Russia and Turkey, a story of hard love?

The relationship between Turkey and Russia has an extensive, rich, and tumultuous history. Successors of two powerful empires which defined for centuries the geopolitics of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Middle East, the two countries speak of each other as of “partners” today. However, with the exception of the most recent 15 years of improving ties, the overall bilateral relationship has been marked by conflict, enmity, zealousness, and distrust for the better part of the last 500 years. The Russian Empire saw its Ottoman rival as the main obstacle to achieving total domination over Eastern Europe and the Straits. Constantinople was the jewel which gave life to the Imperial ideal of the “Third Rome”- the Tsar as the only true successor of what once was the glory Orthodox Byzantium. The Ottomans, for their part, had nothing different than their own universal idea. Their leader, the sultan, claimed direct lineage to the first caliphs, he was the rightful ruler of all Islam. The mission of his Empire was to expand in all directions and bring the peoples of the world under his rule by the will of Allah. As time went by, idealism gave way to realism but the great empires remained pitted against each other fighting for domination over their shared spheres of influence – The Black Sea, The Caucasus, the Balkans, even Central Asia.

In the 20th century both empires collapsed in the aftermath of the Great War, but geography did not change. The modern Turkish nation state and the Soviet Union agreed upon a stable border in the Caucasus and spent the interwar period dealing mostly with internal strengthening. In the post-WWII geopolitical architecture of the world, Soviet Russia and Turkey were again in the position of adversaries – the later safeguarding the southern flank of NATO against possible aggression from the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the cold war order in the 90s, the world affairs moved rapidly towards multipolarism.  Both Russia and Turkey suffered economic turmoil throughout the 90s and maintained mostly internal political focus.

It is worth mentioning that in the mid-18th century, the Ottoman Empire slowly started to lose its competitive position vis-à-vis its Russian rival. By the turn of the 20th century, the Ottomans were in no position to oppose the Russians due to their military, administrative, and technological inferiority. During the most of the 20th century the disproportion of power increased even further- the Soviet Union was a military giant and one of two superpowers, while Turkey was experiencing economic difficulties and internal challenges like the Kurdish insurection. The Truman doctrine of 1947 created the basis of US-Turkish military cooperation and the country ultimately joined NATO in 1952 subsequently building up the second most powerful (but still conventional) military in the alliance. The 90s brought an abrupt change in the geopolitical balance. With the loss of the Soviet dominant position, Russia was no longer regarded by analysts as global power, but a regional one. In some sense, the country was downgraded to a status equal to that of Turkey. The 90s were still marked by mutual distrust, owing mostly to Soviet era inertia and Russia’s wars in the Caucasus, and its intervention in the Azeri-Armenian conflict over Nagorno Karabakh.

Visible changes in both countries came in the early 2000s. Vladimir Putin sits at the helm of the Russian Federation since 2000. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the man number one of Turkish politics since 2003.  These last fifteen or so years brought relative improvement of the economies of both countries compared to the criminal 90s in Russia and the rampart inflation and economic instability at the same time in Turkey. The general feeling of progress and stabilization prompted large popular support for both Putin and Erdogan, seen by many of their supporters as strong men who can firmly lead their countries to better future. The democratic and human rights record was pushed away from the spotlight as it often happens when it comes to populism and strongmen. As a direct result from the economic progress and firm domestic support both Russia and Turkey started expressing increasing ambitions on the international scene, each in their own way.

However, for the last 5-6 years ties between the two countries have been improving rapidly. As from 2009 deals have been signed on energy supplies via the Blue Stream pipeline, easing of visa regulations, and promotion of bilateral trade and tourism. The Russian company Atomstroyexport is also building a nuclear power plant in Mersin province. Turkey is hosting annually millions of Russian tourists and the sector has become heavily dependent on this influx of clientele. Erdogan and Putin also have demonstrated on several occasions that the two countries share a common responsibility for the Caucasus and the Middle East. The newest addition to the bilateral relationship is the announcement of the eventual Turkish Stream pipeline, which is to be the alternative of the cancelled South Stream.

