US, Turkish, Russian Defense Chiefs Meet in Antalya, Turkey. Photo Credit: Department of Defense.
By: James Millar, Columnist
Threats of economic sanctions, cancellation of a long-term F-35 partnership, and increasingly hostile rhetoric currently buffet Ankara. Partially to blame are President Erdogan’s recent $2.5 billion-dollar hardware and training package of S-400 anti-aircraft weapons systems and NATO pessimists’ resulting fear of a burgeoning alliance between Turkey and centuries-old rival Russia.[i] However, Turkey has not yet fallen into step with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Critical complications in Russo-Turkish relations remain. These complications all-but-guarantee an independent Turkey, not a Russian-aligned one. If the United States can accept this, a Turkish-American alliance could be rekindled–assuming that the right leadership is involved.
Geopolitical, historical, economic, and religious differences remain unsolved for the two states and have the potential to fracture any progress Putin may make in Ankara. Further, these schisms may present opportunities for Washington to reconcile and cooperate with Ankara. Doing so would allow for a more balanced and cautious footing than the 20th-century relationship enjoyed before the new foreign policy priorities of the Justice and Development Party (AKP). Under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership, the AKP has transformed Turkey’s foreign policy into a more independent, regionally involved Islamic Republic. Turkey now identifies as a rising power with “neo-Ottoman” characteristics.[ii] While Turkey probes and tests its ability to excerpt regional power, confrontations with the U.S. offer Erdogan political victories at home while promoting increased autonomy regionally. Meanwhile, Russia seizes on these confrontations to further divide the American-led NATO alliance and advance its revisionist aims in Eurasia.
However, the pursuit of an independent Turkish foreign policy would require a balancing act between these two powers. As Turkey inevitably drifts between policies benefiting Russian or American interests to establish its own sphere of influence, situational factors and limited leadership alignment may offer convergence in Turkish and Russian interests. However, greater and more pervasive factors of divergence will push them apart.
A developing personal relationship between Erdogan and Putin acts as one of these converging factors. Both leaders have steadily increased their power and influence within their respective governments and, as such, their closeness also has an oversized impact on foreign policy. Exploiting grievances with the U.S. and the West, Erdogan has gained a reputation at home and abroad as a political “strong man” willing to do difficult things and stand up to foreign powers for the sake of his country. He has generated broad domestic support to consolidate AKP gains.[iii] Likewise, Putin externalizes Russia’s economic and social problems as products of Western meddling and sanctions.[iv] Though both Presidents may “bond” over their similar political tactics, this is a personal relationship. As such, Russo-Turkish relations are just as malleable as Putin and Erdogan’s affinity for one another.
Underlying and conflicting regional ambitions in the Balkans, Caucasus, Mediterranean, and especially the Middle East put Russia and Turkey’s ideal foreign policy outcomes in opposition, or at least competition. Certainly the most visible Russo-Turkish competition in the Middle East has been the bloody Syrian civil war, where Erdogan was not only one of the first leaders to denounce Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but also facilitated training and arming of Syrian dissidents on Turkish soil to combat the Syrian regime more directly. These Turkish-funded and trained forces later became part of the “Free Syrian Army” (FSA) and still receive support directly from the Turkish military in occupied portions of Syria.[v] Acting in opposition to Turkish and FSA interests in Syria, the Russian military began substantially increasing support for Assad’s regime in 2015 with uniformed military and non-military forces providing air support, intelligence, training, advanced hardware, and special forces.[vi]
This friction has led to flashpoints, such as the downing of a Sukhoi S-24 aircraft in 2015. However, Turkish and Russian objectives began to align as Syrian Kurdish forces gained strength, territory, and oil in the North Eastern portions of Syria.[vii] Erdogan and the AKP have worked throughout their time in power to politically, and at times violently, suppress the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But fears grew in Ankara of stronger Kurdish organizations within Syria empowering or supplying the PKK or sections of the 14 million Kurdish people in Turkey.[viii] With the Syrian regime stabilizing and Russian forces looking to stay, Turkey opportunistically gravitated away from the US goal of ousting Bashar Al-Assad and toward ensuring Kurdish Syrian forces near Turkey’s borders were targeted and the Turkish military had free access through Russian controlled areas in northern Syria.
