Red carpets rolled out for Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg as he called the Russian President Vladimir Putin a “friend”. During the talks, Russia and Turkey have just signaled the end of a major rift in their bilateral relations.
Turkish-Russian relationship have gone through ups and downs since pre-historic times. More recent history shows that if either of these two countries are in the midst of tensions with the Western powers, Turkey and Russia turn to each other, often to extract a better deal from the West.
Turkey shot down a Russian bomber in November 2015, causing the death of a pilot and seriously infuriating Moscow. Putin called Erdogan a “back stabber”, and immediately demanded an apology from Turkey, which the latter refused at that time. Seeing the refusal and stopping short of declaring a war, Russia sought to punish Turkey as painfully as possible. Russia restricted its citizens from going to Turkey for tourism which is a major source of revenue for Turkey. Turkish construction farms were barred from lucrative Russian construction deals. Although Russian gas exports via Turkey continued, overall bilateral trade between Turkey and Russia went down about 43% according to Russian official statistics.
Russia and Turkey were also not on the same page around their plans for handling the crisis in Syria, particularly what to do with the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Part of the Russian calculus was to use the bomber downing incident as a justification for blocking Turkish actions against the Assad regime.
Strong economic and geopolitical inter-dependence
Despite all the acrimony, it was quite obvious that after playing tough for a while, both Turkey and Russia would start looking for the mutual common ground. Their geographical positioning and economic interests would dictate such a rapprochement.
Russia and Turkey have strong bilateral trades, mostly in favor of Russia. Out of an estimated total of $25.5 billion bilateral trade in 2015, Russian exports to Turkey made up impressive $21.5 billion, with more than half of that coming from oil and gas.
Turkey is the second most lucrative energy market for Moscow after Germany. This four-fold trade surplus in favor of Russia was too much to sacrifice for Moscow, especially at a time when Russian Gross National Product fell by 3.9% year-over-year and industrial output was down by 3.3%. During the first two quarters of 2016, Russia’s total exports fell by 29.7% largely due to lower energy prices.
Turkey was the only NATO country who refused to join Western sanctions against Russia after the latter invaded Ukraine.
Turkey is the custodian of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, two narrow waterways connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean via the Sea of Marmara and Aegean Sea. Peaceful access to the Mediterranean Sea via these Turkish controlled waterways is of extreme significance for Russia.
Turkey, on the other hand, benefits from the Russian tourists, access to cheap Russian energy, and it wants to leverage its relationship with Russia in its negotiations with Europe and the US. All these interplay of economic and geographic interests, therefore, have always signaled mending of the Russian-Turkish ties at some point sooner rather than later.
A Letter of Apology and A Failed Coup
In June of 2016, Turkey sent a letter to Russia formally apologizing for the shooting down of the Russian warplane. The letter of apology was the first step towards significant change of course in the Turkish Russian relationship in days to come.
Kazakhstan leader Nursultan Nazarbaev, an ally for both Moscow and Ankara, was also playing an important role in reducing the friction between Ankara and Moscow. After mediation from various interested parties and Erdogan’s letter of regret delivering the long demanded apology to the Russians, mending of fences became more of an eventuality. Putin reciprocated Erdogan’s reconciliatory steps with nice gestures of his own when he made a personal phone call to Erdogan condoling him for the terrorist attack at the Istanbul Airport airport in July.
The failed coup against Erdogan on the night of July 15 created a whole new dimension for the emerging rapprochement between Turkey and Russia.
In the failed coup attempt on Erdogan, the Russian leadership sensed an opportunity to deliver a service to Erdogan which the Turkish president would not forget. Some Russian and Middle-Eastern news outlets have reported that Russia shared crucial intelligence with Erdogan during the coup, which may have impacted the eventual outcome of the coup. Neither country confirmed nor denied any such claim.
After the coup, anti-West sentiment in Turkey reached higher levels given Europe and America’s enthusiastic focus on Erdogan’s handling of the coup-aftermath, rather than the failed coup itself. Erdogan demanded extradition of Fatullah Gulen, the Sufi Muslim scholar living in Pennsylvania whose supporters were behind the failed coup. The demand so far has not been entertained, escalating further anti America resentments in Turkey. This may have helped in making Erdogan and Putin get closer.
Turkey is more likely to have the upper-hand
The talks in St. Petersburg took place in remarkably congenial atmosphere. Erdogan spoke about a “friendship axis” connecting Moscow and Ankara, and in the end, both the sides focused primarily on their own agendas.
The common focus during the summit was trade. Moscow agreed to resume tourism and remove what amounted to be sanctions against Turkish imports. The Russian Economy Minister Mr. Uluykaev admitted that it would take some time to reach previous levels of bilateral trade, while President Putin indicated that sanctions would be removed gradually, not immediately as the Turks had hoped.
The question of the downed plane, apologies and compensation for it was barely mentioned suggesting that chapter is possibly closed for now. There were discussions around sale of military hardware, but nothing significant emerged on the military front.
Construction of a $20 billion nuclear power station, which has received the status of “strategic investment” in Turkey, saw strong commitment from the two countries during the discussion.
Russia was pleased to hear from Erdogan that it intends to resume the Turkish stream gas pipeline project. For Russia this has been part of a grand design to circumvent Ukraine for Russian gas supplies to Europe. However, the project, which had been stopped even before the shooting down of the plane, cannot be implemented solely on a bilateral basis between Russia and Turkey, since the plan needs to involve the European Union and the project is fairly large and expensive. Russia is in the midst of a long-term economic crisis while Turkey’s investment ratings have been recently downgraded by a notch with negative outlook due to increased political instability. Turkey can consume only 20% of the future gas supplies coming out of the project, and neither country has enough money to finance the construction.
Syria was definitely a centerpiece of the meeting. Erdogan brought his entire national security team to St Petersburg. Both the sides spent considerable hours on the Syrian crisis. Not much is yet known about the outcome but the Turkish Foreign Minister Mr. Cavusoglu sounded fairly confident when he commented after the meeting that Moscow and Ankara are building “a strong mechanism” to settle the crisis in Syria. This may be a bad signal for the Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, since it is possible that the Russians may eventually cut a deal on his fate while negotiating with his regional adversary Erdogan, who is coming from a position of strength to the Russians.
There was also an arrangement to avoid any repetition of the fighter jet incident in the future between Russia and Turkey.
Does all of the above mean that from now on Turkey will switch its alliances, move away from NATO, and enter the Russian camp? The answer is “No”.
Despite its grievances, Turkey is firmly anchored in NATO, while EU remains Turkey’s much larger trading partner than Russia. During the talks in St. Petersburg not much was discussed around either NATO or the EU, showing Russia’s focus to not make Turkey uncomfortable. In sum, Turkey has more cards and leverage against Russia in its negotiations, due to Turkey’s geographic positioning, demographic advantage, and NATO membership. Therefore, it is expected that Turkey will emerge with the eventual upper-hand out of the St. Petersburg negotiations.