Just contrary to the Cold War period during which approaches governing the relations between the former Soviet Union and Turkey originated from ideological principles, and also during the 1990s in which the two sides witnessed tense ties, in the recent years the political, economic and geopolitical interests as well as the new globalization conditions have pushed the bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara towards a boost. Accordingly, the Turkish-Russian ties saw a developing increase during the past decades. However, the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011 and different stances by the two sides on the conflict have negatively influenced Ankara and Moscow relations. Although in the beginning of the crisis in Syria the two sides drew a line between their rift over Syria and the growing bilateral ties, the shooting down of the Russian SU-24 bomber over Syria by the Turkish fighter jets on November 24, 2015, has totally chilled the ties between the two countries. Since then, there appeared a slew of speculations on the future of Turkish-Russian tense ties.
Due to the significance of the bilateral and regional relations of Turkey and Russia and their influence on the Syrian case and the conditions of Caucasus region, this analysis aims at shedding light on the prospects of the two countries’ relations.
The consequences of tensions
Since the time the Russian bomber was downed by the Turkish fighter jets, the verbal standoff has continued due to the Turkish officials’ rejecting to apologize. The verbal war in fact sparked after the Russian President Vladimir Putin said that with downing the Russian SU-24 Ankara stood as accomplice to the terrorists in Syria and “stabbed in the back a country already involved in fight against the terrorism. Such an event has brought about repercussions for the Turkish-Russian relations, the most significant of them are:
1. Decline in the economic relations. Russia and Turkey during the past years saw a huge boost in trade ties, with Moscow standing as Turkey’s second largest trading partner. The total value of the Russian trade with Turkey during 2014 touched $32 billion, but the volume saw a decline in 2015 as it dropped to only $14 billion. With the current tensions and the sanctions imposed on import of food from Turkey, it is expected that the trading levels between the two countries observe a serious plunge.
2. Freezing economic investment and joint constructional projects. During the past few years Moscow and Ankara have made exchanged economic investments in Turkey and Russia. Now, with present tensions it is very likely that all these investments would be halted and the projects would be left unconcluded. One of the most important projects is the Turkish Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant set to be constructed by Russia, but its construction work would possibly be suspended as the escalation unfolds.
3. Decline in number of the tourists and imposing visa regime. Moscow has made it crystal clear that it would cancel the visa-free deal between Russia and Turkey since the January 2016. Additionally, Moscow also advised the Russian citizens not to choose Turkey as destination for their tours. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation has issued a statement, warning the Russian nationals not to visit Turkey, and also advised the Turkey-based Russian nationals to return home. Almost 4.5 million Russian tourists annually visit Turkey, and stop in the tourists’ flow into Turkey could cost the Turkish economy some $10 billion.
The outlook of relations
A couple of factors should be taken into account concerning the prospects of the Turkish-Russian relations. These factors are said to have the potentials to de-escalate tensions between Moscow and Ankara
1. The Turkish military structure is fully dependent to the US and NATO, so, it is impossible that Turkey makes a military move without coordination with Washington and Brussels. Additionally, Ankara is well aware that it is not capable of raising a military confrontation with Moscow. Thereby, in a time that the US and the NATO are not willing to get involved in a direct military confrontation, Turkey would never take a military action to provoke Russia.
2. Turkey imports about 60 percent of its natural gas from Russia. A halt in Russian gas supplies would mean crippling of the Turkish significant industries and eruption of an energy crisis for the Turkish families. It should not be forgotten that 40 percent of the Turkish power plants are gas-powered, and actually many of Turkey’s cities could face a large-scale power outage should Russian gas supplies are stalled. This is coming while Turkey has no trusted alternative for the Russian gas and the Iranian and Azeri current gas capacities are not capable of providing Ankara with the needed gas supplies. So, Ankara is in desperate need of the Russian gas and for now it is incapable of providing its own gas from other contries. As a result, Ankara takes into account its dependence to the Russian energy.
