Turkey’s Relations with Russia

February 23, 2016

On November 24, 2015 Turkish fighter jets downed a Russian Su-24 warplane for having violated Turkish airspace and the incident has led to a major setback in bilateral relations as well as regional complications (*). This is not sustainable.

From the 16th to the 20th century, the Ottoman and Russian Empires were in continuous military conflict. During the Cold War Turkey was NATO’s southern flank. It was only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union which marked the end of the Cold War that Turkish-Russian cooperation made remarkable progress in the fields of trade, energy, tourism and contracting services, leading to considerable interdependence. All of this was accomplished within the framework of a meticulously built political understanding which, while admitting differences, put the emphasis on common interests.

Throwing the fruits of the last 25 years into the waste basket of history would be a dramatic loss not only for Turkish-Russian relations but also for Russia-West relations. So, a way out this crisis needs to be found. Despite the violation of Turkish airspace, it was the Russian side which suffered the loss of a pilot and a warplane. So, Ankara needs to take the initiative in mending fences.

In the days following the incident Russian reaction was strong as could be expected. Moscow also responded by imposing economic sanctions. But later, Russians toned down the rhetoric and tried to confine the incident to disagreements over Syria. Indeed, they said that Turkey had been supporting the jihadists, that Turkey’s porous borders provided an avenue to Syria for the extremists, that Ankara had responsibility in the marketing of ISIL oil but all of this related to Syria. And, Turkey directed accusations against Moscow for deliberately bombing the moderate opposition and thus helping ISIL’s cause; for attacking civilian targets such as hospitals and supporting the PYD which she considers a terrorist organization, an extension of the PKK. But, Ankara has also showed a tendency to widen the front.

On February 16, PM Davutoglu was in Kiev and had talks with PM Yetsanyuk. During their joint press conference Turkish PM accused Russia of aggressive policies; he said that Syria’s, Georgia’s and Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity was under Russian threat; and he added that trying to revive the Soviet Union would serve nobody’s interest, including Russia. The next day Foreign Minister Cavusoglu was in Tbilisi. He went out of his way to express Turkey’s support for Georgia’s membership to NATO.

Firstly, involving third parties in a bilateral dispute or the bilateral dimension of an international conflict is not a good approach. Georgia and Azerbaijan can speak for themselves. Secondly, Kiev and Tbilisi are not exactly the right capitals to direct strong criticism against Moscow particularly when Turkish-Russian relations are going through a crisis situation.

On February 11, 2016 Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev gave a long interview to Germany’s Handelsblatt newspaper before attending the Munich Security Conference. Among other things, he said:
“… trust cannot develop in a matter of weeks. In fact, it took us 25 years since the establishment of new Russia as a state in 1991 to develop relations with our European partners. There came a time when I thought we were friends, that we talked the same language literally and figuratively, be it Russian, German or English, and that we understood each other well. There’s nothing left of this trust now…
“… Sanctions were introduced against the Soviet Union at least a dozen times (I counted them), in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1970s. Did this change the Soviet Union? No…
“… It is regrettable that Russian-German trade has plummeted by 40 percent, and our trade with the EU is down by 50 percent, but the situation will continue to worsen if we further aggravate the problem. It takes courage to admit that the economic sanctions should be lifted because they haven’t done anything good for either Europe or Russia. We are ready for this, but once again, we are waiting for our EU colleagues to make the first move…”

The interview offers some clues. And, the Turkish side must have accumulated a good deal of “let’s put this unfortunate episode behind” kind of experience through the negotiations conducted over the fallout of the Mavi Marmara incident with Israel.

Instead of upping the ante against Russia, the Turkish Government should resort to diplomacy to put our relations back on track. And Russia should stop taking advantage of her position as a permanent member of the UNSC in trying to bring pressure upon Ankara. Indeed, as PM Medvedev has said, building a relationship takes time but it can be destroyed on the spur of the moment only to be regretted later. Politicians need to cool down and give diplomats an opportunity. And, the media should refrain from fanning the flames. Restoring the relationship may not be easy but the present state of affairs cannot be the alternative.
(*) “Downing of Russia’s SU-24 Warplane” of November 27, 2015 and “Downing of Russian Su-24: The NATO Dimension” of December 16, 2015.

About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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