Turkey has long been an ally of the United States and a prominent member of Nato. That, however, has not stopped it from the development of strong economic as well as political ties with Russia over the course of history, and the dangers of this risky game seem to be arising now, with the US planning to impose sanctions on the Euro-Asian nation.
While Turkey’s geographical location is usually viewed as a major advantage, since many countries in its immediate neighbourhood require active Turkish collaboration in order to export or import oil and natural gas via economically feasible pipeline projects, the ongoing political, economic and military conflicts between the same global and regional actors not only negatively affect the development of the energy transportation routes in Eurasia, but also present a major foreign policy challenge for Ankara that has traditionally sought to maintain a careful balance in its relations with the West and Russia.
Russia and Turkey emerged as independent powers almost simultaneously – in 1380 and 1389.
There followed a spectacular rise for the Ottoman empire, which expanded rapidly and had become a superpower by the 16th century. Russia only emerged as a major European power in the late 16th century. This led to the beginning of a direct rivalry between the Ottoman Empire and Russia that would eventually result in the Russo-Turkish war in 1768-74, and last up until the First World War.
Both Russia and Turkey had lost a lot of resources and power as a result of the Great War, and maintained good relations in the aftermath, settling their territorial disputes. After the Second World War however, Russia began to apply pressure to Turkey as it wanted control over the Turkish straits and territory in eastern Turkey.
This was a key factor in the development of the Truman doctrine (1947), when the US assumed global responsibility for containing communism, thus formally launching the Cold War. Turkey received substantial US military support, abandoned its neutrality and joined NATO in 1952.
Shortly after this renewed hostility between Turkey and Russia, and Turkey’s formal alliance with the US, Stalin died in 1953.
This event marked the beginning of a long development of positive relations between Turkey and Russia, as immediately after the USSR apologised to Turkey and renounced all territorial claims, and relations between the two rapidly improved.
A symbol of this change was When Turkey faced sanctions from the West after invading Cyprus in 1974, and the USSR capitalised by offering economic assistance.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the already significant economic links continued to strengthen, particularly in the new fields of tourism and consumer goods exports from Turkey.
Despite this, several obstacles slowed down this development of relations, the most major being the Chechen wars which posed the greatest challenge to Russo-Turkish relations in recent times. Chechen separatists enjoyed wide support from Turkish sources, and Moscow showed its discontent by extending a hand of friendship to the Kurdish Labour Party – the separatist movement that has railed against the Turkish government. Eventually both countries agreed to sever ties with respective insurgents and normalised their relations.
After this major obstacle was solved and removed, a golden age of Russio-Turkish relations followed. Following a rapid development of economic cooperation in the 1990’s, bilateral relations entered a new phase in early 2000’s with the close dialogue between the leaderships of the two countries. Economic ties were solidified by personal relations between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin.
An undersea gas pipeline was built in 2003 and by 2014 Russia had become the top importer to Turkey. Tourism also emerged as a major link between the two countries, with Russia sending the largest number of tourists to Turkey in the years 2013-14.
Turkish-Russian relations, which followed a course of cooperation in bilateral context, faced a serious test as a result of military activities related to the Syrian crisis.
However, in line with the mutual desire of Turkish and Russian peoples, a normalization process was launched. In this context, an intense bilateral political dialogue has been re-established since the second half of 2016.
Cooperation in the field of tourism between Turkey and Russia constitutes another important aspect of bilateral relations. Nearly 4.5 million Russian tourists visited Turkey in 2014, the decreases in 2015 and 2016 were left behind in 2017. A new record was broken in 2018 with 5,9 Russian tourists.
Turkey has an Embassy in Moscow, Consulates-General in St. Petersburg, Kazan and Novorosisk and an Honorary Consulate in Ekaterinburg. The Russian Federation has an Embassy in Ankara, Consulates-General in Istanbul, Antalya and Trabzon, and an Honorary Consulate in İzmir.
Current Situation and America’s Role
US officials have continued to voice hope that Turkey could still back out of the purchase, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, has repeatedly insisted that the acquisition is a done deal.
America argues that the Russian systems are both incompatible with Nato defence systems and pose a security threat, and wants Turkey to buy its Patriot anti-aircraft systems instead. Turkey, which has been pursuing an increasingly independent defence policy, has signed up to buying 100 F-35s, and has invested heavily in the F-35 programme, with Turkish companies producing 937 of the plane’s parts.
Clearly, the Pentagon believes that if Turkey were to acquire both this state-of-the-art F-35 fighter and Russia’s formidable S-400 missile defence system – then Russian technicians would be able to access the plane’s vulnerabilities, putting US pilots at additional risk. If the S-400 arrives in Turkey, Mr Erdogan risks a damaging confrontation with Washington. Analysts said it would not only trigger sanctions that could inflict severe pain on Turkey’s fragile economy, but also plunge Ankara’s relationship with its Nato allies into its greatest crisis in decades.
In recent years there has been deep mistrust and frustration between Ankara and Washington. The disputes range from American support for Kurdish militias in Syria to Turkey’s jailing of US citizens and consular staff. A bitter row erupted last summer after Donald Trump imposed sanctions on Turkey in an attempt to force the release of Andrew Brunson, a detained evangelical pastor. Mr Brunson was eventually released after the sanctions sent the Turkish lira falling to an all-time low against the dollar. Analysts warned that the disagreement over the S-400 would inflict even deeper and more lasting damage.
The Pentagon has said it would end Turkey’s role as a partner in manufacturing and buying the F-35 if the purchase went ahead. Last week, senior US officials warned that they had begun taking steps to exclude Turkey from the jet programme.
At the same time, the delivery of the air defence system is expected to lead Congress to impose punitive measures under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. That could spark another sell-off in the Turkish financial markets, investors said, sending the lira plummeting and piling further pressure on Turkey’s indebted corporates and strained banking sector.
In a sign of the bipartisan resolve to punish Turkey if it went ahead with the S-400 purchase, the US House of Representatives on Monday passed a resolution calling on the Turkish government to cancel the acquisition. “We rarely see it in foreign affairs, but this is a black and white issue,” said Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House committee on foreign affairs.
“Either Mr Erdogan cancels the Russian deal, or he doesn’t. And there is no future for Turkey having both Russian weapons and American F-35s. There’s no third option. There’s no path for mitigation that will allow Turkey to have its cake and eat it, too.”
Turkey is recalibrating its foreign and regional policy at a time when the Middle East is undergoing a major transformation. Russia appears to be doing the same. As both look for more influence in the region, their relationship will be at times cooperative and at times competitive.
Meanwhile, Turkey is a major energy-importing country. It prefers low energy prices, particularly given its staggering current account deficit, which is partially caused by its increasing energy needs.
Given their largely opposing interests in the Middle East, Russian and Turkish cooperation faces real limits. Although the two countries will likely continue to be partners and may draw closer the more the United States pushes Turkey away there will be plenty of opportunities for the West to exploit their differences.
One of the easiest may be Turkey and Russia’s differences over the future of Syria’s Idlib province. Both Turkey and the West have an interest in preventing a large-scale Russian military offensive in this province. Such an operation could produce a humanitarian disaster and drive large numbers of refugees toward Turkey’s border.
The relationship between Turkey and Russia has been gradually strengthening in recent times, but Turkey’s and Erdogan’s unpredictability and hidden interests could cause another clash in the future, proving Turkey to be playing a dangerous game, where both US and Russian relations could break down.