Certainly, Russia and Turkey share many similarities at the present. Both Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have established regimes that are increasingly viewed with suspicion in the West. The two leaders are successfully exploiting the “strong man / father of the nation” image and care little for criticism from dissidents or the opposition. When it comes to foreign policy, both countries have assumed an attitude whereby they question the established international order. Erdogan and Putin are portraying their respective countries as surrounded by enemies and being victims of conspiracies by foreign powers, playing on the most basic nationalist emotion of the electorate.

Appearing like perfect partners, in principle, the two rising powers share a number of interests in streamlining their ambitious foreign policy agendas. Bilateral trade relations certainly bring profits to domestic businesses on both sides. Playing around with pipeline politics at the gates of the EU shows muscles and increased regional importance.


But is the relationship really so warm?


The recent commemorative ceremony of the centenary of the Armenian genocide which took place on 24 April in Yerevan hinted that there may still be more to Russo-Turkish relationship than publicly displayed.

First of all, weeks before the centennial date, the Kremlin promised official high-level presence at both the ceremony in Yerevan and the Gallipoli campaign commemorations on the same day in Canakkale. It was not clear to which of the two events president Putin would choose to go. A week before the date in question, the presidential press office announced that Putin was going to Armenia while the speaker of the Duma, Narishkin, would attend the ceremony in Turkey.

As Russia is one of the countries that officially recognizes the massacres of Armenians as genocide since 1995, Putin naturally used the word “genocide” in his public appearances. This sparked an immediate reaction by Ankara which, in a very untactful tone, blamed Russia that it “knows about genocide” in view of the past activities of the Red Army in Europe and modern Russian military in the Caucasus.


What are the implications?


These heated diplomatic exchanges may still do little to change the current cooperation between Russia and Turkey at least in the short run. But they are a sign of some deep differences that in the future may set the two countries apart. Let us consider the following points of interest:

  • For more than a decade now, Putin’s Russia is pursuing an ambitious agenda aimed at returning Russia to great power status. From Russian point of view, the country actually has never lost it. After its relative economic stabilization powered up by its natural resources, Russia has been trying to reestablish its lost influence in some traditional regions – primarily ex-Soviet space, the Balkans, Caucasus, Middle East


  • Armenia is a very important South Caucasus outpost for Russia. In December 2014 the country became one of the 5 members of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU). In this region of strategic importance, Russia does not have many real allies. The North Caucasus is only temporarily stable, Georgia is not in good relationship with Russia, and Azerbaijan has its own agenda and carries out a more pragmatic policy towards its ex-sovereign.


  • Turkey, on the other hand, is following since about 2012 a renewed (so called) “neo-Ottoman” foreign policy as formulated by the ex-minister of foreign affairs Ahmet Davutoglu who now chairs Erdogan’s AKP party. In a few words, the neo-Ottoman idea suggests that Turkey wants to play a more important role in its neighborhood and in global affairs. This means that Turkey will be looking to increase its influence in the Islamic Middle East, the Balkans, and the Caucasus (all ex-Ottoman domains).


  • Another important line of this foreign policy is also the pan-turkic idea whereby Turkey is the primary Turkic state and has a mission to support all Turkic people in the world. Therefore, Turkey expressed its concerns about the rights of the Crimean Tatars. Moreover, most of Central Asia is of the Turkic cultural heritage and Ankara has been building on its soft power in the region by supporting a revival of Turkic culture. Last but very important focal point is Azerbaijan. The country has very close linguistic and cultural ties to Turkey and its natural resources make it strategically important for Turkey. As Turkish influence in Central Asia may remain only an ambition, certainly Turkish – Azeri ties have a concrete future.


