October 19, 2020
In the beginning of the Syrian conflict Russia and Turkey were on diametrically opposite sides. Almost a decade later, despite some cooperation, they are just putting up with one another.
At the end of September 2015 Russia intervened in Syria. On November 16, Presidents Putin and Erdogan met on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Turkey. A week later, a stunning development changed the picture. Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 military plane for having violated Turkish airspace for 17 seconds.
Had Turkish-Russian relations been characterized by antagonism, unresolved disputes, and tension, the path to this incident could have been explained more easily. But the two countries were enjoying a stable, friendly, and mutually rewarding relationship for decades. Russia met more than 50% of Turkey’s natural gas needs. Every year more than 4 million Russians came to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast for summer holidays. Turkish companies had undertaken contracts worth billions of dollars in Russia providing jobs for thousands of Turks. Bilateral trade volume was over 30 billion dollars. Russia was going to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Presidents Putin and Erdogan had given the impression of maintaining a close personal relationship.
In the wake of the incident President Putin vented his anger. He directed far-reaching accusations against the Turkish government for having links to the Islamic State. And he imposed a series of punishing economic sanctions against Ankara. In response, Turkey’s leadership said that more than enough warnings had been issued for airspace violations. It rejected IS-related accusations as slander.
The downing of the Russian Su-24 made Turkey remember NATO. However, members of the alliance understandably preferred to avoid a confrontation with Russia over an incident which had occurred without their having an opportunity to say a word.
Six months later, Ankara’s bravado gave way to realities. The government had to recognize that confrontation with Russia was not sustainable. On June 27, 2016, the Kremlin announced Vladimir Putin received a letter from President Erdogan which said that Russia is Turkey’s friend and strategic partner, and the Turkish authorities do not want to ruin relations between the two countries. “We never had the desire or deliberate intention of shooting down the Russian Federation’s plane,” Mr. Erdogan said.
Thus, the two Presidents were able to meet in Moscow on August 9, 2016. An effort to restore the relationship was launched. However, misfortunes were not over. On 19 December 2016, Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, was assassinated by an off-duty Turkish police officer with dubious links, at an art exhibition in Ankara.
In 2017, Turkey signed the S-400s deal with Russia in its first major weapons purchase from Moscow. Turkey’s NATO allies were critical of the deal, but Ankara said this was its sovereign decision. As allied criticism became more vocal it simply said this was a “done deal”.
Turkey could have valid points regarding the price and technology transfer aspects of Western air-defense systems. However, it was hard to imagine that Russia would be more generous towards Turkey in defense technology transfer than Ankara’s NATO allies. But Moscow was more interested in driving a wedge between Turkey and the West than the 2.5 billion dollars it will get out of the deal. With the S-400 deal, it got both.
What remains unclear even today about Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missile defense is the underlying threat assessment. Are these batteries going to be deployed against threats from Turkey’s neighbors? If so, which are these countries?
When looked at in the broad context of Turkey’s relationship with Russia, one cannot but conclude that the S-400 contract was the price Turkey had to pay to put behind the downing of the Su-24, the murder of the Ambassador and restore its cooperation with Moscow. Because Turkey’s well-advanced multidimensional economic cooperation with Russia was not something Ankara could easily give up. Moreover, it had to maintain a working relationship with Russia in Syria.
Since the downing of the Russian Su-24 aircraft on November 24, 2015, Presidents Putin and Erdogan have met on nearly thirty occasions including bilateral visits and meetings on the sidelines of multilaterals. On average they have spoken on the phone once a month.
On October 14, 2020, Foreign Minister Lavrov was interviewed by radio stations Sputnik, Komsomolskaya Pravda and Govorit Moskva. To a few questions reflecting outright hostility towards Turkey, he responded with calm. On Nagorno-Karabakh he said, “… We do not agree with the position that has been voiced by Turkey and enunciated on several occasions by President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan. It is no secret. We cannot share statements to the effect that there is a military solution to the conflict and that it is acceptable. Regrettably, Turkey has been able to do this, confirming that it will support any actions undertaken by Azerbaijan to solve this conflict, including military ones.”[i]
During the same interview Mr. Lavrov was asked how Turkey could regularly be called a “strategic ally” despite confrontations in Syria, Libya. He responded by saying that Turkey has never qualified as Russia’s strategic ally. “It is a partner, a very close partner. In many sectors, this partnership is of a strategic nature.” he added. That, indeed, is the case.
