Recent developments suggest the Russians have at least temporarily decided to go easy on the Turks. How long this cooling down of tensions will last will depend on how much tolerance Ankara has for further Russian aggression. The Aug. 8 Russian invasion of Georgia naturally precipitated a standoff between the Russians and the Turks. Turkey, a NATO member with a historic foothold in the Caucasus, was not happy to see the Russians taking aggressive action in the region — especially action that cut off the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and hurt Turkish energy revenues. The Turks reminded Moscow of the risks of angering Ankara
by permitting a NATO naval buildup in the Black Sea in late August. The Russians promptly responded by holding up a large amount of Turkish goods at various Russian border checkpoints to put the squeeze on Turkish exports.
But as STRATFOR pointed out, the Russians were playing a very risky game in provoking Turkey. As the gatekeeper to the Black Sea, Turkey is NATO's key to cutting to the Russian underbelly with the Western alliance's superior naval forces. The Turks have recently gone on a diplomatic frenzy to reassert their influence in the Caucasus and undermine Russian power in the region, even going so far as to engage longtime foe Armenia. In the Middle East, the Turks are just as busy talking to the Iranians and keeping the Syrians close to keep the Russians from meddling too close to Turkey. Turkey still has a range of options — from restricting Russian disruptions of the transport of Russian energy through the Black Sea to riling up ethnic minorities in the Russian Federation — at its disposal should the Russians push Ankara too far. And so it appears the Russians have chosen to placate the Turks for the time being. Two recent developments point in this direction. First, the previously mentioned trade spat between Turkey and Russia reportedly was resolved Sept. 18. According to Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Hayati Yazici, Turkey and Russia signed a protocol bringing an end to the "customs crisis." Second, Turkish newspapers reported Sept. 19 that Ankara and Moscow have signed a $100 million agreement for 800 anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). For years a crucial Cold War ally of Washington, Turkey has a military heavily outfitted with U.S. — and to a lesser extent Western European — hardware. The international ATGM market is fairly broad, and Ankara's more traditional suppliers also have late-model ATGMs available for sale. In other words, there is no clear military need for Turkey to get these ATGMs from the Russians. While the deal is not unprecedented (the Turks field a great many Russian-built BTR-80 wheeled armored personnel carriers), it is somewhat anomalous for Turkey to be signing big defense deals with Russia against this revived Cold War backdrop. It is not yet clear which ATGM the Russian arms monopoly Rosoboronexport will deliver to the Turks, but Moscow does offer an ATGM system for the Russian-built BTR series. If that system proves to be the one just purchased, it would make Russia the logical choice — if not the only eligible supplier. But at this point, given what we know, this is another instance in which all obstacles seemed to have suddenly melted away. Above all else, we notice the timing of this arms deal. While it appears that Turkey is entertaining Russian offers for cooperation, this apparent respite could prove to be short-lived, depending on Russia's next moves. With hints of the Russians already making moves in the Middle East through covert activity in Lebanon
and talk of arms deals to the Iranians, the Turks (along with the Israelis)
are on guard. Moreover, the Europeans are quite intentionally playing up the idea that Turkey is central to NATO strategy against Russia, and that Turkish-European relations must be protected at all costs. For Turkey to take any big steps in smoothing over things with Russia, it will expect Moscow to cede significant influence to the Turks in the Caucasus. This is particularly true in Azerbaijan, where Turkey's foothold is the strongest and where it can access Caspian Sea energy reserves. For Turkey to have direct access to Azerbaijan, it must bring Armenia under its wing
. From the Russian point of view, however, this could prove to be a nonnegotiable point. As much as the Russians do not wish to get drawn into a geopolitical battle with the Turks, Moscow has a strategic need to consolidate its influence in the Caucasus. Turkey will have a difficult balancing act to play in the coming weeks and months, as conflicts will inevitably arise between its commitment to NATO and its separate dealings with Russia (Turkey's largest trading partner). Russia, meanwhile, will carefully weigh the risks of offending Ankara as it plans its next moves against the West.