  • In the field of energy, Turkey and Russia currently cooperate. However, there may be some different agendas out of the spotlight. Ankara is very interested in developing pipelines on its territory like Blue Stream, TANAP, Nabucco, and now Turkish Stream. Ankara has the ambition to make Turkey a gas hub connecting many supply routes with Europe. But hardly Turkey sees itself in a dependent position without any influence on the transit. Russia, on the other hand, has its own practice of using energy as a tool in foreign policy. The Kremlin has very little incentive to share this power with the transit states. So, there seems to be very much hard love between Moscow and Ankara. Turkey has been trying to diversify its gas supplies and the important player which can help with this is namely Azerbaijan and its Shah Deniz gas field. Alternatively, if the relationship between the West and Iran will continue to improve, it is very possible that Iranian gas can start flowing into Turkish pipelines. All this is understood by Russia and does little to help decrease mutual suspicion.


Where are the hidden risks?


So, as outlined above, there exist many possible contention points between Russia and Turkey. The forces of competition are active in regions that both countries consider their sphere of influence like the Balkans, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Under the current conditions, Moscow and Ankara can still find common language and possible agree on some kind of compromise. However, we can still consider some risks that can ruin this relatively new relationship:

  • As the recent events around the centenary commemorations showed, Armenia can prove to be a nutcracker. Moscow has been trying hard to establish the EEU and certainly Armenia’s decision to join in was made based on firm promises from Moscow about its stability, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. The country is important for the EEU project as it is still in its infancy and its viability is crucial. Therefore, Putin had to show his full support for the Armenian cause.


  • At the same time, however, Russia is an important player when it comes to solving the Nagorno Karabakh frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Curiously enough, dollar-rich Baku has been buying modern arms from Moscow. Weapons which in the event of renewed conflict can effectively be used against the impoverished and underfunded Armenian military (also Russian supplied).


  • Turkey is staunchly opposed to recognizing the Armenian genocide as their main fear is that this would mean recognition of the fact that most of its east was de facto Armenian territory. A fact that may lead to territorial claims, however unlikely this can be. Since the relationship between Turkey and Armenia is almost non-existent and Azerbaijan is an important partner, Ankara will show little opposition to a renewed claim from Baku on Nagorno Karabakh.


  • This situation leaves Russia in a very precarious position. Most important in the short term will be to keep the Karabakh conflict frozen. In case it reignites, years of political efforts on the Russian southern flank may be jeopardized.


  • Another possible point of contention may be the Western Balkans. In the backyard of the EU, Russia has high level of influence in Serbia, FYROM (Macedonia), Montenegro, and Bosnia. Turkey enjoys the same among the Muslim population of Bosnia, as well as Kosovo and Albania.
  • As far as the EUFOR and KFOR are present in Bosnia and Kosovo, the situation in the region will remain calm. However, there is no guarantee that in the future some unsolved differences could again lead to instability. Russia could keep its influence on the Serbs in Bosnia as a strong card in destabilizing the region as a foreign policy tool against the EU if necessary. Under such a scenario, Turkey could find itself pitted against Russian interests if it would take the side of Muslim Bosniaks


  • Nevertheless, this Balkan scenario is fairly unlikely but it is good to keep in mind as it gives some additional perspective on the topic.


To sum up briefly, all arguments expressed so far intended to show that Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey should not be seen as a stable cooperation. Russia’s foreign policy towards Turkey is risky and born out of necessity. As Moscow’s relationship with the West has deteriorated due to the nature of Putin’s regime and the Ukrainian crisis, the Kremlin is looking for new partners like Turkey and China. However, it is almost impossible for Russia to find powerful natural allies along its borders whose foreign policy agendas will not come to conflict with its own global power ambitions. Russia will have difficulties to accept Turkey as an equal partner in energy politics, which will angry Ankara. At the same time, the Caucasus will remain a very contentious point which will potentially threaten Russo-Turkish relationship. Having all this said, we should also remember that actors like the USA and EU also have a stake in the regions in question and will certainly follow up closely the development of the Russia – Turkey bilateral ties.

Russia and Turkey shared zones of influence
Russia and Turkey shared zones of influence



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