Russia considers Turkey to be a combination of threats and opportunities and has tried to reduce those threats by making the most of the opportunities.
The speed of fluctuations in ties between Russia and Turkey over the past year has been one of the most thought-provoking phenomena amid rapid developments in the Middle East, which has been unexpected for many people.
Before the breakout of the Syrian crisis, Ankara was considered as a “regional ally” by Moscow, and both countries pointed to the possibility of increasing their trade exchanges by up to $100 billion per year and, in the meantime, talked about upgrading their relations to a strategic level. However, Russia’s military intervention in Syria—especially the shooting down of a Russian military aircraft by Turkish jets—not only greatly lowered the level of relations between the two countries, but also caused Turkey to be once again described as a “hidden enemy” in Russia’s political literature.
Under these tense conditions, various debates were underway in Russia about the quality and future outlook of relations with Turkey, and some circles even talked about the necessity of revising Moscow’s relations with Ankara. However, a later about-face in Turkey’s foreign policy and Ankara’s initiative to normalize relations with Moscow, on the one hand, and the welcome given to Turkey’s initiative by Russia, on the other, rapidly changed the stage and direction of subsequent analyses.
Russia’s Regional Ally
As a function of this development, Turkey is once again—though with more caution compared to the past—being described as a “regional ally” for Russia. In this optimistic approach, the advantages of an improvement in relations have not been made limited to bilateral interactions, and there is also the expectation that the normalization of relations between the two countries will have positive effects on major regional trends, including the developments in Syria, as well.
Of course, Moscow is somehow slow-moving and does not easily become excited about proclaimed initiatives and diplomatic remarks because its main criterion for decision-making is practical results, but it also considers the current course of developments as an opportunity to promote its interests, and this is why it has welcomed Ankara’s initiative. This approach is an outcome of the “strategic pragmatism” that Moscow has constantly put on its agenda in relations with Turkey, even at those junctures when there has been tension in those relations.
In other words, Russia considers Turkey as a combination of threats and opportunities and has, therefore, tried to reduce the threats and make the most of opportunities through pragmatism.
Turkey’s game along the line of the West’s policies; its playing the role of an agent for the implementation of the United States’ regional policies; Ankara’s membership at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); Turkey’s role in bolstering the military presence of the West in the Black Sea region; its “neo-Ottomanism” ambitions; Turkey’s effort to disturb the balance of regional powers through strengthening its own influence in the Middle East (including in Syria); Turkey’s role in the South Caucasus and Central Asia; unsuitable use of the Turkish factor with regard to Syria’s Turkmens and Tatars in the Crimean Peninsula; and Ankara’s annoying bargaining with regard to the transit of Russia’s energy resources to Europe are among factors that were considered as a threat by Russia and led to the dissatisfaction of Moscow in relations with Ankara.
Despite the fact that the list of threats posed to Russia by Turkey is long, the Kremlin has understood this important issue through its realism that not having relations or having hostile relations with Turkey will not only cause it to fail in doing away with these threats, but also exacerbate them and provide the West with an opportunity to take advantage of this gap in relations in order to use Turkey against Russia.
Countering the US
More importantly, Moscow believes that its main opposite party in all regional developments is the US, and having “second-level” tension with Turkey would be playing within the puzzle set by Washington. Within this framework, the US pitches its regional agents (in this case, Turkey) against its regional and international rivals (such as Russia) and, in doing so, it reduces its own costs and promotes its own policies. In this game, Washington prevents Russia from achieving its regional goals on the one hand, while on the other it makes Ankara’s dependence on its support in the face of Russia more profound.
According to this logic, Russia believes that through having good relations with Turkey (while sticking to its own basic considerations), it would be able to better manage threats emanating from this country and turn them into an opportunity. The least advantage of this pragmatic approach is to have Turkey’s impartiality and to decrease measures it may take to prevent the achievement of Russia’s goals in the region.
The Kremlin is well aware of the limitation of resources it faces in the field of foreign policy and knows that a confrontation with Turkey, which is supported by the West, will increase its costs and, at the same time, reduce its chances of achieving regional goals. On the contrary, it naturally follows that having cordial and pragmatic relations with Ankara will not only reduce the cost of Russia for achieving its goals, but will also help it do that with less difficulty.
Regardless of the regional level, the importance and advantages of having bilateral relations with Turkey—including its economic benefits, especially in fields such as energy and the transit of Russia’s oil and gas resources to the European market through Turkey—must not be ignored. This is particularly true under current conditions, taking into account that following the challenges it has faced in Ukraine, the Kremlin does not have many viable options for the transfer of its energy resources to Europe.
More importantly, following recent efforts by Iran and Saudi Arabia to capture parts of the European oil market through signing new contracts with Poland, and in view of speculation about the construction of a new gas pipeline from the Middle East to Europe, Russia has had serious concerns about losing its current position in the European energy market.
Of course, Russia’s approach to Turkey remains pragmatic and its expectations about the benefits of having relations with the country are “relative and limited,” and Moscow will not give up caution in the new period of relations with Ankara. Of course, in view of the special situation that currently governs Turkey, Russia does not consider the possibility of more changes in Ankara’s foreign policy to be unlikely, and it knows that it will take some time until the country reaches a stable state in this regard.
At the same time, Russia is also aware of profound and structural relations that Turkey has with the West and Western institutions, including NATO. Although some analysts say that Ankara is leaning toward Russia due to tension in its relations with the West, the Kremlin knows that these relations are more structural than involving any major harm in the long run.
Moscow does not even reject this assumption through reverse logic that the recent show of willingness by Ankara to improve its relations with Russia may be, in fact, a signal to Western capitals in order to offer more support for and reduce their criticism of Turkey.
Therefore, under current conditions, the Kremlin knows that it cannot be a substitute for the West in the eyes of Turkey, but it is also aware that Russia would still be a winner if it can take Ankara away from the West’s policies to any degree and prove to Turkey the advantages of cooperation with Moscow.
*[A version of this article was originally published by Iran Review.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Bodrumsurf