Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey in December 2014 coincided with the anniversary of his first trip there in December 2004 and crowned a ten-year period of active relations between the two countries during “the Putin-Erdogan era.” The results of Putin’s visit indicate that the current level of multifaceted partnership has not ended and could go further as elements of strategic cooperation emerge.
This certainly does not mean that there are no problems in our relations. In fact, plenty of contentious issues, both old and new, have emerged as cooperation grows. Russia and Turkey have diametrically opposite positions on such issues as the deployment of American ABM systems in Turkey, the crisis in Syria, and Crimea’s reunification with Russia. Indeed, it would be strange for Turkey, as a NATO member, to act in defiance of bloc solidarity.
But there is something else that is even more important. Russia and Turkey have learned to respect each other’s interests even when they differ, which was evident at a joint press conference by Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan where neither leader was eager to publically express disagreement over Syria and Ukraine. Instead Turkey emphatically distanced itself from EU and U.S. sanctions, stating its interest in increasing the export of agricultural products and consumer goods to Russia. Thus when it was announced that the South Stream gas pipeline would be diverted from Bulgaria to Turkey, the rest of the world took this as a strategic move that may have important consequences not only for the energy sector, but also for the security architecture in the vast Eurasian region.
“The strategic depth” of russian-turkish relations
Since 1991 the history of Russian-Turkish relations can be divided into two periods: before and after Turkey’s Justice and Development Party came to power in November 2002. Qualitative positive changes developed after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the ensuing global geopolitical shift. Conditions arose (and were partly realized) for a transition from centuries-old political rivalry between the two countries to good-neighborliness and mutually advantageous cooperation. But this process was restrained by a number of factors such as mistrust rooted in lingering Cold War suspiciousness. Russia reacted nervously to Turkey’s attempts in the 1990s to fill the power vacuum in the post-Soviet space (Turkish involvement in Central Asia, Suleyman Demirel’s stability pact for the Caucasus, and Gülen schools in the Volga region). Turkey feared the reemergence of Russia’s imperial reflexes and supported separatists during the first Chechen war. Two factors helped to stabilize the situation: the strategic agreement of 1997 to build the Blue Stream gas pipeline and growing contacts between Russian and Turkish entrepreneurs, who played a leading role in building a firm foundation for interstate cooperation.
The second stage of Russian-Turkish relations is underlain by similar approaches towards both bilateral relations and key parameters of a global order based on the search for distinct ways of development in a rapidly changing multipolar world. Political dialogue is increasing, including within the High-Level Cooperation Council and the Joint Strategic Planning Group headed by foreign ministers; the Russian-Turkish Public Forum has been set up; and the Inter-Governmental Commission on Trade, Economic, Cultural, and Humanitarian Cooperation meets regularly. Trade between the two countries has skyrocketed to $34 billion from $6.8 billion in 2002, cooperative ties have grown stronger in key industries, including the energy sector, and mutual investments are increasing.
The current level of coordination is crucial in the post-Soviet space, the Black Sea region, and the Middle East. But the main achievement is perhaps the sustainable ties that have passed several serious tests, including the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Georgian-Ossetian conflict in 2008, and Crimea’s reunification with Russia.
Turkey believes that the main distinction of the existing global security system is that there is no common understanding of its basic aspects. New challenges and threats are dealt with pragmatically as part of tactical agreements between major powers. Turkey hopes that global interaction can be achieved by building a multipolar world and updating the concept of Euro-Atlantic solidarity to give more autonomy to its member countries. Turkey does not consider itself a flank NATO country. The Turks believe that their strategic alliance with the West is not an obstacle to having their own say in ensuring security in the Black Sea region, in developing relations with Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan, and in facilitating a Middle East settlement. The same logic underlies relations with Russia, including on such issues as security in the Black Sea region, South Caucasus, and Central Asia, which Turkey views as an area of common interests that have developed historically.
In November 2013, after a three-year pause, Turkey resumed membership negotiations with the European Union, which first started in 2005. Until now, the sides have completed consultations on only one (Science and Research) of 14 chapters under discussion. The reason for the delay is formal stumbling blocks, such as disagreement over Cyprus, the Armenian genocide, and the Kurdish issue. In fact, Turkey regards Eastern Partnership as a project that denies its European aspirations.
Turkey’s foreign policy concept of “strategic depth” combines elements of moderate Islamist and contemporary Western approaches. Turkey has set the goal of becoming one of the world’s top ten economies and a technological renovation leader in the region by 2023 when the country celebrates the centenary of the Kemalist revolution. Turkey favors a systemic, rather than response-like, approach to crisis management, and calls for working out uniform criteria for settling regional conflicts and prioritizing the use of “soft power,” while at the same time preserving the possibility of economic and military measures. This position is real ground for interaction, including preventive peacekeeping operations.
