While most mainstream media outlets analyze Turkish-Russian interactions as a relationship between two historic rivals, Ankara and Moscow had and continue to have a lot more in common than many seem to realize or acknowledge. However, this commonality should not be mistaken for a strategic partnership either. Therefore, it is important to understand the details of this relationship in order not to exaggerate Turkish-Russian differences, or areas of cooperation.
Turkey and Russia are tied in many economic projects which are essential for both. Between 2008 and 2019, Turkish-Russian trade was around $38 billion. In 2019, nearly seven million Russian tourists visited Turkey. Russia is also building Turkey’s two nuclear reactors.
Another crucial economic cooperation with geopolitical flavor lies in Turkish-Russian collaboration on establishing a network of energy pipelines.
Recently Ankara purchased the Russian air defense system, S-400. Even though NATO regimes were strongly opposed to the deal, Turkey still went ahead with it dismissing the Western military alliance’s concerns.
In terms of political narrative, both countries also have a similar outlook. Russia and Turkey are resurgent powers. Both aim to reassert themselves much more forcefully on the global stage. Their reassertion has contributed to the decline of US imperial power and the emergence of a multipolar global order.
The above factors form solid foundations for Turkey and Russia to further enhance their relationship. At the moment it can be best characterized as a mutually beneficial transactional partnership. Detractors of this evaluation may point to some obvious differences between Moscow and Ankara and make the argument that in the long run their differences are irreconcilable. This outlook also has merit.
The obstacles for strategic cooperation between Russia and Turkey are not confined to their differences on Syria, Libya, Egypt, Ukraine and Armenia. It is also because neither government has managed to transform its preferred mode of governance into a self-sustaining system. Both continue to function as regimes based primarily on the persona of the two leaders: Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. Under such a scenario, strategic policies are difficult to institutionalize.
Additionally, there is still a strong current within Turkish and Russian governing elites that seek accommodation in the West’s global set-up. Ankara is a NATO member and the AKP leadership, along with an influential segment of Turkish society believes that an alliance established on Western terms, which manifests itself through NATO, still benefits Turkey’s national interests.
Over the past seven decades, Western powers have managed to create a strong Western-oriented social base in Turkey. While Western secularism in Turkey has been significantly weakened, its influence cannot be completely discounted either. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian society experienced a deep identity crisis and a significant percentage of Russian elite adopted the Western worldview as a societal compass. This means that both Ankara and Moscow are vulnerable to NATO’s political manipulations. These factors lend credibility to the view that each country is using the other as leverage against Western powers to extract concessions from its own benefit.
More importantly, the true test of Russian-Turkish partnership will be in the Caucasus and Central Asia. While both countries may be cooperating at the tactical level, Ankara’s strategic presence in the Caucasus and Central Asia runs contrary to Moscow’s objectives in a significant manner.
After the collapse of the USSR, even though NATO did not formally promise not to expand eastwards towards Russia’s borders—despite then US Secretary of State’s statement of February 9, 1990 to Mikhail Gorbachev about “not one inch eastward”, referring to NATO’s expansion—the current government in Moscow views the Western military alliance’s enlargement policy as unacceptable. Keeping NATO out of the regions of the former Soviet Union is Moscow’s national security doctrine and it is unlikely to change in the near future. Russia demonstrated this in 2008 by invading Georgia and in 2014 by launching a hybrid war on Ukraine that it will not allow any more regions of the former Soviet bloc to fall into Western political or military orbits. This is precisely why Moscow’s current passive reaction to Turkey’s role in the ongoing clashes in Armenian occupied Karabakh is quite out of character.
If Ankara and Moscow are cooperating behind the scenes in Karabakh, which most likely is the case, their cooperation will end at some point, as NATO’s (Turkey) presence in Azerbaijan is unacceptable to Moscow. The Aliyev regime in Azerbaijan is indirectly popularizing the idea that Turkey should establish its military presence in the country. It is difficult to imagine how Moscow would tolerate such a development.
How Turkey and Russia manage their differences post-Karabakh clashes will show whether they can deepen their partnership or part company. It is not yet clear what political or security moves Russia might make regarding Karabakh. What is certain is that Russia’s current stance cannot be viewed as its real position.
Caucasus is not Syria. For Russia, the Caucasus is its sphere of influence, while Syria is an important periphery. Ankara and Moscow had a hard time to maturely handle their differences in Syria. Thus, it is difficult to imagine they will remain cool headed if differences increase in a sensitive region like the Caucasus. In post-Karabakh clashes, if Russian and Turkish disagreements take the form of regional rivalry, one can expect a proxy-war.