Both Russia and Turkey have had complicated relations in Syria, so this recent bout of cooperation may not be durable. Historically, Turkey’s predecessor state, The Ottoman Empire, pursued regional hegemony to counter Czarist Russia in the Balkans, Caucasus, and Mediterranean with frequent conflicts from 1556 until the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918.[ix] As the Cold War silently dragged on, Turkey stood with the NATO alliance against the Soviet Union, notably sending a sizable contingent of troops during the Korean war as well as stationing American Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles on its territory. If the past is any indicator of likely future outcomes, the near 450-year legacy of divergence and geopolitical opposition in Russo-Turkish relations may signal Putin’s gains are limited. Chances of a deeper alliance could be unlikely.
Economics might appear to be a source of cooperation between the developing states due to their proximity and potentially reciprocal trade interests. However, their energy interests are diametrically opposed. Raw resources and energy products constitute the majority of Russia’s yearly trade exports while Turkey has a diversified economy, though few domestic energy resources.[x] Thus, although Turkey needs energy imports, it seeks to acquire them from many different sources to reduce the possibility of price shocks and obtain it for the lowest possible price. Conversely, Russia’s interests as a hydrocarbon export-dependent country are to sell the same energy for the highest price possible. Furthermore, Russia has demonstrated with previous disputes in Belarus and Ukraine an ability and willingness to manipulate gas and oil supply to gain political leverage.[xi] The Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan and Tabriz-Ankara pipelines, as well as recent investment in liquid natural gas carriers, have demonstrated an energy priority based on broadening and diversifying Turkey’s energy importers, thereby reducing reliance on–and potentially coercion from–Russia.[xii]
In addition to history, geopolitics, and economics, religion remains a fundamental point of divergence between Russia and Turkey. Erdogan and his party rose to power on liberal economic promises with mild Islamic principles, though they found broader support in Turkey’s more conservative and rural areas by leaning into Islam politically. The AKP has consolidated this base of support and alienated supporters of long-held Kemalist secular traditions with new Islamic policies. The elimination of head covering bans on public officials; investment of vast government resources into the ministry of religious affairs; and support for mosques, madrassas, and Islamic cultural construction abroad represent new, more progressive developments.[xiii]
These Islamic influences in Turkish domestic politics have translated into new foreign policy priorities as well. Throughout western Asia, Ankara consistently backs Islamic regimes, parties, and proxies whenever possible. Erdogan and the AKP supported Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood throughout the 2011 election, during the subsequent 2013 coup d’état, and in the aftermath: a position which put Turkey in opposition to both the United States and Egypt’s current regime.[xiv] Additionally, Erdogan and the AKP have become the primary ally and lifeline for Hamas in Palestine. Over the years, Turkey has bankrolled the group with hundreds of millions of dollars, provided asylum for wanted leaders, and supplied aid through the Israeli blockade.[xv]
Contrary to Turkish preferences, Russia avoids supporting Islamic regimes and has pursued closer ties with both the current Egyptian regime under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). Putin supported el-Sisi’s bid for the presidency and vastly expanded Russia’s trade in Agriculture and Military hardware with Egypt.[xvi] Russia’s enabling of the PLO has also placed it in conflict with Turkey, as the PLO and Hamas have feuded for control of Palestinian leadership, even escalating to armed conflict between the PLO’s military arm, Fatah, and Hamas in 2006-2007.[xvii] Russian foreign policy in the Middle East undoubtedly demonstrates a preference for secular organizations, which is incompatible with Turkey’s efforts to not only partner with moderate Islamic groups but also to aspire to be a leader for the Islamic world.
As Russia and Turkey pursue temporary cooperation through the aligned personal interests of President Erdogan and President Putin, fundamentally divergent foreign policy objectives will remain as barriers to deeper collaboration. But despite these complications, both presidents will likely remain friendly and continue their personal alliance as Erdogan seeks to maintain his image as a strong leader resistant to Western influence and American hegemony. If the Trump administration continues to exert extreme pressure on Turkey over military cooperation and acquisitions, Ankara and Moscow will have further incentive to extend cooperation, as Turkey possesses an advanced military in need of supply and technology. Although the domestic arms industry in Turkey is large and growing, Russia produces types of equipment and hardware which Turkey cannot. Moreover, Putin depends on the arms industry for the remainder of government expenditure after hydrocarbon sales. Decreasing arms imports with US and Western sources will press Erdogan into buying from Russia and could be a new factor promoting future convergence unless US-Turkish arms policy changes.
