What’s behind the Turkey-Russia reset?

Russia and Turkey find themselves in the same boat, so it’s only rational for them to de-escalate tensions.

The historical record shows that any time relations with Western allies are strained, Ankara tilts to Moscow, writes Bechev [Reuters]
The historical record shows that any time relations with Western allies are strained, Ankara tilts to Moscow, writes Bechev [Reuters]

Are Russia and Turkey about to mend ties and put behind them the spat over the downed SU-24 fighter plane?

Judging by the meeting between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg on August 9, the answer appears to be “yes”.

We have already seen a build-up of reconciliatory gestures. The Turkish president’s Russia Day greeting on June 12, his “sympathy and condolences” to the family of the killed pilot on June 27, the follow-up telephone conversation with Putin on June 29, and most importantly, Putin’s call to express his support for Erdogan right after the failed coup attempt in Turkey on July 15.

As Ankara blames the self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen for both orchestrating the takeover attempt and sparking off the crisis with Russia, as a gesture of goodwill the pilots involved in the November 2015 shoot-down have now been detained by the Turkish authorities .

And last but not least, deputy prime ministers Mehmet Simsek and Arkady Dvorkovich restarted talks on the Turkish Stream pipeline project in Moscow.

Ongoing recalibration

Ankara was recalibrating its foreign policy even before the July 15 coup attempt. The reset with Israel was followed by tentative overtures to Egypt.

Moreover, there has been speculation that Turkey is also seeking communication with the Damascus regime.

Russia and Iran ‘s expressed support for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government in the aftermath of the coup attempt may improve chances for such (cautious) re-engagement with Syria, but one should not bank on a U-turn.

Surely Russia is in a league of its own. It remains a top economic partner for Turkey. Turkey’s tourism, agriculture and the otherwise thriving construction sector have been badly hurt by the sanctions that Moscow imposed in response to the shoot-down of its military jet.

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In all likelihood, it was the Turkish business community in Russia that provided the backchannel talks to mend the ties between the two governments, and work out a formula for normalisation without losing face.

Though it is probably too late to salvage the tourist season, Russia’s decision to lift the ban on one airliner’s flights and tour operators had a partial relief in resort towns along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.

Historical record

It appears that the current rift with the West pushes Turkey closer to Russia. The US is blamed for failing to cooperate with the Turkish authorities for the extradition of Gulen – the alleged mastermind of the coup attempt.

Many in Turkey see the US as the chief culprit. The majority of Turks also berate the EU’s reluctance to stand by Erdogan as he faced a life-threatening situation, and criticise Europe’s exclusive focus on the clampdown that followed , ostensibly targeted against the “parallel state”.

Russia needs a deal on Syria's transition - sooner rather than later - if it wants to avoid mission creep. Having Turkey on board is a necessary, albeit not sufficient condition.

The historical record shows that any time relations with Western allies are strained, Ankara tilts to Moscow. This happened after the 2003 war in Iraq; between 1997 and 1999 when the EU refused to invite Turkey for membership talks; following the invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and so forth.

We might be heading for another such moment but, as ever, there is a caveat. Turkey still needs NATO’s protection to hedge against Russia’s rising power near its borders.

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Nevertheless, Russia appears to benefit from the rapprochement as well. In a sense, the Su-24 incident was an opportune moment for Putin.

He seized on the chance to demonise the Turkish leadership as “accomplices of terrorists” back-stabbing Russia.

Changing Syria game

The focus on Erdogan diverted attention from Putin’s ongoing efforts to strike a deal on Syria with the US and its allies. US President Barack Obama was no longer the arch-villain that the pro-Kremlin media made him out to be at the peak of the Ukraine crisis in 2014.

Fellow pilots carry the body of Oleg Peshkov, the Russian pilot of the downed SU-24 jet, during a memorial service in Lipetsk, Russia [Reuters]

But Russia has always been wary of a bog-down scenario. Having announced a pull-out from Syria in March, Moscow has its air force locked in in a fierce campaign against rebels in Aleppo.

The downing of a military transport helicopter on August 1 was Russia’s biggest loss since the beginning of their military operations.

Even if Aleppo falls, Russia needs a deal on Syria’s transition – sooner rather than later – if it wants to avoid mission creep. Having Turkey on board is a necessary, albeit not a sufficient condition.

Cooperation against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) is also on top of the agenda.

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For all their differences, Russia and Turkey find themselves in the same boat. The June bomb attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport has been attributed to radicals from Russia and other former Soviet republics.

Ideally, Turkey would also like Russia to scale down its support for the Syrian Kurds. In reality, it lacks the leverage needed to sway the Kremlin.

Russia and Turkey will find it difficult to make headway on the energy front as well. There is a good chance that one of Turkish Stream’s four planned strings, each with capacity of 15.75 billion cubic metres (bcm), will be built to supply the Turkish market.

But before talks move on, Gazprom needs to offer an attractive discount. Ankara will continue to drive a hard bargain, knowing it holds most of the trump cards.

It is only rational for Russia and Turkey to de-escalate tensions and reset ties. But we are back to the marriage of convenience, not a newly flourished love affair.

Dimitar Bechev is a visiting scholar at Harvard University, and a senior fellow at Al Sharq Forum.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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