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Erdoğan’s Visit to St. Petersburg: A Measured Russia-Turkey Rapprochement

Dr Rajorshi Roy is Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile [+].
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  • August 16, 2016

    President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to St. Petersburg on August 9 marks a remarkable turnaround in Russia-Turkey ties. The relationship had earlier deteriorated to historical lows after Turkey downed a Sukhoi-24 fighter jet in November 2015, which President Putin termed as a ‘stab in the back’. Nine months later, during their summit meeting in St. Petersburg, the two Presidents highlighted their ‘substantial and constructive’ dialogue on all issues of mutual interest. They also outlined a roadmap for restoring ties to earlier levels.

    More symbolically, Erdoğan’s first visit abroad in the aftermath of the failed July coup took place against the backdrop of Turkey’s increasingly strained ties with the ‘West’. This assumes significance due to the ongoing rivalry between Russia and the ‘West’, and Turkey’s pivotal position in NATO. Therefore, given the nature and timing of Erdoğan’s visit, the pertinent questions are: What are the key drivers of the rapprochement? And, what are the limits to Russia-Turkey reconciliation?

    Drivers of Russia-Turkey Rapprochement

    The key drivers of this incipient rapprochement can broadly be attributed to economic and geo-political factors.

    A crucial challenge for both Turkey and Russia is the revival of their economies. The attempted coup would have further dampened the sluggish market sentiments about Turkey. And Russia’s daunting economic crisis continues to fester. Against this backdrop, the restoration of the Russian-Turkish economic linkages become vital. This involves the tourism, agriculture, energy and construction sectors. Russian tourists comprised the second largest group of visitors to Turkey in 2015, while Turkish agricultural products were key substitutes for the banned European commodities in Russia. The Kremlin’s sanctions against Turkey in the wake of the shooting down of the Russian fighter aircraft had resulted in bilateral trade dipping to USD 23.3 billion in 2015 from 31.5 billion during the previous year.1 Russia also remains the biggest supplier of gas to Turkey. Notably, the revival of the Turkish Stream pipeline has significant geo-economic ramifications. It will allow Russia to transport gas to Europe by circumventing Ukraine while making Turkey a key hub of European energy transmission. Similarly, the USD 20 billion Akkuyu nuclear power plant project will boost their economic relationship. This follows the decision to set up a Joint Investment Fund to achieve the target of USD 100 billion of bilateral trade. It is expected that this economic interdependency can become a fulcrum of stronger political engagement.

    Turkey’s outreach to Russia is also likely the result of a recalibration of its overall foreign policy objectives. The unravelling of its ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy has complicated its core interests in its neighbourhood. Ties with most of its neighbours, including Syria, Iran, Iraq and Israel, remain frayed. The Kurdish issue continues to fester, with Turkey remaining wary of the growing linkages between the Turkish and Syrian Kurds – the latter being supported by Russia and the ‘West’ in the battle against the Islamic State (IS). This can embolden the irredentist aspirations of the Turkish Kurds. Meanwhile, Russia’s emergence as a factor in shaping the key outcomes of the Syrian conflict has severely undermined Turkey’s room for manoeuvre in its ‘near abroad’. The failed coup is likely to further distract Ankara from its Syrian game-plan, with priority being accorded to domestic stability. The recent spate of IS-led terror attacks on Turkish soil underscore this urgency to focus inwards. Moreover, Turkey remains upset at the perceived lack of ‘Western’ support in tackling the attempted coup. Therefore, given the emerging crises on several fronts, Russian support can help Ankara tide over a few problems, particularly its Syrian conundrum. Engagement with Moscow can help Turkey protect its key interests, which include the Kurdish problem. It reduces the risk of a confrontation similar to the SU-24 downing. The reconciliation might also involve Russia using its influence with the Central Asian Republics to push for a crackdown on Gülen schools in the region2.

    Interestingly, the timing of the coup and the American refusal to hand over Fethullah Gülen has given credence to Turkish suspicions of a ‘Western’ hand. This can be linked to the compelling need of the US and its West Asian partners to have Turkey on board in keeping the Syrian conflict alive. Ankara remains the most vital conduit to supply logistics to the rebels. A realignment of Turkey’s Syrian policy can result in a decisive victory for the Bashar Assad regime. In this regard, the Iranian Foreign Minister’s recent visit to Ankara highlights the geo-political churnings underway. At stake is the regional balance of power. Perhaps it is a mere coincidence, but barely a few days after Erdogan had apologised to Putin in June 2016 for the SU-24 downing, the perpetrators of the Istanbul airport bombing were identified as Russian, Kyrgyz and Uzbek citizens.

    Russia’s calculus for the rapprochement is likely to be more nuanced. It extends beyond Turkey’s pivotal position in resolving the Syrian crisis. Having raised the stakes in Syria, the resolution of the conflict will be a litmus test of the Kremlin’s claims to be a pole in global diplomacy. As such, engaging the regional stakeholders will be vital. Similarly, finding convergences with Ankara on tackling terrorism is crucial, given Turkey’s links with the IS. Moscow faces the backlash of more than 2,000 Russian citizens having joined the terror organisation. A reconciliation can also cause a setback to the ‘Western’ containment strategy of Russia. As a key NATO ally, Turkey would have been expected to up the ante vis-à-vis Moscow in their overlapping spheres of influence. This includes the Black Sea, Caucasus and Central Asia. Moscow’s recent game-plan appears to be to cultivate the differences among the ‘Western’ partners in order to undermine their unanimous position vis-à-vis Russia. Moreover, it can be argued that the rapprochement with Turkey is part of the Kremlin’s larger strategy of building Eurasian partnerships to reinforce its position on its periphery. A number of recent events point to this calculus: the Kazakh President’s mediation between Moscow and Ankara, the trilateral Russia-Iran-Azerbaijan meeting in Baku, the Russian-Armenian summit talks in Moscow, and the likely quadrilateral Russia-Turkey-Syria-Iran talks in the future. The key themes in these discussions have been on developing economic partnerships, tackling terrorism and improving regional security. Given Turkey’s linkages in these areas, a deeper engagement that can stabilise the region suits Moscow.

    Limits to the Reconciliation

    The ongoing rapprochement has led to suggestions of Ankara charting a new foreign policy that involves breaking ranks with the ‘West’. However, a deeper analysis reveals a more nuanced interplay of Turkish and Russian strategies. Given its fundamental interests in Syria, it is unlikely that Ankara will completely abandon its Syrian policy. Rather, it may simply adopt a tactical approach to strike deals with Russia on terrorism and the Kurdish issue, while exploring an acceptable political solution to the Syrian crisis. The major stumbling block though remains Assad’s role in a post-conflict setting. Therefore, the way these dynamics unravel will determine the future trajectory of the Turkey-Russia reconciliation. Moreover, the deep sense of betrayal in Russia about the SU-24 incident is likely to continue to shape the normalisation on Kremlin’s terms. Given the interplay of strong presidential personalities, a compromise on Turkey’s core issues without a viable Russian quid pro quo might prove tricky.

    Meanwhile, it is unlikely that a major deviation in Turkey’s ties with the ‘West’ is in the offing. Their partnership remains highly symbiotic. The European Union (EU) is Turkey’s biggest trading partner, while NATO is the pillar of its security. In addition, a significant number of Turks remain oriented towards the ‘West’. For its part, the EU needs Turkey’s support in tackling terrorism and the influx of migrants, while the Turkish army remains the second largest in NATO. Turkey is also a key peg in the West’s containment of Russia. However, given their increasingly strained ties, Turkey can use the Russian card as a bargaining chip with the ‘West’. This stems from Ankara’s strategic value to the ‘West’. Therefore, Turkey might just seek greater ‘Western’ support in carrying out the ongoing purge and extradition of Fethullah Gülen, relaxation of European visa norms, and greater economic and military aid.

    Consequently, while a Russia-Turkey rapprochement is driven by their particular national interests, yet its trajectory and outcome are likely to be shaped by the interplay of several geo-economic and geo-political factors. Nevertheless, the on-going Russia-Turkey rapprochement strengthens the maxim that in diplomacy there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies but only permanent interests.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.