Putin and Erdogan inspect Turkish troops in Ankara. Photo Credit: The Kremlin.
In the Erdogan-Putin era of great power chauvinism, geopolitical ambitions run rampant. The ambiguous Russo-Turkish alliance, however, sits on shaky ground. Moscow and Ankara were rivals for years in the Syrian conflict, openly providing support to opposing sides. But the countries are now growing increasingly close. Despite the Russo-Turkish rapprochement, however, the ways Turkey comes to define its “safe zone” will further determine the relationship’s trajectory.
The Russo-Turkish alignment largely stems from the countries’ rejection of Western policies. While NATO representatives have expressed a certain understanding of Turkey’s security concerns on its southern border, it has become increasingly apparent that Ankara is on another geopolitical trajectory. Recent skirmishes include President Erdogan’s accusation that the EU provided only half of the promised 6 billion euros to help the 3.6 million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.[i] Erdogan even threatened to send these refugees to Europe if the EU fails to provide more economic support to help resettle them in a “safe zone.”
With regards to Syria, the schism in the diplomatic relationship reached its height in November 2015, when Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet near its border with Syria. The 2016 assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, further aggravated diplomatic relations. Indeed, the assassin, a Turkish police officer, shouted, “do not forget Aleppo!” as he pulled the trigger. This suggests that the difficult diplomatic history cannot simply be swept away.[ii]
But despite these recent grievances with Russia, Turkey seems to be shifting away from the NATO alliance while building a stronger partnership with Russia. Erdogan’s great purge following the failed coup attempt in 2016 deepened the relationship between Ankara and Moscow. Indeed, there is evidence that the Kremlin successfully warned Turkey’s intelligence services of the military coup beforehand. These growing ties are further highlighted by the fact that Russia’s delivery of the S-400 poignantly coincided with the anniversary of the failed coup attempt, symbolically showcasing Moscow’s support for Erdogan and raising its status as a close, trustworthy, and permanent ally.[iii]
The Russo-Turkish relationship, however, is not so simple. In Russia, experts fear that the S-400 delivery to Turkey could lead to secret technologies leaking to the U.S. because of Turkey’s mercurial diplomatic behavior. By providing Ankara with the S-400, it is possible that the U.S. and NATO could gain access to Russia’s premier air defense system and thereby jeopardize Russia’s defense capabilities.[iv] The U.S. had similar security concerns regarding Turkey’s acquisition of the F-35 Joint Strike Figter. Moreover, Russian aircraft deployed in Syria may also be in the sights of Turkish S-400s, raising tension between the two countries. Moscow has publicly announced it has protected its systems from Ankara, curbing the ability of Turkish intelligence to reverse-engineer these technologies in the future. Additionally, reports from Russia indicate the computer system has been programmed to automatically destroy all data in the event of an attack, and Russian specialists alone will control the manufacturing seals, further preventing any technological and informational leaks.[v] These are all prudent steps, as Turkey could be playing both sides, acting more as an informant than ally, which in turn could benefit the United States. Russia is therefore understandably concerned about Turkish intentions.
The reality is that Erdogan’s Turkey is likely only serving its own interests in an attempt to acquire more power and leverage. In Syria, relations with Russia will ultimately depend on Turkey’s aspirations. The relationship will thus depend on the ways in which Turkey’s regional vision can align with Russian interests and support for the Syrian regime. This alignment will be especially difficult, especially considering that Assad is vehemently opposed to Erdogan’s expansion. In a rare visit to Idlib, he fired out anti-Turkish comments, calling Erdogan a “thief” who is “stealing our land.”[vi] His outburst added that President Erdogan has “robbed factories, wheat and fuel and is today stealing territory.”[vii] Assad is certainly worried about Turkey’s entrenched-presence and, in turn, is in the process of questioning Ankara’s closer relations with Russia.
It is somewhat ironic to look back at Russia and Turkey’s intertwined historical trajectory in light of recent events. In the 1970s, the Soviet Union supported the PKK, which subscribed to Marxist-Leninist ideology. After 1980, many PKK members fled to Syria, a close Soviet ally, where they were welcomed by the Hafez al-Assad regime.[viii] The Kremlin publicly provided political support and military training, thereby acquiring leverage over Turkey. In the 1990s Moscow even entertained harbouring a Kurdish Parliament in-exile. In turn, Turkey played the same game of supporting Russia’s volatile backyard, supporting Muslim separatists in Chechnya. Turkish influence was so significant that within Turkey’s Islamist and Nationalist circles calls for a military intervention in Chechnya grew in support for their independence. It is also important to note that since Russia’s first Chechen war, Istanbul has been home to thousands of Chechens. It even became a base for Chechen fighters and their families.
