Russian President Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey's prime minister, in Istanbul, December 2012.
Osman Orsal / REUTERS

Turkey's normalization of ties with Russia in late June was a rare bit of good news for the country. Under the pressure of a wave of terrorist attacks by Kurdish guerrillas and the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS; a massive influx of Syrian refugees; mounting economic problems compounded by Russian sanctions; and growing friction with the European Union and the United States, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to have decided that his country could no longer afford a cold war with Moscow.

By apologizing for Turkey's downing of a Russian warplane in November 2015, Erdogan paved the way for the resumption of economic ties and increased security cooperation between the two countries. The apology, however, will not diminish Russia's growing influence in Turkey's backyard. More than the shootdown, that broader geopolitical shift—which has seen Russia grow more powerful in the Black Sea region, the Caucasus, and the wider Middle East, often at Ankara’s expense—put an end to the short-lived Russian-Turkish strategic partnership that emerged in the first decade of this century.

In the years to come, Russia's growing clout in Turkey’s backyard will continue to limit the opportunities for genuine partnership between Ankara and Moscow. And although the failed coup attempt against Erdogan has created the opportunity for increased Russian-Turkish cooperation in the short term by straining Ankara’s relations with the United States and Europe, it has also made Turkey weaker and therefore more vulnerable to Russian coercion. These developments will further limit the long-term prospects for anything but a highly unequal partnership between the two countries.

A Russian navy ship under way in the Bosphorus, April 2016.
A Russian navy ship under way in the Bosphorus, April 2016. 
Murad Sezer / REUTERS

I WANT YOU BACK

The first decade of this century saw a close Russian-Turkish partnership that turned centuries of confrontation on their head. The two countries’ strategic ambitions began to converge: both hoped to carve out a larger role for themselves in the global order and were becoming increasingly frustrated with what they saw as the West’s refusal to give them a seat at the table. And with both their economies struggling, Ankara and Moscow began to focus on economic cooperation, deepening their trade and investment ties. By 2015, Russia was Turkey’s third-largest trading partner, fourth-largest source of foreign investment, and main supplier of natural gas, and Russian tourists had become a common sight in Turkish resort towns.

Russia’s November 2015 decision to impose sanctions on Turkey for the downing of the warplane seriously hurt the Turkish economy. Moscow focused its sanctions on the three pillars of the bilateral economic relationship: agriculture, construction, and tourism. Among other measures, Russia banned imports of many Turkish foods, restricted the activities of Turkish construction companies in Russia, outlawed charter flights between the two countries, and canceled an agreement on visa-free travel that Moscow and Ankara had finalized in 2010. The Russian gas giant Gazprom shelved its plans to build a new pipeline across the Black Sea to Turkey, and Rosatom, a state-owned nuclear corporation, suspended work on a reactor it was building in the Turkish city of Akkuyu. Taken together, according to an estimate by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the sanctions would have diminished Turkey's GDP by 0.7 percent in 2016 had they stayed in place for the entire year.

Equally damaging for Turkey were the effects of the confrontation with Russia on Ankara’s efforts to deal with the crisis in Syria. That conflict has pitted Russia, which along with Iran and the Shiite militant group Hezbollah backs the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, against Turkey, which together with a number of Gulf Arab and Western states supports various Sunni rebel groups seeking Assad’s ouster. In the months after the warplane incident, Moscow stepped up its actions against Turkish interests in Syria, using its air force to attack rebel groups backed by Turkey. In turn, more Syrians fled their homes for Turkey, which now hosts more than three million refugees.

Erdogan’s evisceration of the military will leave it less able to resist the expansion of Russian power.

At the same time, Russia provided additional support to the Syrian-based Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD)—a cause for angst among Turkish leaders, who view the PYD as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group fighting a bloody separatist conflict in Turkey’s southeast that has taken on new life in the last year. Russia allowed the PYD, which has carved out a de facto statelet in northern Syria, to open a representative office in Moscow, and the Russian air force carried out bombing missions that cleared the way for the Syrian Kurds to seize additional territory. (Ankara also charged that Russian arms deliveries to the PYD were being smuggled across the Syrian-Turkish border, winding up in the hands of the PKK.) 

