occurs close to home in the Middle East, Central Asia, the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. Both Russia and Turkey seem to have made military intervention, or the possibility to intervene militarily, hallmarks of their foreign policy. They see the military as key to furthering geopolitical aims and both maintain large, modernized, and powerful militaries.
Turkey and Russia are both involved in the Libyan civil war and are interested in the oil and gas reserves within Libya and off the Libyan coast. They have supported opposing sides in hopes of increasing their influence over the next government to control the Libyan territory. Russia supports the Libyan National Army (LNA) and its leader Khalifa Haftar who is also backed by France, the UAE and Egypt. Turkey opposes Haftar and has put its weight behind the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) based in Tripoli. The Libyan conflict has raged on for years as a proxy war between foreign powers with all sides seeking to stake their claim on the oil-rich territory. Russia, who maintained close ties with deceased Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, is seeking to return to energy cooperation seen during his rule. Russian oil giant Rosneft has signed a 2017 oil exploration deal; although this deal has not materialized due to the ongoing conflict, it does signal Russia’s ambitions in the conflict. Turkey also has designs on Libya’s oil and gas but its most important goal is access to the energy resources beneath the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has become increasingly aggressive in its push to lay claim to the natural gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean angering neighbors and the European Union. Turkey has signed an agreement with the GNA in 2019 demarcating exclusive economic zones (EEZ) off Libya’s coast. In addition to this agreement, Turkey is also negotiating with the GNA on establishing two naval bases within the Libyan territory.
Turkey and Russia have repeatedly clashed in Syria, and it remains a particularly volatile conflict that has the potential to damage the Turkish-Russian cooperation as evidenced by the fallout following the 2015 fighter jet incident. Turkey is a staunch opponent of the Assad regime. Erdogan has called Assad a “butcher” in the past and supported Syrian rebels attempting to overthrow the regime. Russian involvement in the country has been aimed at propping up the Assad government in Damascus and establishing itself as a power broker in the Middle East where its presence had been limited. Russia has also supported some Kurdish forces in Syria to eradicate extremist groups such as ISIS. Russia has previously called for Kurdish officials to be involved in UN peace talks drawing the ire of Ankara. Russian military actions in Syria have also prompted a strong response from the Turkish citizenry. Russia’s support of the Kurds, whom the Turkish believe are linked to domestic terrorists and separatists, and carpet bombing of Sunni civilians has led 55% of Turkish citizens to view Russia as a threat. Russian and Syrian forces have also targeted Turkish soldiers in Idlib, and private military contractors (PMCs) from both sides have clashed throughout the Syrian conflict. The use of PMCs in both Libya and Syria have the potential to escalate conflict between Turkey and Russia; these groups maintain that they are not beholden to any particular state but the actions of Turkish or Russian PMCs on the ground may in reality lead to conflict at the governmental level. At this point, Turkey and Russia cooperate in Syria to a certain degree. Both are security guarantors and maintain significant influence over cease-fire/peace negotiations. Russia has also acquiesced to Turkey’s advance into Northern Syria to create a “buffer zone” between its borders and Syrian Kurds.
The latest flare-up in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has also proved to be an area of competition between Turkey and Russia. Russia was in a difficult position diplomatically due to its collective security agreement with Armenia and typically good relations with Azerbaijan. Although Russian officials clarified that the collective security agreement did not apply to the disputed territory, it attempted to support Armenia while also balancing its relationship with Azerbaijan. Turkey’s role was much more straightforward. Turkey and Azerbaijan are close allies and trading partners, they share a common culture and heritage and are often described as “one nation, two states”. In addition to its close relationship with Azerbaijan, Turkey and Armenia are openly hostile to one another. The Armenian genocide in Turkey during the First World War and the subsequent treatment of Armenians in Turkey have led to the borders between the two states being closed since 1993. Armenia initially made gains in Nagorno-Karabakh until the Turkish intervention tipped the scales in favor of Azerbaijan. Russia became increasingly concerned about the impact of Turkish drones on the conflict and the potential for Turkey to maintain greater influence over the peace process in its sphere of influence. Although the conflict did not escalate beyond Armenia and Azerbaijan’s borders, it had the potential to drag Russia and Turkey into direct military confrontation. In the peace process, Turkey was able to negotiate a peace-keeping monitoring post for its soldiers and to help establish a transport corridor between Azerbaijan and its exclave of Nakhchivan on Turkey’s border. Despite Turkey’s efforts to gain greater influence in the region through its involvement in the conflict, Russia reaffirmed its role as the primary security guarantor through its peacekeeping force and as the most powerful regional influence. However, the continued presence of Turkish troops in Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh and the potential for greater conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has the potential to escalate confrontation between Russia and Turkey.
