With the Turkish downing of a Russian fighter jet still fresh on his mind, Russian President Vladimir Putin had some choice words for his erstwhile ally Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he delivered his state of the nation speech to the Russian Federal Assembly on Dec. 3. Putin angrily lamented "we were prepared to cooperate with Turkey on most sensitive issues and go further than their allies. Allah knows why they did it. Apparently Allah decided to punish the ruling elite in Turkey by taking their sanity."
While Putin may sound a bit dramatic, there is a hard geopolitical truth behind his shock and dismay toward Turkey. Russia knows the importance of keeping Turkey as a friend when it is facing off with bigger powers to the West. That is because Turkey holds the keys to the Dardanelles and Bosporus — the only way Russian merchant vessels and warships can reach the Mediterranean from Russia's warm water ports in the Black Sea. All of Putin's calculations in dealing with the United States are now turning on an uncomfortable reality that Moscow can no longer fully rely on Turkish neutrality in one of the most strategic spots on the map.
Stressing Over the Straits
The year 1946, when World War II had just wrapped up, offers a useful snapshot into Moscow's extraordinary obsession with the Turkish straits. Since losing its empire after World War I, an economically devastated Turkey had struggled to piece together a nation, wisely choosing to sit out the second round of global conflict. A decade earlier, when Hitler's troops had invaded the demilitarized Rhineland and Mussolini was openly declaring his desire to take over Anatolia, an anxious Turkey demanded a revision to the doctrine governing the straits, arguing that the straits needed to be remilitarized and placed under Turkey's exclusive control. The result was the Montreux Convention of 1936, which formalizes Turkey's role as custodian of the straits, ensures freedom of passage for merchant vessels in times of peace and imposes size, type and tonnage restrictions on non-Black Sea war vessels. Under the convention, war vessels from non-Black Sea states Turkey permits to enter the straits cannot stay in the Black Sea for longer than 21 days. In times of war, Turkey is expected to ban belligerents from the straits altogether to keep the Black Sea conflict free.
But the Soviets were never completely satisfied with Turkey's neutrality, knowing that Ankara was likely to tilt West when things got rough. The Soviets told the Turks in 1946 that if they were sincere about being allies, then they should give the Soviets basing rights in the Dardanelles. The Soviets bandied a number of threats to convey its seriousness to Turkey, such as Soviet territorial claims to portions of eastern Turkey, stirring up Kurdish separatists and backing Syrian claims to Hatay province.
A frazzled Turkey looked across the Atlantic for U.S. help. U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Edwin Wilson explained to U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes that, "the real [Soviet] objective towards Turkey is not a revision of the regime of the Straits, but actual domination of Turkey. In the vast security belt of the Soviet Union, which extends from the Baltic to the Black Sea, Turkey constitutes a sole gap … the Soviet objective, therefore, is to break down this present independent Turkish government and to establish in its place a vassal or "friendly" regime in Turkey, which will complete the security belt of subservient countries on Russia's western and southern frontiers and put an end completely to Western influence in Turkey."
The time had thus come for the United States to bring Turkey under its security umbrella.
On April 6, 1946, the USS Missouri arrived in Istanbul on the pretext of delivering the ashes of a Turkish ambassador to the United States who had died on U.S. soil. A jubilant Turkey celebrated the arrival of the U.S. battleship with special postage stamps and gifts for U.S. naval officers. As Ambassador Wilson put it, "the USS Missouri visit is thus apt to take on the character of one of those imponderable events, the influence of which extends far beyond the immediate theater in which it occurs." The ostentatious display of a U.S. security guarantee was the prelude to U.S. President Harry S. Truman's February 1947 request to Congress to provide foreign aid to Turkey and Greece "to assist free people to deal with their destinies in their own way." This was the Truman Doctrine that locked in the Cold War, with Turkey sitting squarely on the U.S. side.
An Old Rivalry Revived
The Turkish-Russian confrontation is now back, not because either side willed it, but because geopolitics compelled it. Putin and Erdogan are the inheritors of two historical empires that fought several wars from the 17th century to the 19th century. With both countries resurgent, they were bound to butt heads again. The first sign came in August 2008, when Russia's invasion of Georgia woke Turkey up to a Moscow ready and willing to apply military force to re-create buffers in the former Soviet sphere to counter Western encroachment. At that time, Russia was not happy at the sight of Turkey allowing U.S. warships into the Black Sea to deliver aid to Georgian ports; Moscow conveyed its displeasure by holding up thousands of Turkish trucks at the Russian border. But both sides went out of their way to avoid a bigger breach.
