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With U.S.-Turkish relations at their lowest point in decades, Turkey’s president flew to St. Petersburg on Tuesday to meet with his Russian counterpart. As both men were eager to announce, the summit will almost certainly help usher in a new period of Russian-Turkish rapprochement. But, whatever observers might hope or fear, there is little reason to think that the occasion heralds a major realignment in Turkish foreign policy.
Following the attempted coup in Turkey on July 15, the Turkish media has been quick to contrast Russia’s enthusiastic support for Turkey’s elected government with the more restrained response from Western politicians and press. Russian President Vladimir Putin called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on July 16, and Russian papers promoted the (false) story that Russian intelligence had saved Erdogan’s life by giving him advanced warning of the plot. U.S. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, did not call until July 19, by which point Turkish papers were already promoting the (false) story that Washington had orchestrated the coup.
Of course, there is every reason for Russia to be happy with the way the attempted putsch turned out. Erdogan, more firmly in power than ever, is furious at the United States and is quickly dismantling his country’s military. Both of these developments present an opportunity for Russia.
Those in Turkey’s ruling AKP who believe that the United States is conspiring to bring down Erdogan might be tempted to see Russian support as valuable purely from the perspective of political survival. And militarily, the arrest and dismissal of hundreds of high-ranking officers and thousands of other members of the armed forces will further complicate Turkey’s already strained strategic situation. For over a year, the Turkish army has been fighting Kurdish insurgents while Turkish-supported rebels in Syria have faced repeated setbacks at the hands of ISIS, Syrian Kurdish forces, and pro-Assad forces.
Even before June 15, Ankara had already started repairing its regional relationships. By reaching out to Russia and Israel in recent months, the Turkish government sought to break out of an increasingly isolated position, even sending conciliatory signals to the Assad regime. “Assad is, at the end of the day, a killer,” as a senior AKP official told Reuters. “But he does not support Kurdish autonomy.”
Despite these political and strategic incentives, however, conflicting interests limit the possibilities for Turkish-Russian rapprochement.
On several occasions during the Cold War when U.S.-Turkish relations were strained, Turkish leaders sought to improve relations with Moscow. In the late 1950s, Adnan Menderes, the man who brought Turkey into NATO, played the Russia card fairly unconvincingly when conflict arose over U.S. economic aid. In the 1970s, Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit sought a limited rapprochement with the Soviet Union after clashing with Washington over Cyprus and Turkish opium production. Ecevit’s left-wing politics made the effort seem more sincere. But so long as the Soviet Union represented the overwhelming threat to Turkish security there was only so far any Turkish leader was willing to go to win over its eastern neighbor.
In fact, the only time Ankara ever enjoyed truly close relations with Moscow was when Russia was at its weakest—during the 1920s and 1930s. After World War I, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk used weapons provided by the Bolsheviks to defeat European colonial powers intent on occupying Anatolia. Subsequently, he saw the Soviet Union as a fellow anti-imperial power and a source of ideas about a state-led economy. But the relationship was predicated on the fact that, following centuries of conflict in the Ottoman era, Russia no longer posed an existential risk to Turkey.
As a result, there is something of a structural reassurance for anyone in Washington worried that an increasingly anti-Western Turkey will team up with a resurgent Russia: the more powerful and aggressive Russia becomes, the less plausible of a partner it will be for Turkey.
Indeed, the best example of this tension is in Syria. Moscow seems to assume that rapprochement with Turkey will be based on Ankara giving up its interests in the country and accepting an Assad victory. At the press conference after their meeting, Putin’s sole comment on Syria was that “democratic change can only be achieved by democratic means,” a criticism aimed at Turkey’s strategy of backing anti-Assad militias in the name of Syrian democracy. The Kremlin appears to be waiting to see if post-coup Turkey will change tack in Syria and scale back support for its proxies. Yet unilateral Turkish concessions are unlikely to form the foundation of a durable relationship. Especially if anti-Assad rebels prove capable of holding their own against the regime in Northern Syria, Russia’s ability to make inroads with Turkey will depend on its being willing to offer real concessions to Ankara in and around Aleppo and with regard to the Syrian Kurds.
