Turkey's relationship with Russia is historically fraught with suspicion and friction. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the two countries have established an important economic relationship, and they have set a bold, perhaps unreachable target of $100 billion in bilateral trade. Even so, this economic aspiration is counterbalanced by differing prerogatives in the strategic and geopolitical realm. Turkey, representing NATO's eastern flank, has partnered for decades with the United States and the European Union to contain Russian influence in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as the Caucasus. Recent developments in the Syrian civil war have resulted in a strange congruence of interests and seeming cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, but it would be a stretch to argue that this cooperation will deepen into an enduring strategic relationship.
Frayed Relations With the U.S.
Since 2012, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been at odds with the United States, under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, for actively supporting Kurdish rebels in Syria to defeat the Islamic State. Turkey considers the Kurdish rebels in Syria an offshoot of the insurgent Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which the Turkish government, as well as the United States, NATO and the European Union, lists as a terrorist organization. In turn, Russia has, with the help of Iran, established a process not only of defeating the Islamic State in Syria but also of defeating all rebel groups fighting the pro-Russian government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The situation in Syria has left policy analysts wondering whether Turkey is actively distancing itself from its American and European partners to adopt a closer strategic relationship with Russia.
To be sure, there are many issues that have resulted in a deep schism between Turkey and the United States. U.S. backing of Kurdish rebels can be seen as merely the tip of the iceberg. In return, Turkey has concluded the purchase (if not the actual deployment) of a Russian S-400 missile system to bolster its air defenses in clear preference to the U.S.-made Patriot missile system. U.S. authorities have threatened their Turkish counterparts that if they deploy the Russian missiles the United States will not transfer more than 100 F-35 fighters to Turkey, mainly because the Russian crews who would operate the S-400 batteries would be in a prime position to gain information regarding the F-35's strengths and weaknesses. Further, Erdogan's government has arbitrarily detained U.S. citizens as bargaining chips to compel Washington to accede to Turkish policy demands, specifically regarding Syria. In return, the United States, in addition to sanctioning Turkish Cabinet ministers, has threatened further punitive measures against Turkey — measures that could seriously damage its already debt-ridden and fragile economy.
Instead of mending fences with the United States and requesting emergency financial assistance from the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund and/or World Bank, could it be that Erdogan is more interested in turning to new "allies" such as Russia and China to achieve his regional and wider foreign policy agenda? The purchasing of sovereign debt by China is just one avenue by which Beijing is advancing its global ambition of unseating the United States as the sole economic and military hegemon, and it would be quite attractive to Erdogan's government precisely because monetary loans from China are likely to carry fewer conditions than those obtained from the IMF and World Bank. Other than a historical security apparatus rooted in the Cold War, and limited trade relations, there is not much that binds Turkey and the United States together.
Other than a historical security apparatus rooted in the Cold War, and limited trade relations, there is not much that binds Turkey and the United States together.
On the other hand, Russia and Turkey have a significant economic partnership that not only spans a number of critical sectors but also makes Turkey increasingly dependent on Russia. Turkey derives 55 percent of its natural gas needs (natural gas produces 60 percent of its electricity) from Russia, for example. Both countries have also signed an agreement to build at least one Russian nuclear power plant in Turkey. Because of Turkey's potential as a transit hub for Russian natural gas to Europe — one that bypasses Ukraine — Moscow and Ankara are building the TurkStream pipeline, which could begin carrying Russian natural gas through Turkey to the European Union via Bulgaria as early as late 2019. The Russian domestic market is a vital destination for Turkish exports, including but not limited to cars, agricultural produce and textiles.
Further, the influx of 4 million to 5 million Russian tourists to Turkey in 2017 represents 12 percent of the country's total number of tourists and a significant source of revenue. To crown these vital areas of economic synergy, one must bear in mind that Turkey and Russia's bilateral relationship does not depend on shared values such as human rights and democratic governance, a factor that has further embittered Turkey's relationship with the United States and the European Union.
Signs of Improvement
Despite the economic ties, Turkey's supposed realignment toward Russia and China — a clear preference that would put it in the Eurasia camp and possibly out of NATO — is not likely to materialize. Turkey and Russia have vastly different strategic priorities and visions. In the immediate future, Turkey is ambivalent about a Russian- and Iranian-backed military assault on the last rebel-held town of Idlib in Syria. Erdogan has so far succeeded in preventing the operation from taking place. This may not last for much longer. Russia has a clear interest in ending the Syrian civil war and seeing al Assad's government fully in control of the country once again. This concern presents a number of problems for Turkey. The battle for Idlib would result in new waves of refugees destined for Turkey, which already hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians and isn't in a position to cope with more. In addition, it is highly likely that the extremist elements making up the remnants of the Syrian resistance that Turkey has actively supported (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, and other Islamic State or former al Qaeda elements) would flee to Turkey and pose an internal security threat.
In the long term, Turkey has little to gain with a re-empowered al Assad government, which is likely to present a resentful posture against Erdogan, precisely because he tried to topple al Assad's government and replace it with a Sunni alternative. Strategically speaking, Turkey also remains largely isolated in the region, and in the event it does not patch up its relationship with its partners, it is likely to face increased security and economic challenges, which its NATO, U.S. and EU anchors so far have largely shielded Ankara from. Consider that Turkey has no real alternative to renewing and maintaining its military capacity independent of U.S.-made products — namely the F-35 fighter. It is for such reasons that Erdogan has recently initiated several overtures to begin rebuilding relationships with allies he has seriously strained. The freeing of U.S. cleric Andrew Brunson in mid-October was a clear attempt to de-escalate tensions with the United States and prevent further sanctions being levied against Turkey. More recently, the apparent murder of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul has resulted in Erdogan attempting to marginalize Saudi Arabia in the eyes of the United States and the European Union and to raise Turkey's profile as a more credible partner, by divulging precise intelligence in Khashoggi's death.
Turkey remains more distant toward its once stalwart alliance with the United States and partnership with the European Union than at any other point in recent history. However, in the coming months we are likely to witness more overt measures to rekindle and reaffirm these embittered ties, if only for pragmatic reasons.