Istanbul, Turkey – For many, pictures of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan enjoying ice cream together on a summer’s day encapsulated the close ties between two authoritarian leaders with reputations as being among the West’s bete noires.
The jovial scene took place at an air show outside Moscow in August 2019, a month after NATO member Turkey had taken delivery of Russian-made S-400 missiles, leading the United States to kick it off a next-generation fighter jet programme and impose limited sanctions.
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The issue remains at the top of Washington’s list of grievances with Ankara to this day.
Chummy images of two strongmen presidents with a deep distrust of the West, however, belie the complexity of relations between the countries as tensions came to a head less than four years earlier when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over the Syrian border.
It is a relationship that has endured – despite their support for rival proxies in conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh – by compartmentalising its various strands.
But the latest flare-up – between Russia and Ukraine on the latter’s eastern border – could prove different given Russia’s direct involvement on territory it considers its back yard.
“Ukraine is a completely different story,” Gonul Tol, director of the Washington-based Middle East Institute’s Turkey programme, told Al Jazeera.
“There’s a close defence partnership that Turkey has cultivated with Ukraine in the last five to six years, which is really important to the Ukraine.
“But Russia considers [the eastern Ukrainian region of] Donbas a part of Greater Russia, it’s right on the border. In the mindset of Putin, Ukraine represents a much more important space. That means he’s going to be more aggressive in defending what he considers his sovereign rights.”
In recent weeks Moscow has amassed tens of thousands of troops as well as tanks and artillery near Ukraine’s eastern border. Moscow and Kyiv have been in dispute since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists fighting government forces in eastern Ukraine.
Although Ankara has tried to stress its impartiality in the escalation, Moscow has shown signs of impatience.
Meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month, Erdogan issued a joint call for the “de-occupation” of Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
Besides military cooperation with Kyiv, Turkey has historical and ethnic ties to Crimea’s Tatars that led it to condemn Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, although it did not follow others in placing sanctions.
The Ankara meeting came a day after Erdogan had spoken to Putin by phone and a Turkish announcement that two US warships planned to pass through the Bosphorus to the Black Sea – a deployment since rescinded.
The day of the Erdogan-Zelenskyy summit also saw Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warn Turkey to “refrain from encouraging militaristic tendencies in Kyiv”.
Ankara sold a dozen Bayraktar aerial drones to Ukraine in 2019, airpower that has proved its worth against Russian-built weapons systems in recent years.
Moscow later announced a halt to flights to Turkey until June. Although the suspension was framed as a response to rising COVID-19 cases, many commentators saw it as a “punishment” that would deny Turkey’s beleaguered economy 500,000 Russian tourists.
“The cancellation of flights was an opening salvo and the tip of the iceberg of what Russia can do,” Tol said.
Analysts say there are many similarities that bond Erdogan and Putin. Both view Western liberal democratic values as a threat; they have presided over increasing authoritarianism; and they utilise historical and religious themes to reframe national identity.
In a paper for the Foreign Policy Research Institute earlier this month, Anna Mikulska and Robert E Hamilton described the relationship as “one of the most important … in Eurasia today” that “moves quickly between cooperation and confrontation, often in the span of only months”.
The glue that seals the bond is economic, especially energy.
Turkey’s lack of energy resources means trade between the two has traditionally favoured Russia.
Much of the $23.12bn worth of Russian exports to Turkey in 2019 was made up of gas supply while the $4.15bn in goods sent to Russia from Turkey was comprised largely of agricultural products, machinery, textiles and vehicles.
However, Turkey has been diversifying its energy sources to cut reliance on Russia even while cooperating on a pipeline that carries Russian gas to Europe via Turkey.
“The relationship has been tilted towards Russia because Turkish goods are easier to replace for Russia than Russian imports for Turkey,” Mikulska, an energy expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, told Al Jazeera.
“That has changed significantly in the last two or three years based on developments in the natural gas market that Turkey has taken advantage of strategically, becoming a transit territory of gas not just from Russia but also Azerbaijan.
“Turkey has also built LNG [liquefied natural gas] terminals and is importing a lot of LNG, which has increased its position vis-a-vis Russia. Russia can’t afford to lose Turkey either as a transit territory or a market for gas.
“Turkey sees that and is able to extract benefits from it.”
‘Almost schizophrenic’ foreign policy
While reducing over-reliance on Russia makes sense, Turkey still has to live in the same neighbourhood as a country that it has had an on-off rivalry with since the 16th century.
This need to get along with Moscow has often been portrayed as Turkey “turning away” from the West after serving as NATO’s “southern flank” against the Soviet Union.
However, misunderstandings over Turkey’s shifting, “apparently almost schizophrenic” foreign policy stem from Erdogan’s mix of pragmatism and ideological red lines, according to Selim Sazak, research director at TUM Strategy in Ankara.
“Part of the confusion comes from Erdogan’s very rigid commitment to certain issues and his total flexibility on others that he can use as bargaining chips,” he said.
“In the Syrian quagmire, you need to be able to give something to the Russians when the need arises so you buy the S-400 because it’s a $3bn leverage tool for something else.”
Despite the frequent emphasis on their friendship, the path Erdogan and Putin share has sometimes been rocky.
The shooting down of a Russian jet in late 2015 saw Putin impose a ban on Turkish food imports, an end to charter flights and heavy restrictions on Turkish construction projects.
The row was smoothed over and when a coup attempt threatened to overthrow Erdogan in July 2016, Putin was first to offer unconditional words of support.
Even the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Ankara later that year did not hamper renewed ties.
Russian support for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has offered many opportunities for conflict with Turkey but all have been avoided despite Ankara’s ongoing support for anti-Assad militias viewed as “terrorists” by Moscow and Damascus.
Instead, Erdogan has in recent years toned down his rhetoric against the Syrian president, no longer insisting on his overthrow, and joined Russia and Iran in the Astana process to seek an end to the war.
The deaths of 34 Turkish soldiers in an air strike in February last year caused little disturbance to their cooperation.
Ankara accepted the attack had been solely carried out by Syrian jets, despite witness accounts of Russian involvement, and Russia stood by as Turkish drones, artillery and jets pounded Syrian targets in retaliation.
Across the Mediterranean in Libya, their interests also diverged, with Ankara having backed the Tripoli-based, United Nations-recognised government against eastern forces covertly supported by Russia.
Closer to home, last year’s fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists led Russia to call an end to the violence after Turkish-supplied drones played a major role in Azerbaijan’s victory.
In a conflict between two former Soviet republics – one of which, Armenia, is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization – Moscow imposed a ceasefire enforced by 2,000 Russian peacekeepers with Turkey offered an observer role.
Ideologically, both Turkey and Russia have bonded over an anti-Western outlook fostered by grievances – Russia, as its former eastern European partners have flocked to NATO and the European Union, and Turkey, as it has seen its hopes of joining the EU dwindle.
“They have a similar relationship with the West, although Russia’s is a lot more strained,” Mikulska said.
“That’s why we talk about the axis of the excluded, where both countries have been disappointed with what the West has offered and what it has delivered.”
She added: “But there’s more that divides them than brings them together. Both are trying to be the Eurasian champion and Nagorno-Karabakh was the conflict that really exposed that.
“Turkey may win some regional battles with Russia over time but it realises that it can’t be the regional hegemon while Russia is around.”
Meanwhile, talk of Turkey’s “turn” to Russia seems overblown.
“Turkey has no interest in making it easier for Russia to expand its zone of influence,” Sazak said.
“The closer Russia comes to you, the greater your chance of being mauled by the Russian bear.”