3. Some groups in Turkey which since long times were affected by the leftist ideology are still holding dependence to Moscow. These groups include Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party. It is noteworthy that even presently Turkey is in war with PKK and strengthening of the Kurds by Russia could turn into a serious challenge to Ankara. Furthermore, the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party, a leftist group, has earlier carried out a campaign of terrorist actions and sabotage like bombing near the US embassy in Ankara and attacking the police stations across Turkey. Therefore, the group is ready to stand as a tool in hands of Moscow and conduct sabotage operations inside Turkey. That has made Turkey keep a watchful eye on the possible Russian supports for the group.
On the other side, Russia also taken into account some considerations in dealing with Turkey:
1. Turkey is a member of NATO, thus any military encounter with Turkey would mean confrontation with all members of the Western military alliance. In the current circumstances Moscow is not interested in a direct military engagement with NATO.
2. Russia looks at Turkey as a very convenient energy market, and in a time that Russia’s major income has observed a drop due to the sagging oil prices, a halt in Russian gas supplies to Turkey could deprive Moscow of another major source of income. This by far adds to limitations of Moscow as it is now has to shoulder the burden of costs of its military interventions in Syria and Ukraine. Actually, due to plummeting oil prices and consequently sharp decrease in Moscow’s foreign reserves, Kremlin is unwilling to lose the Turkish energy market and its major source of income.
3. For years Turkey held links with the rebels and separatists of Caucasus region and so it could provoke them to carry out terrorist actions inside the Russian soil. Also, due to Turkic connections with some ethnic groups of central Russia like the Tatars and Bashkirs, Ankara could put strains on Moscow. Earlier, after spark of Ukraine crisis, Turkey, to press Moscow, held the World Tatar Congress with Crimean Tatars attending the meeting in Ankara. So, Russia would consider in its calculations on Turkey the potential challenges of separatism and ethnicism in its republics.
Despite the mentioned factors that keep Moscow and Ankara from a direct military engagement, their ties keep receiving effects from the Syrian conflict. It should not be disregarded that because of Russian presence in Syria and Moscow’s support to the government of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad Ankara has failed to achieve any of its projected goals in Syria:
1. Russian military presence in Syria has tipped the scales in favor of President Assad, making Ankara lose the primary objective of toppling Syria’s Assad.
2. Russia’s Syria military intervention has foiled a Turkish plan to establish no-fly zone over Syria. The Russian fighter jets have repeatedly violated the Turkish airspace, aiming to send the message to Ankara that due to Russian forces deployment in Syria, Turkey could no longer move towards no-fly or safe zones in Syria.
3. The Russian military deployment to Syria has weakened the strength of the Turkey-backed terror organizations like ISIS and al-Nusra Front.
4. Russia’s military campaign in Syria also has destroyed the very profitable Turkey’s oil trade with the terror group ISIS as the Russian jets several times bombed the ISIS’ oil convoys moving in their way to the Turkish territories.
5. The Russian military build-up in the Syrian territories has resulted in impairment of the Syrian Turkmen. The Turkish government for years has worked on unification of the Syrian Turkmen in a bid to arm them to form a Turkmen army inside Syria so that on the one hand fights the Syrian government and on the other hand takes on the Syrian Kurds.
6. Russia’s military involvement in Syria, in addition to enfeebling the power of such terror groups as al-Nusra Front and ISIS, has presented the Syrian Kurds as a new rising force with capability of drawing a Kurdish corridor in the region- a development presenting a crucial security threat to Ankara as the Syrian Kurds hold links to Turkey’s top enemy PKK.
All in all, the mentioned cases suggest that Moscow and Ankara still continue to stand face to face in Syria. Furthermore, the two sides’ confrontation in West Asia generally and in Syria specifically could spill over to Caucasus region too, as some attribute the renewed Karabakh conflict to the Russian-Turkish tensions. At the same time, it should be taken into consideration that the current rift would stop at economic and diplomatic boundaries and would not develop into a direct war.