Cooperation in Syria has proved functionally and mutually beneficial for both Russia and Turkey sides, as illustrated by the tripartite Astana and Sochi processes (also including Iran). It is clear that neither process would have got off the ground without Russia. But it was Turkey that lent them international legitimacy and acceptance. Without Ankara, they would have been merely gatherings of the pro-regime powers in Syria. It is unlikely that Macron and Merkel would have joined the Astana trio’s meeting in Istanbul in October 2018, had it not been hosted by NATO member Turkey. The Syrian crisis has therefore been the glue in Turkish-Russian relations in recent years.
A modicum of caution is warranted here, because the Syrian crisis is also the most challenging test of the relationship, given Turkey and Russia’s different priorities and visions for the Syrian endgame. The recent Russian-Syrian assault on Idlib, including the targeting of Turkey’s military outposts, illustrates the shaky nature of Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria. Syria has become leverage for Russia to shape Turkish-US relations, particularly within the context of Syria.
Cooperation between Turkey and Russia is increasingly shifting to industries and areas that create path dependencies. No longer do construction, tourism, textiles, and fruits or vegetables define Turkish-Russian economic ties. Instead, cooperation has shifted to strategic industries that create long-lasting mutual dependencies – from the TurkStream pipeline project to the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear power plant and the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system. By the time the S-400 deal is completed, Russia is expected to have more than 13 percent supplier share in Turkey’s arms market. What is emerging, however, is an asymmetric dependency favouring Russia more than Turkey. So Turkey’s search for autonomy in foreign policy and security might in fact culminate in greater dependency on Russia.
The health of Turkish-Western relations – currently crisis-ridden – is a key factor shaping the Turkish-Russian relationship. No longer content with its previously hierarchical relations, Turkey wants recognition from the West as a major regional power. Neither the Cold War framework of Turkish-American relations (Turkey joined NATO in 1952 and the Turkish-US alliance was a product of the Cold War) nor the EU accession framework will be capable of resolving Turkey’s status anxiety in its relations with the West. This aspect of the crisis also indicates the limits of personality-centric readings of the present state of Turkey’s relations with Russia and the West. It is obvious that the personal chemistry between Erdogan and Putin, similarities in their style of governance and grievances vis-à-vis the West helped to improve relations between Ankara and Moscow. But the crisis in Turkish-Western relations is structural. It predated Erdogan and will outlast him.
In spite of these factors, it is too early to assert that Turkey is joining Russian orbit. The Turkish elites – both Ottoman and republican – have always been alert to Russian geopolitical ambitions. Denying Russia a significant presence south of Turkey’s borders has been a consistent position since the Ottoman Empire.
Unlike Turkey’s ties to the West, which traditionally enjoyed strong backing among elites and institutions (especially the foreign policy and security establishment) and were underpinned by a certain world view (historically speaking, prioritizing secular modernization and progress), Turkey’s current relationship with Russia lacks such an overarching framework and arguably still has limited political and bureaucratic backing. Whether this remains the case will depend on how long Turkish-Russian relations continue in the current cooperative modes of engagement.
Turkey and Russia’s competing regional aspirations and different security concerns (see Syria) also put a ceiling to their relationship. On the other side of the equation, the meaning of Turkey’s membership in Western clubs is changing dramatically. No longer do these institutions provide the framework – or even a point of reference – for Turkey’s foreign and security policy choices. Yet despite the crisis in Turkish-Western relations, Turkey’s membership in major Western institutions, including NATO, is not going to end any time soon.
This is why Turkey does not believe it is giving up its place in the Western camp. Unlike many in the West, Turkey does not see itself making a choice between Russia and the West through its purchase of the Russian S-400. Instead Turkey is giving up the idea that its relations with the West in general and the United States in particular are indispensable, and therefore it has to approach all its other relations through these Western lenses. Turkey believes that its interests are better served through a balancing act between traditional ties to the West and recently improving relations with countries like Russia and China. This in turn means that instead of joining the Russian orbit, the next phase of Turkish foreign policy will be ad-hoc, transactional, issue-based and lacking any overarching framework or orientation.
Galip Dalay is IPC-Mercator Fellow at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP).