Russian-Turkish relations have been on an upswing, some would say unparalleled, since the early 2000s. The latter occurred or may be associated with the change of power in Russia and Turkey, as well as the arrival of two charismatic leaders, Putin and Erdoğan, respectively, and, more importantly, with certain transformations in geo-economic and geopolitical processes and the construction of regional security in the Middle East and the South Caucasus.
It cannot be said that in the centuries-long history of bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey there have not been periods of constructive partnership. Such events occurred, for example, in the first half of the nineteenth century, when Russian emperors and generals in effect saved the Ottoman Empire from both internal upheaval (such as in Egypt) and external invasion (particularly by the army of Napoleon). A more striking “seasonal affair” in Russian-Turkish relations was the brief five-year period after the October Revolution (1918-1923), when Lenin’s Bolshevik government literally saved a losing World War and a collapsing Turkey from a heavier defeat.
Then Lenin’s revolutionary government, not recognized by the West and the Russian Empire’s former allies in the Triple Entente was forced to turn its face to the East, including the unrecognized nationalist government of Mustafa Kemal Pasha. It was the military, financial and food aid of Soviet Russia that helped Kemal Pasha keep the strategic territories of the disintegrating Ottoman Empire in the west and east of the country under Turkish rule, defeat the Greek and Armenian movements, and nullify French colonial aspirations on the Mediterranean coast (in the Cilicia).
True, two years after the signing of the 1921 Treaty of Moscow and the Treaty of Kars with the key assistance of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (RSFSR), the pragmatic Kemal Pasha turned his back on friendly Russia in favor of England and signed the Lausanne Peace, favorable to Turkey, at the Lausanne Conference. Kemal then noted: “Russia gave us everything it could and now it has nothing more to offer us. That’s why Turkey’s way is to the West.“ The geopolitical realities simply changed, and the Turks acted according to their interests.
And now what? After the collapse of the USSR, the geopolitical reality changed for Turkey itself. In particular:
(a) The nuclear threat from the new Russia has disappeared for Turkey; accordingly, Turkey’s military and political role on the southern flank of the NATO bloc has diminished;
b) What Turkey used during the Cold War as an ideological and political basis for subversion against the USSR in alliance with the intelligence services of NATO member states (for example, the political ideology of pan-Turkism and pan-Turanism), it was possible to transfer to the status of public diplomacy with respect to the newly formed Turkic countries of the post-Soviet space;
c) If in the second half of the twentieth century Turkey was forced to closely ally with the West led by the USA and partially surrender its sovereignty, then at the turn of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries new times came for Ankara and the opportunity to maneuver in favor of strengthening its independence from the West through the implementation of several beneficial geo-economic and geopolitical projects.
For example: the construction of strategic transit communications with access to the Azerbaijani sector of the Caspian Basin energy area; laying a network of oil and gas pipelines from Azerbaijan and Russia; commissioning new road and rail communications across Georgia to Azerbaijan; making Turkey a key energy hub for oil and gas supplies to the European market; Turkish army involvement in regional military conflicts (in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno Karabakh) in order to raise the status of Turkey in favor of a regional and supra-regional power.
Naturally, such activity and, most importantly, the effectiveness of Turkish policy would hardly be possible if Turkey’s eastern strategy, on the one hand, was not supported by key world powers such as the UK and the US, and, on the other hand, Russia offered tough resistance.
It so happened that in the 1990s Moscow could not counteract the assertive policy of NATO countries (primarily the United States, Britain and Turkey) in the South Caucasus with a powerful barrier on the way to the energy resources of Azerbaijan. For its part, Baku engaged into direct talks with London and Washington with the aid of Ankara for the entry of the top Western energy companies in Azerbaijan after losing the war in Karabakh that it initiated in 1994. In September 1994, Azerbaijan concluded the first oil and gas “contracts of the century” with Western and Turkish partners to bring Caspian energy resources to the European market, bypassing Russia via Turkey.
Russia then failed to convince the Azerbaijani and Turkish leaders to preserve the main transit route for Caspian oil through the Baku-Grozny-Novorossiysk pipeline. One of the reasons for the initiation of the Chechen military conflict in 1994 was the issue of the main transit route for Baku oil bypassing Russia. The West and Turkey actually crippled Russia’s ability to secure international oil transportation from Baku at that point.
Only Armenia, a Russian military and political ally, refused to accept the US and Azerbaijani offer to hand over the Meghri sector of the Zangezur corridor for the construction of alternative oil and gas pipelines to Turkey. Although, at the time, Yerevan was given a solution to the Karabakh conflict in the form of entering the territory of the former NKAO and the Lachin district to the Republic of Armenia in return of Meghri district in favor of Azerbaijan. Iran was not considered as an alternative transit route for Baku oil and gas, given the conflicting relations of the Iranian Republic with NATO countries and Israel. As a result, Azerbaijan’s foreign partners placed their bets on neighboring Georgia and decided at the OSCE summit in Istanbul in the fall of 1999, with the participation of US President Bill Clinton, to bypass Russia for the transit of Baku’s resources. These communications initiatives were implemented in the middle of the 2000s.
Since then, Russia has begun to change its approach to Turkey and its allies in the former Soviet Union (primarily Azerbaijan). The initial bet was on the growth of trade between our countries, where Russia provided Turkey with an impressive list of goods and services. In particular, the launch of the Blue Stream gas pipeline under the Black Sea, the annual increase in Russian tourists at Turkish resorts, the export of Turkish fruits and vegetables, construction tenders and contracts for Turkish business, and humanitarian partnerships.
And then the growing pace of economic cooperation was complemented by a military deal to sell Turkey an advanced Russian S-400 air defense system “Typhoon”, which shocked the United States and led to anti-Turkish sanctions in the form of an embargo on the supply of American “Patriot” air defense systems, F-16 and F-35 fighter jets. After Bulgaria, following the orders of Washington and Brussels, rejected the Russian South Stream pipeline, which was profitable for it, Moscow implemented this project through Turkey (the TurkStream gas pipeline, through which 15.75% of gas goes to Europe and about the same amount to Turkey).
Our relations have also passed through some serious tests in the modern period, when Turkey, alarmed at the start of the Russian Armed Forces’ peacekeeping operation in Syria, destroyed a Russian Su-24 bomber in November 2015, and Turkish militants from the Grey Wolves organization (controlled by the pro-government Nationalist Movement Party) literally massacred the downed Russian pilot Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Peshkov. With the help of Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, President Erdoğan restored relations with Russia a few months later and dismissed Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu.
Despite deteriorating relations with Turkey, Russia assisted in saving President Erdogan’s life during the failed military coup in July 2016. But, just as our relations were improving, the Russian-Turkish cooperation was given a severe blow when the Russian Ambassador to Ankara, Andrei Karlov, was assassinated on December 19, 2016. By the way, one of the organizers of this murder (Temel Alsancak, also known by his alias, Kadir, a member of the Gulenist Terror Group) has now been discovered in the United States (in Dallas, Texas). To the leaders’ credit, they recognized the threat of a terrorist attack in time to prevent it from worsening relations between the two nations. The political provocation failed, and Russia and Turkey continued to develop a mutually beneficial partnership.
In Syria, Turkey’s cautious attitude to Russia has increasingly been replaced by effective cooperation. Without Moscow’s consent, it is unlikely that the Turks would have been able to conduct their four military operations against the Kurds on the northern borders of Syria. The Astana and Sochi platforms for discussions on settling the Syrian crisis were started thanks to Russian diplomacy, with Russia, Iran, and Turkey participating.
The temporary economic downturn in trade between our countries in 2020, caused by the objective reasons of the COVID-19 pandemic, has once again been replaced by a steady growth in trade. In the fall of 2020, Turkey actively supported Azerbaijan in the war against Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia, on the other hand, was forced to remain neutral in this conflict and became the initiator of the cessation of hostilities with the entry of the Russian Peacekeeping Force into the remaining Armenian part of Karabakh. And in this conflict, Russia began to develop cooperation with Turkey and set up a joint Russian-Turkish monitoring center in Aghdam, on the border with Karabakh, to control the situation in the conflict zone.
Russia did not oppose the military-political entry of the NATO member Turkey in the South Caucasus based in Azerbaijan, the numerous Turkish-Azerbaijani joint military exercises, the Shusha Declaration of June 15, 2021, which defines the strategic nature (including in the military field) of the relations between Ankara and Baku. Moreover, Russia supported the diplomatic initiative of Turkey and Azerbaijan to create a regional negotiation platform based on the 3+3 formula (that is, Turkey, Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia). Moscow is interested in new transport communications via Azerbaijan and Armenia to Turkey (the so-called Zangezur corridor), and is actively involved in their implementation together with its partners.
With the beginning of the Russian special military operation in Ukraine, Turkey is known to have taken a fairly constructive and flexible stance. In particular, Ankara did not fully support the anti-Russian sanctions of the collective West; did not open the Black Sea straits in accordance with the Montreux International Convention for the entry of US and British warships into the Black Sea; took peacemaking initiatives to end hostilities and begin the negotiation process, respecting the interests of the conflicting parties; initiated the “grain deal” and prisoner exchange.
