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Turkey’s relations with Russia have traditionally been characterized by cooperation and competition, as both sides navigate a complex regional and international environment with overlapping economic and political interests—and larger geopolitical questions.
Turkey and Russia compete—and at times work together—in their “near abroad”: in the Caucasus, the Balkans and Central Asia. And as Turkey has played a more active role in the Middle East, it has come up against long established Russian interests dating from the Cold War, most notably in Syria.
Meanwhile, the two countries are major trading partners. According to Turkey’s Statistics authority, TurkStat, Turkey’s exports to Russia reached to $6 billion in 2011, while imports hit $24 billion, reflecting the huge oil and gas import bill. Turkey imports about 60% of its gas from Russia, a dependency it is trying to reduce.
Aimed to deepen bilateral dialog both in geopolitical sphere and trade, top diplomats of Moscow and Ankara are getting prepared for their next High Level Cooperation Council meeting this summer, a mechanism that was created in 2010 between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and then-PM Vladimir Putin’s cabinets.
The Council last gathered in March 2011, during Erdogan’s historic visit to Moscow.
After returning to Kremlin early this month, Vladimir Putin again invited Turkish PM to his country in the nearest future, to follow-up the bilateral dialog.
“Our politicians certainly have much to discuss,” says Sinan Ogan, a member of the Turkish Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Commission. “While on some points we didn’t understand each other, on the other hand, there was not enough trust…But it doesn’t mean that we can’t co-operate,” Ogan told in a phone interview from Ankara.
“In Syria, for example, Turkey and Russia are on totally different sides of the table. But it doesn’t mean that our countries are clashing in the region. You can see how our trade is increasing,” he said.
The turmoil in the Middle East, particularly in Syria, has led to substantial divergences between Ankara and Moscow.
Russia with its UN Security Council veto continues to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an attempt to maintain its influence in the Levant, keep its naval base in Syria and protect its lucrative arms sales.
“We have had a relatively good relationship with Syria since the Soviet years. This is evidenced by Moscow’s stance against the UN resolution,” explains analyst Alexey Vlasov, from the Moscow State University.
But Turkey has been a strong backer of the opposition and, as a neighbor to Syria, has much to lose from instability in Syria.
“We have to wait and see how long Russia will be able to take upon itself the burden of [al-Assad] regime,” Turkish President Abdullah Gul told journalists last week. “In my opinion, it won’t be very long.”
Tugce Varol, a Russia analyst at the 21st Century Turkey Institute, an Istanbul-based think-tank, says that in terms of Syria, “Turkey pursues a western-oriented foreign policy and essentially it has many times challenged the Kremlin when Medvedev was there.”
“Turkey expects from Russia to act harmoniously with West against Syria,” she said in an interview, noting this is highly unlikely at the moment. Russian leaders likely “will not allow the West for a new regime in Syria that would alienate Russia from the region and fall of Iran with its huge energy potential,” she argues.
In the meantime, she adds, “I think Mr. Putin will follow more active foreign policy than Medvedev on the issues of Syria and Iran and begin to warn Turkey which [Russian FM Sergey] Lavrov did from time to time.”
Ogan agrees that unlike Medvedev, “who was less interested in the region, Putin more cares about it [region] and understands Turkey’s regional interest; therefore he will likely avoid stepping on Ankara’s red lines.”
“I think Putin will try to reach as many agreements as possible with Turkey and ignore the topics that are being controversial between the two countries,” he adds.
Habibe Ozdal, a researcher on Russia at the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), says Ankara expects from Moscow “to push more for a solution based on understanding on especially regional disputes where Russia has a very important role to play.”
Up until now, she adds, “this has been the weakest link of mutual relations.”
Even though the acceleration of Ankara-Moscow relations draws attention, the analysts emphasize, it is still not that much effective to push two sides to solve long term problems, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and Cyprus issue.
“Goodwill and cooperation therefore is going to be priority for both sides in the forthcoming period”, she adds.
Vlasov, however, is skeptical about the short-term perspective of bilateral dialogs.
Both Turkish and Russian leaders are “considering their own interests” during the dialogs, he said in a phone interview.
Veteran diplomat Murat Bilhan, who headed the Strategic Research Department at the Turkish Foreign Ministry for years, agrees that Turkey and Russia had a similar stance on ending the bloodshed in Syria, and therefore the politicians of the both countries “should be is ready to work on solving the crisis.”
“A very active diplomacy needs to be promoted here…. At least, for the beginning, [the dialog should be] based on the humanitarian aspects of the problem,” he stated in an interview. “We can ignore Russia’s role and importance in this region, it’s not Iran.”
For Bilman, Ankara needs to explain Moscow that not only Turkey; “the entire region could be very badly threatened if things in Syria go bad.”
“Our long-standing cooperation with Russia, not only in the Middle East, but the cooperation in the Caucasus, Iranian issue, as well as energy challenges would also get damaged if the politicians loose dialog opportunity in this particularly hard time,” he added.
Yet, energy is being considered another main challenge in Turkey-Russia cooperation.
“Ankara is concerned about high natural gas dependency to Russian exports,” explains Varol.
“2012 is the year of South Stream for Russia which Turkey signed the permission for Russia to construct South Stream in Turkey’s EEZ. It was strange because just few days earlier Turkey has signed a new gas pipeline project of TANAP with Azerbaijan which seems like a new competitor to South Stream,” she said, adding, “Moscow expects from Ankara to support South Stream in order to realize Samsun-Ceyhan oil pipeline project.”
For Evrim Eken, Turkish analyst at the St. Petersburg State University’s School of International Relations, Russian companies wish “to expand toward Turkish downstream gas and electricity markets.”
“But considering the high oil and gas prices, current foreign trade balance in favor of Russia will be saved in the coming years,” she said via email.
Another challenge between the two countries might be the Cyprus issue.
Ankara wants Russia not to participate in the Republic of Cyprus energy bids and supports Turkish point of view.
For Eken, unlike energy, cooperation in “hard security matters cannot be expected.”
She also emphasizes that in his new turn, Putin will try to strengthen Russian influence over post-Soviet countries; “even there are plans to create a Eurasian Union.”
“It is realistic or not is another matter of discussion, but Russia’s possible attempts would naturally annoy Turkey as they are rivals in Central Asia and Caucasus,” she added.
For Ogan, Turkey “needs to have its own regional road-map on Caucasus and Central Asia.”
“One of the secrets behind a successful personal relationship between Erdogan and Putin is that the AKP government in recent years switched its interest from the regional Turkic speaking countries, to the Arab geography,” he said, adding, “now it’s time to be more clear with Putin without damaging the relations.”
Vlasov concludes that no change should be is expected in Russian foreign policy before the beginning of 2013.
“We have a new president who needs time to set his priority in Russia’s foreign policy for the closest perspective. I guess next year will be the time of audit for Russia’s foreign policy in its main destinations,” he told in an interview.
However, Canan Kalsin, AK Party’s vice chairman for foreign affairs and former MP, says Turkey’s Russia policy “is strategic, not depending on who is in charge in Kremlin.”
“We believe that we can more understand each other and solve all the difficulties by keeping the dialog door open,” she said in an interview
“One thing about Russian diplomacy needs to be understood clear,” she argues, “There might be some zigzags, but overall Russian foreign policy is always based on the same points.”
[Editor's note: This report originally referred to the Republic of Cyprus as "South Cyprus", a term used in Turkish propaganda implying a claim to occupied northern Cyprus. The text has accordingly been corrected to read "Cyprus" or "Republic of Cyprus".]