by Amb. W. Robert Pearson (ret.)
Russia and Turkey are dancing a complicated pas de deux—for separate and common reasons. The happy couple has captivated global attention. There are reasons today to anticipate greater collaboration between Turkey and Russia in Syria and against Europe and the United States. However, there are also significant contradictions that could weaken the prospects of cooperation between the two countries. For gains against Syrian Kurds and to fan nationalist flames domestically, Turkey may be ignoring longer term needs. Russia is the major partner in the arrangement and sees little reason to sacrifice its interests to please Turkey. One day this unequal relationship may cause Turkey to question its value.
Turkey and Russia seemed destined for centuries to be on opposite sides of issues. Nearly 700 years passed from the 14th century entry of Turkey into the Balkans to the 20th century expulsion of the Turks from all but a sliver of Europe. First the Austrians and then conclusively the Russians after 1700 forced the Turks back to their Anatolian heartland, presaging the Ottomans’ defeat in 1918. The Cold War followed 25 years later and lasted nearly a half-century. There were a few years of respite in this period, but none provided momentum for long term improvement of relations.
1991 and the Soviet Union’s collapse changed all that, quietly at first and then with increasing momentum. Over the past quarter century, Turkish businessmen carrying suitcases of goods, Turkish construction firms expanding in Russia, Russian pipelines to Turkey, millions of Russian tourists to Turkish beaches, a massive $20 billion nuclear plant deal and the sale of Russia’s advanced S400 air defense missile system have become visible milestones to closer ties. Turkey now relies on Russia for two-thirds of its energy needs but as a result has leverage on Russian options that help protect it. Today, Turkey treats Russia far better than it does its NATO allies in Europe and North America.
While Turkey and Russia gradually expanded their ties after 1990, the ties between the U.S. and Turkey began to weaken. The end of the Cold War gave Turkey the freedom to dream larger and to explore new opportunities. In the 1990’s the U.S. continued to see Turkey in traditional terms and failed to perceive that Turks were shaping their own independent identity. The realization that Turkey would pick its own path came in 2003 when the Turkish parliament overrode its own government’s resolution and rejected cooperation in the United States’ Iraq invasion.
The resulting loss of confidence between the U.S. and Turkey was never overcome. In 2013 when the U.S. backed away from its self-declared chemical weapons redline in Syria, Turkey gave up on any serious effort at collaboration with Washington. The gap widened when the Americans came to the aid of the Kurds in Syria (no one else did) as ISIS began to attack Yazidi Kurds in 2014 as well as in Kobane and elsewhere. For two years after the ISIS onslaught—until August 2016—Turkey refused to close the Jarabulus gate between Turkey and Syria as men, material and finances flowed through to aid ISIS. Washington never convinced Turkey to put the destruction of ISIS first. Ankara never accepted the fundamental determination of the Americans to defeat ISIS or the right of Kurds to self-defense. Like two ships steaming with constant headings and decreasing distance, the two were bound to collide.
Turkey’s dismantlement of its own democracy added to the tension with Washington. Since the current ruling Justice and Development party’s (AKP) first electoral victory in 2002, its leadership has cemented authoritarian rule in Turkey. The failed coup of 2016—a bizarre, anti-democratic and destructive attempt to remove President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from power—only served as an opportunity for him to thenceforth rule alone by emergency degree. Determined to legitimize his rule with a popular election as president under a new constitution, he has fanned the flames of nationalism at home and flexed Turkey’s muscles abroad. Mr. Erdogan’s extremist anti-American rhetoric has shredded Turkey’s previously popular reputation in America. Congressional sentiment against Turkey is the highest in decades.
The Washington/Ankara quarrels left fertile ground for Russia to exploit Turkish grievances and ambitions. As strong man leaders, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan admire one another. Each views Western democracy as a cause of political turmoil domestically and regionally. Each has navigated to unquestioned power at home. Turkey wants to be a nexus for energy supplies to the Middle East and Europe and must satisfy future dramatic domestic energy demands. Russia sees supplies of energy to Turkey as leverage on Europe and on Turkey. Turkey wants a strong national defense industry, and Russia is happy to expand international markets for its arms industry. Russia has drawn Turkey into its peace negotiation process for Syria outside the UN framework. In exchange for this added status, Turkey has suppressed its original desire to remove Bashar Al-Assad from power, turned a blind eye to Iranian threats in Syria to Turkish interests, helped hand over Aleppo to Damascus and incessantly seeks Russia support in minimizing any Kurdish role in shaping Syria’s future.
Contradictions remain in the Turkish-Russian relationship, however, that will work against these apparent shared interests. Foremost is Syria. Russia does not want to cut all ties with Syrian Kurds. These ties attenuate Kurdish dependence on the United States and expand the options for Russia. The Russians are more interested in stability in Syria than is Iran, intent on expanding its influence into the Sunni Middle East. Thus the Russians might see the Kurds as a restraining force—though not a decisive one—on Iranian aims. Russia also may imagine a Turkish plan to establish dominion over geography south of its current border. The Kurds could restrain Turkish ambitions and might be drawn closer to Damascus as a result. What is clear is that Moscow does not intend to abandon the Kurds to the Turks. Whatever else the Russians may offer the Turks, they also will not and cannot provide security on the Turkey-Syria border. In short, Turkey’s freedom of movement in Syria is at Russia’s sufferance.
Linked to Russia’s control of Turkish movement in Syria is the role given to Turkey in the Russian organized Sochi peace process. On November 20, 2017, the day before a round of Sochi talks, Putin met with Bashar Al-Assad in Sochi, underlining that Russia rejects any effort to limit Assad’s hold on power. Russia ignores Turkey’s opposition to Assad. Turkey acquiesced and even participated in the December 2016 withdrawal of opposition fighters from Aleppo, a strategic gift to Damascus. Now, the regime is carrying out barbaric attacks in the Eastern Ghouta district of Damascus. Turkish protests and UN pleas are ignored. Iranians forces have attacked Turkish convoys in Afrin district. It may be that Damascus has reached an agreement with Kurdish forces in Afrin city which will impede Turkish aims to take the city.
Other obstacles also may be looming. On trade, Russia’s share of bilateral trade is five or six times that of Turkey; Turkey has no immediate prospects to balance Russia’s share. The Turks and the Russians are on different sides in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Turkey is silent on the fate of Tatars in Crimea and Muslims in Chechnya while railing about atrocities against the Rohingya in Myanmar and regularly accusing the West of “islamophobia.” Putin says he is content with Turkey’s version of an Islamic society, but Ankara and Russia are on different sides of the debate about the future of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East. Russian outreach to Egypt will put Moscow and Ankara on opposite sides, as Turkey has not forgiven President Al-Sisi for overthrowing Morsi’s government. This dispute will ultimately reappear in a larger dimension, given President Erdogan’s ambitions. Ankara also wants to be a major arms supplier to the region, already has two bases and one possible site for a naval base on the Red Sea and will continue to work towards being a major independent power. As Russia moves to secure greater influence in the region, so is Turkey.
Turkey presently is operating on two illusionary strategic commitments. The first is that Russia is an ally providing leverage to wring substantial concessions for Turkey from Europe and the United States. The second is that Russia is going to give Turkey a major voice in a final peace deal in Syria and and agree to prevent the Kurds from having a future role there. Currently intent on building domestic nationalism to a crescendo before an election likely for this year, Ankara’s government may be in denial about longer term threats to Turkish security. Turkey has moved beyond a dalliance with Russia but has not yet embraced an alliance. In that space may lie some hope for better choices that the ones Ankara has picked thus far.