At the same time, Turkey’s foreign policy practice does not always match the country’s declared strategy. While in theory the Turks are quite strong doctrinarians, in real life they are solid pragmatists ready to defend their interests in defiance of their allies in both the East and West.
Turkey’s view of Eurasia
Turkey and Russia have a clear understanding of their unique strategic positions at the juncture of two continents and civilizations (sort of a Eurasian “heartland”) as a factor that largely determines their role in global affairs. However, the countries differ in setting those boundaries of Eurasia that fall within the sphere of Turkey’s immediate vital interests. Along with the South Caucasus and Central Asia, traditionally important for Turkey, this sphere also includes the Middle East. Less significant for Turkey are China and East Asia, two regions Russia sees as potential Eurasian partners in both security and economic terms.
The Erdogan government has drifted away from the hardline nationalistic tactics practiced by its predecessors with regard to the Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkey views Russia’s attempts to encourage integration in the post-Soviet space as part of the two countries’ mutually complementary interests. And yet there are elements of competition since Turkey wants to establish integration structures based on the idea of Turkic unity. The Parliamentary Assembly of Turkic-Speaking Countries was founded in 2008, followed by the establishment of the Cooperation Council of Turkic-Speaking States (Turkic Council) in 2009. The latter brought together all Turkic organizations that had existed until then. Turkey is also closely watching practical steps to create the Eurasian Economic Union and the work of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, where it has the status of dialogue partner.
In Central Asia, Turkey has been actively developing relations with Kazakhstan, which along with Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan participates in all international Turkic associations. Reclusiveness complicates relations with Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, and ethnic differences cloud contact with Tajikistan. The interests of Turkey and China overlap in Central Asia, but since the extent of those interests varies, it is possible to avoid direct competition. An example of this is their Silk Road concepts. Turkey also views Iran as a potential competitor in Central Asia, where it offers an Islamic alternative to Turkey’s influence.
However, specific policy features do not prevent Russia and Turkey from pooling their efforts to solve common security problems, including those associated with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Historically, Turkey has been deeply involved in the Caucasus and maintains special relations with Azerbaijan (“two states, one nation”), a country that reacts very painfully to Turkish attempts to develop closer ties with Armenia and Iran. The Armenian genocide is a major obstacle to the normalization of Turkish-Armenian relations because, despite Turkish compromises, Armenia continues to adhere to an unyielding position. Additionally, the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh puts Turkey under strong pressure from Azerbaijan. Turkey also maintains close ties with Georgia through infrastructure projects such as the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan gas pipeline (2006), the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum gas pipeline (2007), and the Baku-Tbilisi-Kars railway currently under construction. Turkey is wary of being drawn into regional conflicts, and in the case of Georgia it feels trapped between Russia and its Western allies. During the 2008 conflict between Russia and Georgia, Turkey refrained from anti-Russian statements and did not allow U.S. warships to enter the Black Sea.
Russia and Turkey are working together to maintain security in the Black Sea region. The two countries successfully cooperate within BLACKSEAFOR and Operation Black Sea Harmony, centered around a common stance on the need for the Montreux Convention to remain in force. It is fundamentally important that Turkey continues to insist that security in the Black Sea region should be ensured by the littoral states only, without outside interference. This has to be the case even after Crimea’s reunification with Russia, an event that has dramatically changed the strategic situation in the area.
Turkey is strongly opposed to the U.S.’s “Greater Middle East” concept, an approach which it believes creates the risk of redrawing borders in the region. Yet after the beginning of the Arab Spring, Turkey joined the West in welcoming democratic change in the Middle East. In the early stages of mass protests in Arab countries, the Erdogan government supported the change of authoritarian regimes in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and Syria, and allowed opposition bases in Turkey. However, when the Arab Spring began to transform into a Sunni-Shia conflict and a confrontation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, generating a flood of jihadists to neighboring countries, Turkey reverted to its traditional role of mediator. One of the reasons for that was the failure to advance the “Turkish model” for organizing life in countries consumed by the Arab Spring. Turkey’s support for the Western and regional push for regime change in Syria was most likely prompted by its efforts to keep the Kurdish issue, essentially a domestic political problem, under control. While prioritizing the removal of Bashar al-Assad, Turkey has been cautious about the emerging U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State. Also, Ankara has strained relations with Cairo in the wake of the Egyptian coup in 2013 and subsequent failure of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Turkey, home to almost 15 million Alevis, does not want the Sunni-Shia conflict to escalate further, even though the actual course of events is drawing the country into an increasingly fierce struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two leading Sunni and Shia nations. When the Iranian situation had reached a critical point in 2013, Turkey clearly distanced itself from a possible Israeli strike, thus further exacerbating its drawn-out conflict with Israel.
Overall, there is no conflict of strategic interests between Russia and Turkey in the South Caucasus, Central Asia, or Middle East. In fact, the two countries have a shared interest—to maintain political stability in Eurasia while keeping external forces away from the region, or at least limiting their presence there.
