Turkey-Russia Relations: Backgammon vs Chess

25 june 2018

Huseyin Bagci - Prof.Dr, Chairman, Department  of  International  Relations, Middle  East  Technical  University, Ankara, Turkey

Resume: What Putin knows is that Turkey is “forced to go to the hands of Russia” as never ever before since World War II. It is up to President Putin to encounter this proposal. Turkey made a move like in chess, and now it is up to chess master Putin what move he will do.

Turkish President Erdogan’s proposal to produce the S-500 missile systems with Russia is unrealistic for the time being, although in the long run Turkey could become Russia’s technological partner in the production of certain missile systems. The fact is that Turkey today faces an indirect “military embargo” by certain NATO countries. In recent years, Turkey’s decision to buy Russian S-400 defence systems created a hard debate among NATO member states and the US administration was “very angry and unhappy” with it. Several statements by Pentagon and US State Department actually created confusion over whether the US would welcome or reject this Turkish decision. Then, there is a “cacophony” among the US ministries.

Turkey’s decision to buy Russian S-400 systems is based on historic experience that the US was not willing to sell Patriot defence systems to Turkey. Indeed, Turkey got the Patriot systems as a “loan” from Germany and Netherlands after the first Gulf War. But after a while, the Germans and the Dutch left Turkey with empty hands or without any air defence systems on its volatile borders.

The Turkish argument that NATO did not show any reaction when Greece bought Russian S-300 systems in the late 1990s and deployed them on an island in the Aegean Sea is an acceptable one, though the Greeks were aware that they could not use them against any other NATO member state without the permission of NATO headquarters. It rather had a “psychological effect” than was a real threat to Turkey. There is the accepted principle of NATO that there is no war allowed among the NATO member states.

Also, there is a general expectation in Turkey that the increasing economic and political relations with Russia could lead to military cooperation because NATO is getting more and more sceptical about the political developments in Turkey and the autocratic tendencies of its President Erdogan. Yet, Turkish presidential elections will take place this weekend and there is no guarantee that President Erdogan will win the elections in the first round. If he wins the elections then we have to seriously consider his proposal for the joint production of S-500 missile systems. If he loses the presidential elections, which is still likely, then there will be a new situation and probably the new president will negotiate in a different way.

At the moment, Turkey is not as strong in military technology as Russia and there is a big question whether President Putin would opt for technology transfer or joint production. In its relations with NATO, Turkey realized that “technology transfer to Turkey” was always spare and controversial. The difference now is that Russia appears as a “lucrative alternative” for Turkey in order to also develop the Turkish military industry.

It will depend now on whether President Putin considers Turkey a “strategic and military partner” for the future Russian-Turkish relations. The Turkish government sees itself as a cat put in a corner and the lion (NATO) is not giving any big strategic importance to Turkey, what it actually should. This perception prevails very strongly in the minds of the government and President Erdogan.

President Putin faces a big dilemma how to treat Turkey. He knows that there are the limits of cooperation with Turkey in defence and armament sector. Will he surpass these limits? It seems that Putin will not say “no” to Erdogan’s proposal but the military relations will develop further. As the Turkish bargaining tradition says, “I make even the most inacceptable price suggestion, if you buy it.” Erdogan suggested what looks impossible but President Putin will decide, whether he will “buy” it or not. What Putin knows is that Turkey is “forced to go to the hands of Russia” as never ever before since World War II. It is up to President Putin to encounter this proposal. Turkey made a move like in chess, and now it is up to chess master Putin what move he will do. He will think at least three steps further strategically before he makes his move. Turks play backgammon and the Russians play chess. President Erdogan got the best numbers which are 6x6 at the moment, and Putin should make the right move. He has time to think. At least until the results of the Turkish presidential elections this weekend.

The Valdai Discussion Club

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