But despite this confrontational history, Russia and Turkey are leaving their centuries of struggle behind to focus on shared strategic and tactical interests. The joint Russo-Turkish patrols along the limits of the Turkish incursion zone showcase this synchronization of forces and ever-closer alignment. However, although Syrian Kurdish fighters completed their withdrawal 20 miles from the border last week, clashes continued throughout the region as Turkey sought to expand the planned “safe zone” further into Kurdish territory.[ix] Erdogan is rooting-out the Kurdish PKK, but ultimately his anti-Kurdish rhetoric is a veiled threat for further nationalist violence against non-combatants. Simultaneously, the Turkey-Syria borderline can be considered a “secondary issue” for Russia because Moscow’s “priority is to ensure the security of its soldiers on the ground from clashing with Chechen armed rebel fighters.”[x] Indeed, Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov has stated that it is unclear whether the “devils” from IS will “get tickets to the theatre or the cemetery.”[xi]
Neutralizing Chechen rebels is in many ways Russia’s priority, and because of this Turkey is has more freedom to move against the Kurds. Putin and Erdogan have thus reached an accommodation that allows both to eradicate internal threats within a foreign country. The military police from the southern Russian region of Chechnya are also involved in patrolling and facilitating the withdrawal of Kurdish forces and their weapons to 15 miles of the Syrian-Turkish border.[xii] This highlights the extent of the of the security relationship between Ankara and Moscow. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also recently noted that 276 military policemen and 33 units of military hardware were being sent to Syria, further demonstrating Russia’s increased effort to maintain stability.[xiii]
Both states are fighting internal struggles within foreign borders. A Turkish political analyst in 1994 argued that “although there are basic differences between the Chechen and Kurdish cases, the preservation of a country’s territorial integrity is a principle that we have to defend.”[xiv] This is still relevant today, suggesting that both states, by accepting the importance of “territorial integrity,” will work together to mend their past support of the latter’s terrorists and insurgents. However, once the honeymoon period is over, the tactical skirmishes that will inevitably arise could shift the relationship in the opposite direction, especially given the potential for disagreements about the acceptable extent of Erdogan’s “safety zone” the degree to which Putin will back the Assad regime.
[i] Reuters, “Turkey Will ‘Cleanse’ Syria Border if Russia Fails to Clear Kurdish Fighters, Erdogan Says,” Haaretz, October 26 2019, https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/syria/turkey-will-cleanse-syria-border-if-russia-doesn-t-clear-kurds-erdogan-says-1.8028478.
[ii] Katie Hunt, “Russian Ambassador Killed in Turkey: What do we know about assassin?,” CNN, December 20 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/20/europe/ankara-russia-ambassador-shooter/index.html.
[iii] Kadri Gursel, “How 2016 coup attempts led Turkey to buy Russian air defenses,” August 10 2019, Al-Monitor, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/08/turkey-united-states-russia-coup-attempt-led-s400-deal.html.
[iv] “Russian Media Outlet Versia.ru: Experts Fear that the S-400 Delivery to Turkey May Lead to Secret Technologies Leaking, Recent History Shows that Turkey can Suddenly Turn From Friend to Foe,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, July 29 2019, https://www.memri.org/reports/russian-media-outlet-versiaru-experts-fear-s-400-delivery-turkey-may-lead-secret.
[vi] “Assad calls Erdogan a ‘thief’ in rare visit to Idlib front line,” Al-Jazeera, October 22 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/assad-calls-erdogan-thief-rare-visit-idlib-frontline191022163333341.html?utm_source=website&utm_medium=article_page&utm_campaign=read_more_links.
[ix] Elias Groll and Lara Seligman, “No Cease-Fire in Syria as Joint Russian-Turkish Patrols Begin,” Foreign Policy, November 4 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/11/04/security-brief-no-cease-fire-in-syria-as-joint-russian-turkish-patrols-begin/.
[x] Linah Alsaafin, “Russia and Turkey: Partners or Opponents in Syria?,” Al-Jazeera, October 22 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/russia-turkey-partners-opponents-syria-191022111531956.html.
[xi] “‘Tickets to the cemetery’ await ISIS fighters if they decide to return to Chechnya from Syria, Kadyrov warns,” RT, October 21 2019, https://www.rt.com/russia/471433-chechnya-syria-isis-turkey-kadyrov/.
[xii] Tom Balmforth and Tuvan Gumrukcu, “More Russian Military police arrive in Syria under peace deal with Turkey,” Reuters, October 25 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/somnia-idUSKBN1X40UZ.
[xiii] Reuters, “Russia Will Send a Further 276 Military Staff and 33 Units of Military Hardware to Syria,” The Moscow Times, October 24 2019, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2019/10/24/russia-will-send-a-further-276-military-staff-and-33-units-of-military-hardware-to-syria-a67883.