Having gone to war at least 12 times over the centuries, Turkey and Russia are unlikely allies. In 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, any accord between the two seemed unlikelier still. And the gunning down of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara a year later was a cause for war if ever there was one. Startlingly, however, the reality since that low point in relations between the countries is that they have grown closer together. As Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to drive a wedge between Turkey and its NATO allies, how this relationship between historical adversaries continues remains to be seen.
As a 17 million square km landmass to its north, Russia is an immovable reality for Turkey. For the Kremlin, the aspirations of 80 million Muslims to once again extend their writ beyond their borders are a threat to Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. It is in the Caucasus that the ambitions of these two regional juggernauts have always and will continue to rub cheek by jowl. Where Turkey sees in Georgia a potential NATO ally, Russia has long seen the Caucasus only as a host to client states it keeps on a short leash. Not since the early 20th century has Turkey considered taking up arms against Russia to reconnect itself with its Turkic brethren to its east. The events of the last year, however, have shown its willingness to engage in a conflict that has actually brought the two sides closer together.
For decades, the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh province of Azerbaijan remained in a state of stagnation, with Baku lacking the will to act independently without aggravating Russia, which concurrently backed its Armenian rival to the hilt. The intervention of Turkey in 2020, however, rather than antagonize the situation, actually led to a peace treaty and a territorial realignment.
Putin summarized his tolerance of Turkey’s military adventures when he stated in November: “Today, they (France and Germany) are jointly performing their NATO defense and security duties the way they think fit. Why can’t we (Russia and Turkey) do the same?” This statement highlights exactly why this marriage of convenience means so much to the Kremlin: In an increasingly multipolar world, it is only through exploring relationships with other powers that Russia is able to project itself. An alliance of sorts with Turkey not only limits the opportunities for other powers to involve themselves in Russia’s sphere of influence, but also has the added value of undermining NATO.
If the fighter jet crisis was a turning point in how Turkey dealt with Russia, it also highlighted how Syria would act as a blueprint for how the two could work together at the expense of other powers. In providing an all-important lifeline to sustain the Assad regime, Russia acted in opposition to international opinion, while extending its presence in a part of the world that had, in many respects, been an exclusively American concern. And by providing an opportunity for Turkey to pummel its Kurdish enemies across the border, the Kremlin was able to show itself as a practical ally.
Where Ankara’s relationship with Washington is governed by personality, elections, institutions and public opinion, its ties with Russia are entirely personal. It was Putin that reportedly forewarned Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the 2016 attempted coup and it was also he who congratulated the Turkish president on his survival. The two have had the most regular face-to-face sit-downs of any world leaders since.
Despite having done all that was necessary to align itself with the European economies for six decades, the chances of Turkey joining the EU are now more remote than ever. However, instead of integrating itself with China’s Belt and Road Initiative and simultaneously reinvigorating ties with the Central Asian Turkic peoples, Russia is now of increasing importance to Turkey.
This trend was highlighted spectacularly by the decision to buy the Russian S-400 air defense system. Not only did this exclude Turkey from purchasing fifth-generation US fighter aircraft, but more importantly it was the first time since Bolshevik Russia supported the modern Turkish state against Greece in the 1920s that Ankara had so boldly stepped out of the Western orbit in favor of Russia. Faced with mounting security challenges, Europe can ill afford to lose the second-largest military within NATO, while Turkey would similarly do well to recall Putin’s expediency — Russia will only work with Turkey while its interests are served.
Ankara would do well to recall Putin’s expediency — Russia will only work with Turkey while its interests are served.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Despite the ability of Russia to sustain a relationship that is not rules-based, it does not provide the economic allure of the West — trade revenue that Turkey can ill afford to lose.
Though Turkey and Russia have sought common ground where possible, Ankara will be hesitant to incur further international sanctions given how acute its economic problems currently are.
Both sides now know the other has the power and, importantly, the daring to implement the decisions they reach. Before long, a clash is inevitable. Leaders on both sides only need to look at history to pinpoint where this may take place: Around the Black Sea, in the Caucasus or in Central Asia, where Turkish policies increasingly threaten Russia.
- Zaid M. Belbagi