The Turkish-Russian confrontation is now back, not because either side willed it, but because geopolitics compelled it.
The 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea was the next big Russian punch to the Turkish gut. Roughly 300,000 Turkic-speaking Tatars remain on the Crimean Peninsula as a remnant of Ottoman history. Turkey's quick defense of the Tatars in the wake of the Russian invasion stemmed from more than a concern for its ethnic kin: Turkey understood that the balance of power in the Black Sea was shifting. Russia's seizure of Crimea meant Moscow no longer has to deal with pesky lease arrangements with a mercurial government in Kiev. Russia now enjoys the freedom to beef up its Sevastopol-based Black Sea Fleet, a fleet largely designed to counter Turkey's naval strength.
Russia's push into Syria in 2015 was the red line for Turkey. In this chapter of Turkish expansion, the Islamist Justice and Development Party is logically prioritizing its volatile Middle Eastern backyard. The Turkish focus is on northern Syria and northern Iraq, a belt of former Ottoman provinces that naturally extend eastward from Turkey's Hatay province. Russia's involvement in Syria in defense of the Alawite government runs directly against Turkey's objective of expanding its own military footprint in Aleppo, keeping a check on Kurdish separatist activity and eventually replacing Syrian President Bashar al Assad with a Sunni government friendly to Turkish interests.
Syria is of peripheral interest to the Russians, just as Ukraine is of peripheral interest to the Turks. But there are a number of factors drawing the Russian military dangerously close to Turkey's core interests along the Syrian-Turkish border. The Islamic State is a real threat to Russia, and Moscow has a legitimate interest in targeting the threat at its source. At the same time, Russia's relationships in Syria are concentrated in Alawite circles. Russia sees its leverage with the Alawite government as its main way to negotiate with the United States, keep Iran dependent on Moscow and deal with threats like Islamic State. The more crowded the battlefield, of course, the greater the chances of a Turkish and Russian collision.
To supply its forces in Syria, the Russian navy has been relying on the so-called Syrian Express, a naval supply route from Sevastopol on the Black Sea to its Eastern Mediterranean naval facility at the Syrian port of Tartus. As gatekeeper of the straits, Turkey could theoretically complicate this supply route. In peacetime, Turkey could still claim it is abiding by the Montreux Convention and allowing Russia free access while increasing inspections on passing Russian ships. While it would prove an annoyance to Russia, Moscow's main worry is Article 20 of the Montreux Convention, which says that in wartime Turkey as a belligerent has full discretion when allowing or preventing the passage of warships through the strait, potentially cutting Russia off from the Mediterranean.
Turkey's Double-Edged Sword
The straits are powerful tools Turkey can use against Moscow, but Ankara cannot easily quit Russia. Turkey is the second-largest buyer of Russian natural gas, a significant importer of Russian oil and metals, and the largest buyer of Russian wheat and sunflower oil. A contentious relationship with Russia will bring enormous economic pain to the Turks. Nowhere is this truer than in their energy relationship. Unlike oil, coal or wheat, which can be sourced from alternative suppliers, Turkey has no quick and reliable alternative for natural gas, an important energy source for industry and households. Russia supplies around 55 percent (or about 27 billion cubic meters of its 50 bcm annual needs) of Turkish natural gas consumption. That supply is split between two pipelines that each can hold 16 bcm of natural gas; Blue Stream, which runs directly from Russia to Turkey across the Black Sea; and the Gas-West pipeline, which transits Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria before reaching Turkey. Turkey is not close to closing the straits to Russia nor is Russia close to cutting off natural gas to Turkey. But even so, Turkey must start taking its energy security much more seriously now that it is in an open confrontation with Russia.
The problem for Turkey is that there are no quick-fix solutions to its energy dilemma. Turkey has only two liquefied natural gas import terminals, at Marmara Ereglisi (8.2 bcm annual capacity) and Aliaga (5 bcm annual capacity). With limited LNG import and storage capacity (3 bcm), Turkey has much work to do — and investment to raise — to build out this infrastructure over the course of several years.