Central Asia and Ukraine
Central Asia is another theatre of Russian-Turkish competition and has been so since the fall of the Soviet Union. Turkey was the first nation to recognize the independence of Central Asian states that broke away from the USSR, aiding in their development and promoting Turkic identity in states such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan. Turkey has also sought to strengthen ties with Central Asian states through the Turkic Council, an institution that includes five founding members (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and Turkey) and Uzbekistan since 2019. Turkey’s presence and leadership within the Turkic Council allows the country to have an institutional foothold in Central Asia to counter Russian initiatives, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Eurasian Economic Union, of which Turkey is not a member. The wariness of Turkish influence in Central Asia from the Russian side is evident in Russian efforts to marginalize Turkish accession to institutions, such as the Minsk Group which mediates the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.
Turkey and Russia have also clashed over Ukraine in recent years. Turkey has been a vocal opponent of Crimea’s 2014 accession into Russia and has voiced consistent support for Crimean Tatars at the United Nations. Turkey has supported Ukraine diplomatically and militarily including through the sale of drones to the Ukrainian military—drones that proved highly effective in combat in Nagorno-Karabakh. Despite his friendly personal relationship with President Putin, President Erdoğan has been an advocate for an enhanced forward presence in the Black Sea which he described as being in danger of “becoming a Russian lake”. Erdoğan has also supported calls by Ukraine and Georgia for NATO enlargement, something Russia has previously described as a red line. Russia, for its part, has been increasingly active and aggressive in the Black Sea waters that surround Ukraine and Turkey, including an incident earlier this year where Russian planes fired warning shots at a British destroyer.
Why “Compartmentalization” and not open Conflict?
Turkey and Russia evidently maintain active competition with one another in several areas. Why have these instances of competition not led to open conflict between the two powers? Economic interdependence is a large factor in smoothing over many troublesome periods in bilateral relations. Turkey’s economy relies heavily on Russian tourism, oil and gas products and transit fees, and the Russian market for produce and other goods. The impact of economic dependence on Russia was made incredibly evident following the 2015 fighter jet incident and subsequent damage to Turkey’s economy. Russia, too, relies on Turkey as a vital transit route for oil and gas products and as a means to surpass traditional transit routes in Ukraine and Eastern Europe.
Turkey, in seeking to establish itself as a more important and independent actor in global affairs, benefits greatly from cooperation with Russia in certain fields. With its economy in tatters, the prospect of EU membership increasingly unlikely and diplomatic isolation in the Mediterranean, Russia is a vital economic and diplomatic lifeline. Turkey also benefits from its relationship with Russia in the context of NATO. Seen as a constant threat to purchase Russian arms or enhance cooperation with Russia that will complicate the alliance’s efficacy, Turkey can put pressure on NATO allies for a greater role. Russia also benefits from Turkey’s role as a disruptor within the Eastern Mediterranean and NATO. Russia sees Turkey as its best prospect of fomenting division within the alliance and promoting its brand of illiberal democracy and authoritarianism. Russia also plays Turkey off of its Eastern Mediterranean competitors such as Greece to enhance its influence and economic prospects in the region.
Another factor that allows for the compartmentalization of Russian-Turkish conflict is the use of mercenaries and proxy forces in
areas of conflict. The two sides rarely engage in combat between traditional military forces with a few exceptions in Syria. Instead, the two support opposing sides and use PMCs to avoid the diplomatic fallout that accompanies direct conflict. It is important to note, however, that the use of PMCs and proxy forces does not necessarily prevent retaliation. For example, Ezgi Yazici notes that Russia conducted airstrikes against Turkish-backed forces in Syria following reports of Turkey recruiting Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Turkey and Russia have been able to “compartmentalize” instances of conflict and continue to cooperate on many fronts. However, with Turkey seeking to play a greater role in Central Asia and the prospect of escalating conflicts in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh it is difficult to discern whether the two will be able to maintain the status quo.