The South stream challenge
Although not so unexpected for experts, the biggest surprise of Putin’s visit to Turkey in December was his statement that South Stream would be redirected from Bulgaria to Turkey. This decision by the presidents of Russia and Turkey logically stems from the fierce and long-fought war for ways to transport energy resources from the Caspian region and the Middle East to Europe. The magnitude and intensity of the struggle, the outcome of which is critical for the geopolitical future of Eurasia, is determined mainly by the strategic interests of leading global players: Russia, the European Union, the U.S., and to a lesser extent China. Its purpose for the U.S., later supported by the EU, was to try to seize control of East-West gas pipelines. The objective was simple and clear—energy resources from the Caspian region and the Middle East must bypass Russia, which left it the only option of building new pipelines from north to south. For pragmatic reasons, neither the U.S. nor the EU wanted to touch the Soviet-era gas transportation system that supplied gas from Russia to Europe via Ukraine until they were ready. And this, synoptically speaking, provided the geo-energy background for the Ukraine crisis.
The first major disruptions in Russian gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine essentially occurred at the time of the first Maidan protests in Kiev in 2004. Turkey, which received gas through the Trans-Balkan Pipeline, was among the countries affected by Ukraine’s illegal syphoning off of Russian gas transported through its territory. A series of subsequent crises prompted the idea of building gas pipelines around Ukraine. The construction of Nord Stream, which held much promise for such a powerful European country as Germany, did not always go smoothly, but was completed successfully, thus safeguarding the north of the continent from Ukraine’s caprices. Conceived simultaneously with Nord Stream in 2007, South Stream was a more complex issue. Its rated capacity was set at 63 billion cubic meters a year (the amount necessary to replace Ukrainian transit), and it was expected to diversify transport routes for Russian gas to Europe. Thus South Stream would reduce the dependence of suppliers and customers from transit countries, primarily Ukraine.
But from the very start the European Union invoked its Third Energy Package and kept creating artificial obstacles for the South Stream project. European Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger disclosed the real reason in January 2011 when he said the overall throughput capacity of the North Stream and South Stream pipelines would amount to 118 billion cubic meters of gas a year, which would allow Russia to supply gas to Europe bypassing Ukraine. And this created yet another little knot that linked the Ukrainian crisis to Western energy interests.
When debating the South Stream project, Russia considered two principal routes, one of which could run via Turkey. However, in 2006, when our relations with the European Union were at their best and we had come close to forming four common spaces, Russia made the “pro-European” choice, prompted largely by the need to protect cooperation with Europe from political upheavals in Ukraine. When polemicizing with Eurosceptics, Russian leaders insisted that energy resources could not be used as a means of political pressure simply because the supplier and the consumer bound by a direct contract were equally dependent on each other.
However, after Victor Yanukovich postponed the signing of the Association Agreement with the EU in November 2013, Europe, with the U.S. standing firmly behind it, stopped understanding rational arguments. In April 2014, the European Parliament voted against the South Stream project. In September it adopted a resolution on the situation in Ukraine and the state of EU-Russia relations, which called for reassessing relations with Russia, scrapping the concept of strategic partnership, and cancelling planned energy agreements, including South Stream. After a meeting with U.S. congressmen three months earlier, the prime minister of Bulgaria halted the pipeline construction.
Thus with no other alternative at hand, Putin was forced to announce in Ankara that Russia was terminating the project because of the EU’s unconstructive position. On the same day, Russia’s Gazprom and Turkey’s Botas signed a memorandum of understanding to build an underwater gas pipeline to Turkey across the Black Sea with an annual capacity of 63 billion cubic meters (the same as South Stream), of which 14 billion cubic meters will go to Turkey and the rest to its border with Greece. It is generally believed that European companies will extend the pipeline in each interested country separately to meet the requirements of the Third Energy Package.
Experts believe Turkey will be the largest beneficiary of the new pipeline. This is true. With an oil hub in Ceyhan on the Mediterranean Sea, Turkey will be the main transit country for natural gas as well. The Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP), which will deliver gas to Europe from the Shah-Deniz field in Azerbaijan and possibly from Turkmenistan in the future, will go through Turkey. The operating pipelines Baku-Tbilisi-Kirkuk and Kirkuk-Ceyhan already transport gas from Iraq’s Kurdistan. In time, Iranian and Qatari gas could also be supplied via Turkey. Russian gas, which will be delivered to Turkey by a third pipeline along with Blue Stream and the Trans-Balkan Pipeline, could turn Turkey into a major gas transit country, giving it substantially more regional and global influence.
Can Turkey become another Ukraine for Russia? Such speculation would be premature at this point. So far, only a political decision has been made to halt the construction of South Stream in Bulgaria. The rest will depend not so much on Russia as on its partners in Europe. At any rate, the choice of Turkey as a transit country for the transportation of Russian hydrocarbons to Europe looks strategically justified.