Iran is just as much a geopolitical challenger to Turkey as Russia is.
Ankara's alternative pipeline suppliers carry their own set of complications. Turkey imports roughly 20 percent of its natural gas from Iran; such imports could grow as Iran begins to repair its energy sector after years of sanctions. It will take considerable time, however, and expanding the Iran-Turkey energy relationship would still carry big risks for Turkey. Iran is just as much a geopolitical challenger to Turkey as Russia is, and the more assertive Turkey becomes in the Middle East, the more its competition with Iran will grow in Syria and Iraq.
Iranian-Turkish competition only further complicates Turkey's ambitions for Iraqi Kurdistan, where Erdogan has developed close business ties to Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani. Turkey has already helped Barzani develop an independent oil export route at the expense of Iran's allies in Baghdad and is now gearing up to do the same for natural gas to feed the Turkish market. But the collapse of Turkey's peace process with the Kurdistan Workers' Party (whose fighters rely on Iraqi Kurdistan for refuge) and a power vacuum in northern Syria exploited by Kurdish separatists will drive Turkey's military to become more aggressive beyond its borders in both Syria and Iraq. Turkey's control over the revenues from those oil export sales gives Ankara substantial clout over the Iraqi Kurdish government, but Barzani and his allies are also in the untenable position of doing business with the Turkish enemy at the same time Turkey is incrementally enlarging its military footprint in Kurdish territory. This creates an easy opportunity for Iran and Russia to exploit Kurdish divisions and militancy to push back against Turkey.
While pursuing an extraordinarily complicated energy plan in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey is also trying to edge its way into the Eastern Mediterranean energy scene. Both Israel and Cyprus have seen their offshore natural gas export plans stall because of export and regulatory obstacles while Egypt has emerged as the new potential natural gas hub of the region. As the debate continues over the many proposals for pipelines and LNG export terminals, Turkey will have added urgency to prod along reunification talks in Cyprus to remove one of the key blocks to Turkey's energy integration with its estranged eastern Mediterranean neighbors.
The most geopolitically compatible energy source for Turkey is Azerbaijan, which is preparing to send 6 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Turkey starting from 2019 through the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (and another 10 bcm that will be sent onward to Europe through the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline). This will help Turkey shave down its energy dependence on Russia by about 12 percent, but Turkey will still need to look elsewhere to truly loosen Russia's grip. The Caucasus, like the Middle East, will redevelop into another big arena for Turkish-Russian competition. Russia is already hard at work trying to pull Baku closer to the Kremlin through diplomatic maneuvering over Nagorno-Karabakh and will do what it can to obstruct plans by Turkey and Azerbaijan to create an energy link across the Caspian with Turkmenistan.
The Turkish Awakening
Four years ago, Stratfor co-hosted a simulation in Istanbul with the Turkish Industry and Business Association to paint a picture of the energy world in 2040 and Turkey's place in that world. We saw a world in which a reluctant Turkey was inevitably going to be drawn into conflicts in the Middle East and with Russia, making it all the more imperative for Turkey to strategize a future that would deny Russia the ability to cripple Turkey economically. Then-Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (now prime minister) concluded the simulation with a message that Turkey is "not about to follow a new expansionist policy" and that Turkey's way of coping with energy challenges is to take advantage of its geographic position and maintain a stable relationship with its neighbors.
This was a time when Davutoglu's "zero problems with neighbors" policy was still clouding the vision of the Turkish political elite. The policy proved to be shortsighted, but was also expected from a country that was awakening from a decadeslong geopolitical slumber and was in no mood to create trouble in the region. But all the signs were there: Russia was already making aggressive moves in its near abroad, the European Union was showing early signs of unraveling and the Syrian civil war was just getting started.
Four short years later, Turkey has shot down a fighter jet belonging to its main energy supplier and is preparing for a military push into its Mideast rim. And Putin now has to figure out how to manage a Turkey that is much more willing to work with the United States and its Central and Eastern European peers to balance Moscow's aggressions. Ankara has been suppressed for some time, but there is no denying it now: Turkey's time has come.