When irreconcilable national interests create points of friction in the Russo-Turkish relationship, the United States will need to leverage these opportunities and reassert itself as a lasting partner. Both states are keenly interested in preventing Russian expansion in the Middle East. Although pre-AKP levels of closeness and cooperation may not be possible, the rising Mediterranean power will require US cooperation to achieve its foreign policy outcomes as geopolitics naturally, and unforgivingly, places Turkey and Russia in opposition with each other.
[ii] Ömer Taspinar, “Turkey’s Middle East Policies, Between Neo-Ottomanism and Kemalism,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September, 2008. https://carnegieendowment.org/publications/index.cfm?fa=view&id=22209.
[iii] David Ignatius, “Erdogan sabotages Turkey’s progress by turning away from the West,” The Washington Post, March 7, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/erdogan-sabotages-turkeys-progress-by-turning-away-from-the-west/2019/03/07/fa4fd3b0-4128-11e9-922c-64d6b7840b82_story.html?utm_term=.a4f5f7d6b035
[iv] Sergey Mamontov, “Russian parliament unanimously approves use of military in Syria to fight ISIS,” Russia Today, October 1, 2015. https://www.rt.com/news/317013-parliament-authorization-troops-abroad/.
[v] Gul Tuysuz, “Turkey backs Syrian rebel group in new anti-extremist push in Idlib,” CNN, October 7, 2017. https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/07/middleeast/turkey-syria-fsa-military-operation-idlib/index.html.
[vi] Sergey Mamontov, “Russian parliament unanimously approves use of military in Syria to fight ISIS,” Russia Today, October 1, 2015. https://www.rt.com/news/317013-parliament-authorization-troops-abroad/.
[vii] “Daily Press Briefing – November 30, 2015 – RUSSIA/TURKEY,” U.S. Department of State, November 30, 2015. https://2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2015/11/250155.htm#RUSSIA.
[viii] Merve Tahiroglu, Andrew Gabel, “Saving Northeastern Syria,” Council on Foreign Affairs, April 9, 2019. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2019-04-09/saving-northeastern-syria.
[ix] Torrey Taussig, “The serpentine trajectory of Turkish-Russian relations,” Brookings Institute, October 4, 2019. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2017/10/04/the-serpentine-trajectory-of-turkish-russian-relations/.
[x] “Turkey. The World Factbook,” Central Intelligence Agency, 2019. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/tu.html; “Russia. The World Factbook,” Central Intelligence Agency, 2019. https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/rs.html.
[xi] A.O., “Russia and Belarus, Gas and pies,” The Economist, June 21, 2010. https://www.economist.com/eastern-approaches/2010/06/21/gas-and-pies.
[xii] “Turkey’s Energy Profile and Strategy,” Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Retrieved June 7, 2019. http://www.mfa.gov.tr/turkeys-energy-strategy.en.mfa.
[xiii] Gonul Tol, “Turkey’s Bid for Religious Leadership,” Foreign Affairs, January 10, 2019. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/turkey/2019-01-10/turkeys-bid-religious-leadership.
[xiv] Tim Arango, “Growing Mistrust Between U.S. and Turkey Is Played Out in Public,” NYT, December 23, 2013. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/24/world/europe/growing-mistrust-between-us-and-turkey-is-played-out-in-public.html?_r=0.
[xv] Jonathan Schanzer and Grant Rumley, “Hamas’s Main Man From Turkey to Tehran,” Foreign Policy, December 9, 2014. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/12/08/hamas-main-man-from-turkey-to-tehran-imad-al-alami-iran/.
[xvi] “Putin, Egyptian Leader Sign ‘Strategic’ Partnership Treaty,” Radio Free Europe, October 17, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/putin-egytian-leader-el-sissi-discuss-increasing-arms-sales-direct-air-links-moscow-visit-sochi/29547819.html.
[xvii] “Hamas Coup in Gaza,” The International Institute for Strategic Studies, vol 13, issue 5, June 2007. https://web.archive.org/web/20081015202544/http://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-comments/past-issues/volume-13—2007/volume-13-issue-5/hamas-coup-in-gaza/.