Turkey, Russia: A Complex Relationship (Agenda)

MIN READApr 19, 2013 | 20:51 GMT

Editor's Note: Transcripts are generated using speech-recognition technology. Therefore, Stratfor cannot guarantee their complete accuracy. Video Transcript: Colin Chapman: An important but perhaps less well-noticed meeting took place in Turkey this week between the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and his Turkish opposite number. Syria was high on the agenda of what was called the "Joint Strategic Planning Group." It took place ahead of the Friends of Syria dialogue, to be held also in Istanbul this weekend. Attending were representatives of Western and Arab governments. Welcome to Agenda. I'm Colin Chapman, this week in Jakarta, and I'm joined by Reva Bhalla, Director of Global Analysis. Reva, Russia and Turkey have diametrically opposed views on Syria, and before he left to go home, Mr. Lavrov said, "If [Syrian President Bashar] al Assad's departure is the priority, the cost of such a geopolitical approach will be more casualties." There's some truth in this, isn't there? Reva Bhalla: Well of course, Colin, Russia has an interest in preserving its Alawite allies in Damascus, but Putin also has a very clear point. No matter what negotiations are held in Istanbul, in Paris, in Washington, what have you, no negotiation is going to preclude the eventual descent into civil war for the northern Levant. And this is a very familiar history for this region, and so Russia can clearly see the trajectory of the events. It's also not going to get its wish, though, of preserving an allied regime in Damascus — certainly not one that's capable of governing the entire country. Colin: Now, Syria was the main item on the agenda, but it wasn't the only one. There was a lot of talk about other issues. Lets go through them one by one. For example, the Caucasus where there has been a change of government in Georgia, which will have some impact on Turkey. Reva: Right, so Turkey and Azerbaijan in particular are very uncomfortable with the political evolution that has taken place in Georgia with the rise of [Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina] Ivanishvili, who made his millions in Russia. Now, Turkey does not want to see its southern corridor energy projects that run from the Caucasus through Turkey and possibly onward to Europe be sabotaged by any sort of political transition that we see in Georgia, especially with pro-Russian tendencies. And so Turkey is basically trying to feel out what is happening in Georgia, its trying to figure out what the Russians' intentions are, how far is it willing to go, and it doesn't want to see these projects obstructed. So far, nothing has been derailed but Turkey is certainly on alert. Colin: Then there's Cyprus. In the wake of the banking debacle in which a lot of Cypriots and Russians lost their shirts, the Cyprus government and the Russians appear to be talking about offshore oil developments, but that's not particularly good news for Turkey, is it, which has still got many outstanding issues about the future of Northern Cyprus. Reva: Turkey has been very uncomfortable with this realignment of forces that has taken place in the eastern Mediterranean, with Israel and Cyprus trying to exploit their natural gas reserves and growing close together, putting their own sordid history aside, also aligning with Greece and with Russian backing. And also remember this is Turkey's western maritime flank. It does not want to see a potentially hostile alignment of forces develop. And so Turkey came late to this game but it also wants to desperately scuttle any energy projects that are taking place in the eastern Mediterranean that could strengthen the ties among these countries. And so it doesn't want Cyprus' bailout negotiations with Russia to entail any promises of future energy rights transferred to Russia as Cyprus tries to exploit its own natural gas reserves, certainly not while the Northern Cyprus status is in limbo. So Turkey, especially over the past few weeks, has been kind of desperately trying to find anybody to mediate the Cypriot conflict. Of course, the Europeans have bigger distractions and are not exactly engaged in the issue, so Turkey is going directly to Russia, again trying to gauge its intentions and trying to get Russian assurances that its not going to go too far. Now Russia, on the other hand, has a strategic interest in building on its existing cultural and religious ties and business ties to this region to further its stake hold in the eastern Mediterranean and use that as well to make sure it can integrate itself into any energy projects that attempt to circumvent Russia's energy hold on the Continent. Colin: Finally, Turkey is pretty shackled to Russia for its energy requirements — I think the figure is some 70 percent dependency. So logic dictates that these two should really be coming to some kind of friendly agreement. Turkey, of course, is still a long way from ever joining the European Union. Do you think that Turkey is now more or less reconciled to the idea that it has to draw closer to Moscow in its future? Reva: In short, no, they cannot. As much as Turkey is uncomfortable with being so beholden to Russia through these energy links, it can't escape it. If you just look at Turkish power consumption, expected to rise 30 percent just over the next decade, Turkey cannot avoid getting a stable supply from Russia. Of course, it's going to be pursuing alternative sources of energy, but there are major political complications to trying to develop energy resources and transporting them from northern Iraq, of course as well with Iran. It will be getting natural gas from Azerbaijan with Shah Deniz II fields coming on-line but it still will not be enough to compensate for the huge amount of natural gas that Turkey gets from Russia. And so Turkey has tried to see the silver lining in this dynamic and has used that in its political rhetoric to tell Russia, "Look, we have this huge energy dependency with you, that's a good thing because that means you don't have to be worried about us encroaching on your turf and overlapping spheres of influence." And so we've already seen this as Turkey has tried to extend its influence in Central Asia, bit by bit. It's trying to show that it's not an intruder and so it's shown that through things like [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, the prime minister, saying "Allow us into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. We are one of you, we can forget about the Europeans," even though of course Turkey is extremely dependent on European trade. Nonetheless, Turkey is using the political rhetoric to say, "Look, we don't need Europe, we want to be part of your organization. Don't look at us as an intruder. We are one of you." Now, whether the Russians see it that way is of course a whole other question. Colin: Reva, thank you very much. And that's Agenda for this week, thanks very much for being with us.
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