Yet major concessions on either issue look unlikely. Moscow has relations with Kurdish groups that date back decades, and it is unlikely to abandon them. Nor would Russia’s attitude toward the Kurds matter so long as Washington continues to arm and fund Kurdish militias fighting ISIS. At the same time, the Turkish-backed rebels around Aleppo represent the greatest threat to the Russian-backed Syrian government. It remains possible that ongoing negotiations in Geneva will achieve a lasting deal between Assad and the rebels, but the meeting in St. Petersburg provided little evidence of immediate progress.
But even supposing that Turkey and Russia manage to agree on Syria, Moscow and Ankara would still have many issues that divide them. Three disputes stand out: Cyprus, the Caucasus, and Crimea. Ankara wants a deal to reunify Cyprus, releasing it from the need to subsidize the Turkish half of the island, but Russia prefers to keep the country divided. Similarly, in the simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkey backs its ethnic kin in Azerbaijan whereas Russia keeps a military base in Armenia. For the Kremlin, the maintenance of the status quo—in which Russia plays the dominant political role in the Caucasus—is a key aim. Turkey, however, faces domestic political pressure to back Azerbaijan, and does not want Russia to monopolize the energy supply routes running through the region, especially since oil and gas pipelines from Azerbaijan via Georgia terminate in Turkey. In Crimea, too, Ankara faces domestic pressure to stand up for Crimean Tatars, a small but vocal lobby in Turkey. None of these three regional conflicts alone is guaranteed to derail cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, but they are nevertheless points of conflict.
Each of these regional conflicts, moreover, is in a location where Russian military strength has significantly increased in recent years. Russia now deploys advanced air defense systems in Crimea, in Armenia, and—via bases in Syria—the Eastern Mediterranean. These missile systems have carved out areas in which opposing air forces would face serious challenges in operating. Russia has, in fact, fully encircled Turkey, from the north in Crimea, the east in Armenia, and the southwest in Syria. Russia’s new military capabilities will be a continuing concern to defense planners in Ankara, who are unlikely to welcome any further increase in Russian military power.
On top of these enduring regional disagreements and Turkish concern about Russian military power, prospects for an enduring alignment between Ankara and Moscow are limited by the reality that there is not much, beyond Syria, that the Kremlin can do to help Erdogan. Russian foreign ministry officials promise improved ties in trade, energy, agriculture, and transport. But Russia has already agreed to lift the most damaging tourism and agriculture sanctions that it imposed in late 2015. And the Kremlin is in no financial position to bankroll Turkey. It promises a new gas pipeline from Russia via Turkey to Europe, but Turkey’s ambassador to Russia, Ümit Yardım, recently told the media that a deal on the pipeline will not be signed soon. Russia cannot offer much else. The Kremlin talks about involving Ankara in its Eurasian integration schemes, but Europe will remain a far more significant trade partner for Turkey.
More important to both leaders than any specific concessions is the bargaining value of the impression that their ties are improving. Turkey’s government is angry about the West’s response to the coup. Many Turks appreciate Russia’s quick condemnation of the putschists and lack of criticism as Erdogan purges the bureaucracy and military of suspected coup sympathizers. Yet Turkey’s leaders are rational politicians. They realize that U.S. and European officials are worried about what a Turkish-Russian rapprochement would mean for Syria, for NATO, and for Europe’s refugee policy. The more real a Turkish-Russian realignment looks, the more likely the West is to tone down criticism of Erdogan and get back to business on terms that Turkey finds acceptable. Hosting summits with Putin is, if anything, a low-cost way for Erdogan to remind the West how much he matters.
Putin, too, has plenty of reason to play up ties with Turkey. The Kremlin is unhappy with proposals to build up NATO’s strength in the Black Sea. It wants a freer hand in Syria, with less Western criticism and interference. And it is happy to see disagreement within NATO. As a diplomatic tool and as a point of leverage over Western powers, a rapprochement is useful for both Putin and Erdogan. But a lasting realignment would require shared interests, not only a hasty friendship designed to extract concessions from the West.