Positive to the position of Turkey and President Recep Erdoğan, on October 13, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed to the Turkish side a megaproject to build a gas hub after the famous terrorist act of Western intelligence services to undermine the Russian gas pipelines “Nord Stream 1 and 2” in the Baltic Sea. In other words, given Turkey’s reliability as a business and political partner, Moscow offers Ankara a stake in the sale of Russian gas to foreign (including European) markets and is ready to transfer gas transit flows from Yamal to the south (via the Black Sea to Turkey).
The implementation of such an ambitious project will bring Turkey new and unprecedented dividends, strengthen the role of the Turkish state in regional and global affairs and turn Ankara into a key figure on the world stage. As a gas hub, the Turks will get an important tool to influence Europe and siphon off the necessary resources (financial, technological, political, military, etc.).
Such a strengthening of Turkey at the expense of partnership with Russia causes irritation and envy in the West and possibly in other parts of the world. In fact, Moscow responds to the 11 packages of anti-Russian sanctions by the US and Europe with counter-sanctions in the form of the “Turkish package”. Having reduced the volume of purchases of Russian gas and oil, the EU countries, with all their efforts, are unlikely to find alternative sources of raw materials and markets (especially gas). The expectation of doubling the volume of Azerbaijani gas supplies to 20 billion cubic meters will not save Europe. Hopes of exporting Iranian gas are also unlikely, given the anti-Iranian sanctions on the nuclear program, and if they are lifted or simplified, Iran still needs to build transit routes to Europe.
Brussels may be hoping to reach the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea through Turkey and Azerbaijan, hoping to export gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. However, in this case too, Europe, firstly, will not be able to gain access to Central Asia in a short time, and secondly, will encounter resistance from the Russian Federation and the Islamic Republic of Iran.
In other words, as noted by a number of Russian experts (for example, V. Avatkov, I. Yushkov, Y. Niyazbayev, G. Mirzoyan and others), thanks to the gas hub Turkey will get a lever (“tap”) to influence the EU and will open it at its discretion, taking into account the behavior and the compliance of Europe. At the same time, Ankara will probably remind the Europeans of the dissatisfaction of the Turks for their belittling and exclusion from the closed club called the EU, for years of standing in line or for some other reasons and occasions.
In general, the present opinion of experts is not devoid of reality, given the nature of President Recep Erdoğan and the continuing anti-Turkish discontent in the US and the EU. At the same time, such a strengthening of Turkey by the hands of Russia could have very unpleasant consequences for Russia itself.
Firstly, it is not only the gas hub, which will actually involve another discount on gas for the Turkish consumer and the joint sale of Russian gas to foreign markets with Turkey, but also the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (a gift to the Turks of 10% of energy), and the possible construction of two more nuclear power plants under the same scheme at the expense of Russian money. Secondly, Turkey has already entered the zone of traditional geopolitical presence of Russia in the Transcaucasia. Thirdly, Turkey, after its victory in Karabakh, is rushing to Central Asia, to the expanse of Turan. Fourthly, Ankara is already telling us that Russian gas will have to be sold through the hub to Europe under “foreign flank” because of Western anti-Russian sanctions. And for this, the Turks consider it necessary to increase the transit flows of the same gas from different countries (including Azerbaijan, Qatar, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan). In this case, Turkey will demand the construction of a new gas pipeline (like TANAP-2 or NABUCO) with access to the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea in the hope of getting access to 7% of the world reserves of Turkmen gas.
How do we answer our friend Erdoğan then? Someone will say, as we have the “Convention on the Legal Status of the Caspian Sea” of August 12, 2018, according to which the laying of new energy communications on the Caspian Sea bed to foreign markets must obtain the consent of all Caspian states and undergo international environmental expertise, and Russia and Iran can veto. However, as we know, Iran has not yet ratified the Convention of the Caspian Sea, so this document does not have the status of an international instrument. Moreover, would Turkey ask Russia for such permission if Erdoğan suddenly reminded his Russian colleagues that he supported all of Moscow’s energy initiatives on gas (Blue Stream, Turkish Stream and the “gas hub”), allowed the parallel transit of goods from Europe, and mediated in the situation with the Russian-Ukrainian crisis?
Will Russia then be able to curb Turkey’s threats to Europe in order to persuade Brussels and other European capitals to resume full-fledged relations with Moscow? All of this will hopefully become a reality after our country’s eventual success in conducting the special military operation in Ukraine. In this case, there will be an opportunity to force Europe to be accommodating to Russia, and Turkey will have to assess the consequences of its disrespectful attitude toward our country’s good initiatives.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”