Turkey and Russia, uncommon partners

by Nina Bachkatov and Andrew Wilson

Much has been written and said about the 9th August meeting of Presidents Erdogan and Putin in St Petersburg, particularly regarding Erdogan’s need to look Eastwards when his relations with the West have been soured by his over-reaction to the attempted coup of 15 July.

But this should not obscure other elements in the situation, which are of great importance to both Russia and for Turkey.

One is simply economics. The escalation which followed the shooting down of a Russian plane over the Syrian-Turkish border led to economic sanctions that hurt Turkey more than they did Russia. But Putin is keen to find an alternative source of investment and trade for Russia, to alleviate the effect of Western sanctions. At the same time, Turkish businessmen are keen to make good the economic space they occupied as a result of the West’ retreat in a Eurasian market still pretty much integrated.

Another question is about regional issues. This is not about having the same policy or the same allies. It’s about Turkey and Russia presenting themselves as indispensable regional powers. Threats to regional security tend to attract outside actors – something both see as reducing their own role. The immediate focus is the war in Syria, which seems far from ending at the moment, when Obama’s policy (or lack of it), coupled with the US presidential campaign, makes for the involvement of neighbours.


But there is more at stake than Syria and the Middle East. The whole of Eurasia is currently subject to volatility, witness the recent escalation between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorny Karabakh, and attacks on the police in Kazakhstan.

On top of all this, there is the question of the Black Sea becoming increasingly a NATO ‘lake’ thanks to Western military cooperation with Ukraine and Georgia. Russia has never hidden its disquiet over this, but Ankara, despite being a NATO member, is not keen, either, to see too much ‘multilateralism’ in a region where (despite recent wars) influence has for centuries been shared between Ankara and Moscow.

Erdogan does not trust NATO to defend the Turkish interests in the region and feels better protected if he can also deal directly with Russia, without an intermediary. Notably, we have even seen a change of attitude towards Crimea where, after siding with Ukraine under the guise of securing the rights of ‘fellow’ Tatars (to the point that Ukrainian authorities dreamed of an anti-Russia front between Kiev, NATO and Turkey), Erdogan is keeping a low profile.

The case of Crimea illustrates another dimension of the St. Petersburg meeting – the interweaving of regional and internal issues in Turkey’s diplomacy. This dates back to the end of the Soviet Union when Ankara saw an opportunity to project its influence into zones inhabited by peoples speaking Turkish-related languages in the Caucasus and Central Asia,

Ankara’s action went in three complementary directions:

(1) urging local minorities to support Turkish foreign policies in Russia and Eurasia (the latest example being using a Congress of Circassians to create a negative international attitude towards the Sochi winter Olympics); (2) supporting the Chechen rebellion against Russia, and (3) accepting as refugees thousands of people often labelled terrorists in their own countries, and attracting the national elites with fellowships in Turkish universities and religious institutions.

Calls for ‘common fight’ against terrorism fell on deaf ears in Turkey – until the 28 June terrorist attack in Istanbul airport, when it became clear that it has been organised and executed by groups among such ‘refugees’ (perpetrators came from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Kyrghyzstan).


In short, there can be no doubt that both Putin and Erdogan, each in his own way and for his own reasons, are seeking to diversify their foreign relations at a time of difficult relations with the West – albeit for reasons that defy a simple East-versus-West situation. Both know that they cannot fulfill their regional ambitions without regional alliances.
At the same time, they cannot forget that they can be rivals– hence the existence of a solid dose of skepticism, especially in the case of Putin who is less pressed by his country’s internal situation than is Erdogan.

Further, pragmatism constrains them to be in good terms with at least one of their immediate neighbours. That the St Petersburg meeting was neither a surprise nor a U-turn is evidenced by a succession of small steps taken by both diplomatic and political high circles during the last two months before the summit, starting with Erdogan’s apology for the shooting-down of a Russian aircraft seven months ago.

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