In this context, it should come as no surprise that Erdogan moved so quickly to restore Turkey’s ties with Russia. Together with an upsurge in ISIS attacks in Turkey, the failure of Turkey’s strategy for the Syrian civil war, Ankara’s deepening international isolation, and the worsening of the conflict with the PKK, the economic and strategic costs of Russia’s retaliation appear to have convinced the Turkish government that it could no longer afford the confrontation with Moscow. Erdogan’s expression of regret seemed designed to pave the way for Turkey to drop its demand for the immediate ouster of Assad (which has appeared unlikely for some time) in exchange for an end to the Russian sanctions and the rolling back of Russia’s support for the PYD. If the gambit succeeds, Ankara will be able to focus on the more immediate challenges of the PKK and of ISIS—in the latter case, perhaps in conjunction with Russia.

In recent weeks, Russia has canceled the bans it imposed on charter flights to Turkish resorts and authorized talks aimed at the resumption of normal economic ties. And in the wake of the June 28 ISIS-led suicide bombing at Istanbul’s international airport, the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers met in Sochi and agreed to resume military-to-military contacts and antiterrorism cooperation.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, June 2016.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, June 2016. 
Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Presidential Palace / Handout via REUTERS

GOODBYE TO ALL THAT

Any Russian-Turkish détente, however, will probably not restore the strategic partnership that defined the relationship between Ankara and Moscow before the Syrian conflict. The first seeds of that partnership were already sown in the late 1990s, but it was not until Erdogan entered office in 2003 that they really bloomed. Then as now, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both authoritarian strongmen who share some personal chemistry, had in common a frustration with a Western-dominated international order that struggled to fully integrate their two countries. And both Erdogan’s Turkey and Putin’s Russia shared some economic interests—for example, sending Russian gas to Europe by way of pipelines passing through Turkey.

What really made the Russian-Turkish partnership possible, however, was the retreat of Moscow’s military power from Turkey’s borders after the collapse of the Soviet Union. From the Crimean War to the Cold War, Turkey’s insecurity in the face of Russia’s military power forced Turkey to tie itself to more powerful states in Europe and North America—France and the United Kingdom in the 1850s, Germany during World War I, and NATO starting in the 1950s. That changed in 1991, when the crumbling of Moscow’s military and the waning of Russia’s influence in the Balkans, the eastern Mediterranean, and the South Caucasus lifted the threat posed by Russia to Turkey for the first time in centuries, allowing Turkey to pursue a more ambitious foreign policy and to deepen its role in the Middle East.

In recent years, however, Russia’s military has improved, largely as the result of a massive defense modernization program the country began in 2008. And in Turkey’s neighborhood, Moscow is beefing up its military presence. Russia has created anti-access/area denial zones in the Black Sea, where since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 it has been working to upgrade its naval forces, and it is also developing an A2/AD bubble in the eastern Mediterranean. Russia has moved additional forces and equipment to its naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus, and it has struck deals with the Assad government to station forces at other sites around the country, notably Latakia. In December 2015, it promised to bolster its 5,000-strong military contingent in Armenia, on the Turkish border, and established a joint air defense system with that country. (Some of these steps, such as the deployment of additional forces to Armenia, may not happen in the wake of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement, but most of them will likely endure.)

Moscow, unlike Turkey’s NATO allies, will be willing to look the other way as Erdogan purges his opponents.

These changes have once again made Ankara vulnerable to Russian coercion. At the same time, Russia’s and Turkey’s strategic interests have diverged: not only in Syria, but also in Ukraine, which Russia has worked to dismember as Turkey has deepened ties, and in the Caucasus, where renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan has exacerbated the rivalry between Ankara and Moscow in that region.

The failed coup in Turkey may ameliorate some of these tensions in the short run, since Moscow, unlike the United States and Turkey’s other NATO allies, will be willing to look the other way as Erdogan purges his domestic opponents. Indeed, Russia will likely take advantage of Turkey’s alienation from the West to try pulling it closer. Nor does it hurt that the Turkey's air force, which has long chafed at Russian airspace violations and has encouraged robust responses to them, is now facing Erdogan’s wrath over the central role it played in the plot to overthrow him. (In fact, the pilots who shot down the Russian jet were among those arrested after the coup’s failure.) 

Over the longer term, however, the fallout from the coup will exacerbate Turkey’s relative insecurity. Erdogan’s evisceration of the military will leave it less able to resist the expansion of Russian power, even as his crackdown on his perceived opponents risks estranging Turkey’s Western allies. With Turkey facing the deepest uncertainty it has seen in decades, Erdogan is in no position to push back against Moscow. Russia will continue to expand its influence in the two countries' shared neighborhood while offering Ankara only the prospect of an unequal relationship.

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