On the same day, Presidents Erdogan and Putin had a telephone conversation at Turkish side’s initiative. The Kremlin statement on the call included the following: “Vladimir Putin expressed serious concern over the involvement of Middle Eastern fighters in the military action. The leaders stressed the urgent need for joint efforts in order to cease the bloodshed and move to a peaceful settlement of the Nagorno-Karabakh problem as soon as possible.
“Hope was expressed that Turkey, as a member of the OSCE Minsk Group, would make a constructive contribution to de-escalating the conflict.”[ii]
Ankara issued a shorter statement which passed over differences.
The foregoing reflects a difference of opinion on Nagorno-Karabakh. Nonetheless, when compared to what Secretary Pompeo told Erick Erickson of WSB Atlanta on October 15, the criticism directed against Turkey is mildly put. Mr. Pompeo said: “Yeah, it’s a longstanding conflict. The resolution of that conflict ought to be done through negotiation and peaceful discussions, not through armed conflict, and certainly not with third party countries coming in to lend their firepower to what is already a powder keg of a situation. We – we’re hopeful that the Armenians will be able to defend against what the Azerbaijanis are doing, and that they will all, before that takes place, get the ceasefire right, and then sit down at the table and try and sort through this – that is – what is a truly historic and complicated problem set.”[iii] Mr. Pompeo did not call names whom he had in mind was clear.
On the question of Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijan’s frustration with the status quo is totally understandable. Because Armenia is occupying not only Nagorno-Karabakh but also seven surrounding districts on the territory of Azerbaijan. Regardless, Western media reporting largely reflects old prejudices against Turkey and Azerbaijan.
In an earlier post, I said the peoples of Turkey and Azerbaijan call themselves “one nation, two states” and Ankara’s support to Baku is only to be expected. I also said the Turkish government, while standing behind Azerbaijan, should also keep a close eye on the diplomatic front because there would be limits to what can be achieved on the battlefield. Last Saturday Azerbaijan and Armenia agreed on a second ceasefire. It may hold or break down like the first. What Ankara needs to see is that Yerevan has seized on Turkey’s strong language as an opportunity to claim that its principal adversary in this conflict is Turkey and thus turn Ankara’s isolation and its troubled relations with the West to an advantage in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Armenian attack on the Ordubad region of Nakhchivan is another attempt to drag Turkey more into the conflict. So, Ankara can perhaps consider keeping social distance, and thus making sure that its embrace does not turn into a disadvantage for Baku.
Despite carefully worded, reassuring statements from Ankara and Moscow, the relationship is not exactly what it was a decade ago. Because in Syria and Libya the two capitals remain at opposite ends. On Nagorno-Karabakh they do not agree on much. On eastern Mediterranean disputes Moscow has advised dialogue. But Russia’s traditional solidarity with Greece and by extension the Greek Cypriots is well-known.
It appears that Moscow, in view of the downturn in Turkey’s relations with the US and Europe has chosen to invest in an irreversible estrangement, perhaps a rupture between the Ankara and the West. This has been Russian policy for centuries. And under current circumstances, such a policy only makes sense from Russia’s perspective. This not to say that Moscow would tolerate Ankara’s every move on issues the two countries differ. But it would be patient. It would not engage in unnecessary public criticism, rhetoric. It would convey its messages in frank language behind closed doors. Because it has a strong tradition of diplomacy with long-term perspectives.
In the meantime, Ankara must be delighted with comments in the Western media that Turkey is pursuing an “assertive” foreign and security policy. And it seems to believe in the merits of reenacting Sultan Abdul Hamid II’s policy of playing major powers against one another.
Last Friday Turkey tested its Russian-made S-400 air defense system. The State Department said the missile launch is “incompatible with Turkey’s responsibilities as a NATO ally and strategic partner” of the US. Also, on Friday, Ukraine’s President Zelensky visited Turkey. At a joint press conference, President Erdogan reiterated that Turkey has not recognized Crimea’s unlawful annexation, nor will it. “We, together with Ukrainian authorities, will maintain our support for our Crimean Tatar brothers and sisters, who are a crucial element of the historical and humanitarian ties between Turkey and Ukraine,” he added. And yesterday, he targeted Russia for sending mercenaries to Libya. He was probably responding to the Kremlin readout of the phone call which mentioned involvement of Middle Eastern fighters in Nagorno-Karabakh.
In brief, Turkish Government’s difficult balancing act between Moscow and Washington continues. Because the foreign policy of the past decade has put us in a tight corner.