Russia and Turkey are restoring their ties following months of crisis over the downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkey over Syria in November 2015.  The relations between these two countries subsequently deteriorated, and Moscow imposed a number of sanctions on Turkey, suspending the visa-free travel regime for Turkish citizens, restricting the import of certain Turkish products, and banning charter flights.  In June 2016, Turkish President Erdogan apologized and expressed regret for the downing of the Russian bomber in a letter addressed to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  This has initiated a Russian-Turkish rapprochement, leading to Erdogan and Putin meeting in August 2016 in Saint Petersburg.

This meeting took place weeks after an attempted Turkish military coup in July 2015, which strained ties with the West and further directed Turkey towards Russia.  While the European Union condemned measures that were taken in Turkey following the failed coup,[1] Putin offered his condolences and did not criticize the situation.  As Erdogan himself put it: “When Mr. Putin called me to present his condolences, he didn’t criticize me on the number of people from the military or civil service who had been dismissed.  Whereas all the Europeans asked me: why are so many soldiers detained, why have so many civil servants been dismissed?”[2]

Putin and Erdogan share a disappointment and distrust in Europe and the United States, and both are developing centralized political systems focused around themselves in their respective countries.  Taking into account their shared leadership ideologies and sense of disconnect from the European Union, it is reasonable to conclude that these two countries may begin working closely with each other.  As Turkey had certainly been impacted by Russian sanctions and Russians continue suffering from EU sanctions, both economies are in need of stimulation and are now positioned to provide each other an economic boost independent of the West.

PRAGMATISM OR STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIP?

Erdogan’s apology for shooting down the Russian jet seems to be pragmatic – a gesture to put an end to the isolation imposed on Turkey, especially considering the economic challenges Turkey faced after November 2015, impacting exports and tourism.  Restoring economic and trade relations between Turkey and Russia appears to be a win-win situation for both countries, due to the current state of their fragile economies.  Furthermore, the Saint Petersburg meeting not only covered economic topics, but also included regional cooperation, security, and defense issues.  Hence, the question remains – is this just a tactical move or a step towards strategic partnershipbetween these two governments?  

Some argued that the destination of Erdogan’s first trip abroad after a failed coup meant that Turkey is distancing itself from the West, mainly the EU, which further lends to a shared sense of alienation from Turkey and Russia.  This position has strengthened solidarity between the two countries, as both Putin and Erdogan expressed the will and determination to restore relations back to pre-crisis levels and beyond, reintroducing stability in the region.[3]  But are their intentions as clear as they appear?  Obviously, there are certain security challenges and serious contradictions that exist between Turks and Russians – first and foremost being the situation in Syria.  Turks are concerned about the Kurds and are strongly opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, while the Russia view is completely contradictory.  While Turkey is looking for a regime change, Putin wants to keep the regime in place.  

Nonetheless, they still have a common enemy in ISIS, although Moscow thinks of Kurds in Syria as prospective allies.  Russia sees Turkey as an important factor in the Middle East, but instead of being equal partners, it appears that Russia is searching for allies to work under its patronage.  Furthermore, Turkey is potentially using Russia as leverage--a bargaining chip--to show the West they still have other options.  The next few months will be crucial in determining who Turkey will be working with in Syria: its NATO allies or Russia.  However, Russia also recognizes this as an opportunity to alienate Turkey from the EU.  Moscow is clearly discontent with the present system of alliances, and will try to make the most of the given circumstances in an effort to shift the power dynamic.

Though it is important to maintain a dialogue between Ankara and Brussels, threatening to cancel the refugee deal Turkey struck with the EU earlier this year will likely further distance their relations.  Visa liberalization for Turkish citizens was part of the deal, and the EU has yet to deliver on this promise.  This may be due to the fact that European countries see Erdogan as an authoritarian leader, who used the failed military coup to strengthen his position and obtain legitimacy for actions against his opponents.  This is inconsistent with the principles the EU seeks to promote, and some EU member states are questioning whether they can accept a state that does not uphold democratic standards or respect human rights and the rule of law.[4]  However, if the EU wants to cut off the influx of refugees and migrants into Europe, they may have to make some compromises with Turkey.  As such, Turkey is well-positioned to threaten the EU with backing away from the deal. It remains to be seen what will happen if the EU does not grant visa-free travel for Turkish citizens by the end of October 2016.  It does appear that the EU is determined to keep both visa-free travel and EU membership on the table for Turkey, in order to keep Ankara in the refugee deal and keep refugees out of Europe.  Turkish officials, such as Turkish EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik, refuse the idea of Turkey shifting its foreign policy or of relations between Turkey and EU cooling down.[5]  Therefore, Turkey may now see warming relations with Russia not as a replacement for relations with the European Union but instead, as complementary to its objectives. [6]

CONCLUSION

The fact that these two leaders currently find themselves useful to each other does not mean that these countries are moving toward a strategic partnership.  It is more likely that they are using each other as leverage for achieving other goals, which seems to have worked well up to this point.  The latest developments in Turkish-Russian relations sparked all kinds of speculation and drew significant attention, especially from the European media.  While this restored cooperation may be beneficial for their respective economies, there are still certain issues, such as Syria, that cannot be resolved immediately.  Aside from that, there still remains a lack of trust in Turkey among Russians after the November incident, keeping in mind the unforgiving rhetoric and hostile statements made by both sides.  

It appears that the meeting between these two leaders was more symbolic than practical, aimed to stir distress in Europe and the West.  What can bring Moscow and Ankara further together depends on Europe as well – that is, it hinges largely on whether they keep these two relatively isolated in regional and international affairs or not.  So far, Erdogan has been disregarding and even challenging European values—a stance from which Russia has begun to reap the benefits in looking for ways to expand its influence.  Finally, Erdogan is clearly searching for new allies somewhere else due to the lack of support from the EU after the failed coup.  As EU relations have weakened, it consequently compelled Turkey to open itself to new partners, thereby leading them to Russia.  As both of these countries experienced failed attempts of rapprochement with the EU, they turned to each other in finding new allies, signaling to Europe that they are not “the only game in the town.”  

by Sandra Jelisavcic
Junior Analyst

[1] http://eeas.europa.eu/statements-eeas/2016/160721_01_en.htm; August 25, 2016  

[2] https://www.tccb.gov.tr/en/news/542/49942/bati-kendi-degerleri-ile-celiski-icinde.html; August 25, 2016  

[3] http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52673; August 25, 2016  

[4] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-russia-turkey-europe-minister-idUSKCN10L0S9; August 25, 2016  

[5] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2016/09/21/q-and-a-with-turkeys-e-u-affairs-minister/; October 3, 2016 

[6] Ibid