Richard Giragosian

Turkey-Russia: The Challenge of Inherent Rivalry

Despite a degree of domestic discord and turmoil within Turkey, Turkish foreign policy has continued to be dynamically active.  Turkey’s successful “normalization” of relations with Israel in June 2016 culminated with the arrival of Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Eitan Na’eh, who recently presented his credentials to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.  In turn, Turkish Ambassador to Israel Kemal Öke recently assumed his post in Tel Aviv.  The return of the Israeli ambassador to Ankara effectively ends six years of downgraded diplomatic contacts between the two countries since the Mavi Marmara crisis of 2010. 

Yet despite the challenging and emotional context of the initial crisis with Israel, Turkey remains committed to returning to an earlier period of strategic coordination and tactical cooperation with Israel.

Beyond the normalization effort with Israel, however, the necessity for restoring and repairing relations with Russia has been an even higher priority for Turkey.  This was first evident earlier this month, with the meeting of the Fifth Joint Strategic Planning Group Meeting, a component of the Turkish-Russian High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC).  

Hosted by Turkey and chaired jointly by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, the meeting was especially significant, for two reasons.

First, although this Turkish-Russian meeting opened with a rather smooth focus on “bilateral issues,” it also faced a daunting agenda of “current regional and international developments,” including the divisive issue of Syria. 

This particular meeting was also important to prepare for a higher level meeting of the Turkish-Russian High Level Cooperation Council (HLCC) in early 2017.  That meeting, set to be convened in Russia, will bring together both presidents--Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin.  And beyond the symbolic significance of that coming presidential meeting, the timing of such an Erdoğan-Putin meeting is even more telling, as the first such summit after the start of the new Trump Administration in Washington. 

Timed with the start of the Trump Administration, the meeting may also offer Russian President Putin a chance to test American resolve early by seeking to weaken the NATO alliance by seducing Turkish president into softening Turkish commitment to NATO.  And of course, for the Turkish president, it will be a welcome respite from his own tension with Western leaders, which only draws him close to the Russian leader as an equally criticized “autocrat” in many foreign eyes. 

The outlook for Turkish-Russian relations

And it is this broader context that is key to assessing the outlook for the course of Turkish-Russian relations.  On the one hand, after a sharp spike in tension with the European Union, a trend that has deepened since the failed coup in July but was triggered anew by the European Parliament, Ankara may seize an opportunity to demonstrate its disregard for Brussels by embracing Moscow.

This tendency may only be exacerbated by Russia’s moves to not only encourage Turkish frustration with the West but to also seek to entice Turkey to solidify a strategic Eastward shift in orientation.

Against this backdrop, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım’s visit Russia stands a preliminary move to advance Turkey’s own agenda, including pushing an economic demand for trade with Russia, as well as Iran and China, to be conducted in local currency.  For Turkey, this is as much about “economic nationalism” as trade policy, and also includes a bid for lower prices for Turkish gas imports and a return to earlier levels of commerce, trade and tourism.

Russian interests are somewhat different, however.  For Moscow, the core issues of relations with Turkey are two-fold.  First, Russia seeks to return the relationship with Turkey to one of energy, ranging from gas pipelines to nuclear power.  And despite the pleasantries of the relationship, Russia still exerts leverage over Turkey—by maintaining a ban on 11 of the 21 Turkish agricultural products that were first blocked from entering the Russian market during the onset of the crisis and with a delayed restart of charter flights for Russians until well after the end of the tourism season. 

But the second priority for Russia in dealing with Turkey centers on ensuring an “agreement to disagree” with Turkey over Syria.  And just as Syria was the initial trigger for the crisis, it continues to be a lingering burden, especially as Russia seeks to block Turkey’s options while bullying Turkey into passive acceptance of Russian military operations in the Syrian theater. 

Despite this dynamic backdrop to Turkish-Russian relations, it will still take much more to return to the past period of easy cooperation.  The inherent rivalry, in both terms of history and current issues, remains firmly entrenched and will require a much deeper commitment that either Ankara or Moscow seems ready to concede.