On the 28th of September 2016, the Kremlin announced that preparations were underway for President Vladimir Putin to visit Turkey in October, a further sign that Russia is interested in fully mending the fences and restore full political, security, and economic ties between the two countries. The announcement is coming amidst reports of a renewed ferocious Russian air bombardment of Aleppo following the abortion of the cease-fire between the Syrian government and its opponents brokered by the United States and Russia. Allegedly accompanied by bunker-busting and incendiary bombs, the latest round of bombings have drawn sharp criticism from many quarters for the heavy toll they are inflicting on civilians.
Uncharacteristically, Turkey has said almost nothing about the latest bout of war in Syria unlike its previous sharp and shrill reactions against alleged Russian military plunders. Considering Turkey’s cozying up to Russia following Putin’s prompt condemnation of the July 15th failed coup and expression of his camaraderie to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and its deteriorating relations with the West, are we witnessing a real major strategic shift in Turkish foreign policy? If so, how would it affect Turkey’s outstanding policy in Syria? Or is Turkey’s flirtation with Russia just a strong message to the West that it is not the only darling around the hood?
To understand and contextualize the latest convulsions in Turkey’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and the West following the failed July coup attempt against Erdoğan, it is pertinent to see how the country’s foreign policy evolved under the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) 15 years rule. The AKP’s foreign policy formulations have passed through many phases. In the beginning, it was premised on the pragmatic concept of ‘zero problems with neighbors’. This policy created a win-win situation where Turkey supported a U.N. plan to unify the long-divided island of Cyprus; almost patched its differences with Armenia; mediated between Israel and Syria; built lucrative economic relations with almost every country in its neighborhood, made strides in its EU accession negotiations and continued to be US’s model of a working Muslim democracy.
With the emergence of the Arab uprising, however, Turkey sidelined its successful policy of ‘zero problems with neighbors’ and thought to use the Arab crisis as an opportune moment to launch its so called Neo-Ottoman policy. Ideological commitment got hold of the better of the AKP and its leader, Erdoğan, and it cheered and rooted for Muslim brotherhood movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. This fervent involvement turned Turkey’s foreign policy topsy-turvy. It put the country in a collusion against the West and Russia, deepened divisions within the Turkish society and exposed the country to security threats from many state and non-state actors. It is within this context that the Turkey-Russia relationship began to sour. Both countries happened to support two different horses in the Syrian race: Turkey a hodgepodge of Islamist groups and Russia the Assad government.
The sour relationship between Russia and Turkey came to a head when the latter, in a state of imprudent delinquency characteristic of a toddling regional power shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border. Russia responded to what it perceived as ‘a stab in the back’ with punishing economic sanctions.
Turkey’s relationship with the West was not ideal either. Both the United States and Turkey parted ways in their strategic priorities in Syria. While the United States wants to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) using the Syrian Kurdish fighters, Turkey is clearly enervated by the strengthening of the Kurdish fighters on its southern border and wants instead to use the Islamist groups to oust the Assad regime.
Despite initial success, Turkey’s relationship with Europe has been increasingly uneasy. Multiple reasons have contributed to this. One main reason is that Europe’s perception of Turkey is very much akin to the 19th century perception of the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and no one European country or its political elites genuinely believe that the country can and should really be a member of the EU. Some notable European politicians have been very bold and candid about their view— a recent example being Nicolas Sarkozy being quoted as saying that “it is time to tell Turkey that your place is in Asia.” In addition, Europe and Turkey have differences on the issue of Syrian refugees, Turkish terror laws and visa liberalization for Turkish citizens to travel to the Schengen countries.
In spite of its increasingly problematic relations with the West, Turkey’s primary strategic option had been to revolve around the Western orbit. After the aborted July 15th coup, however, no one can say to which direction the Turkish foreign policy ship will sail for sure. In the wake of the coup, Erdoğan and his AKP top dogs were very quick in pointing fingers at the West for its lukewarm reaction in condemning the putsch or even for its implicit complicity. There is a widespread conspiracy theories, encouraged by the ruling party, that the United States was involved in the coup—a suspicion reinforced by US refusal to hand over the alleged mastermind of the coup, Fethullah Gülen. Turkey was enraged by Western criticism of its post-coup massive arrests and purges and insinuation by some western politicians that Turkish membership in the NATO can be jeopardized.
In contrast to the West, Russia immediately saw in the coup an opportunity to turn the tides to its advantage. It quickly condemned it and offered its support to the Turkish government. In a telephone call with Erdoğan the day after the coup, Putin emphasized the “categorical impermissibility of anti-constitutional actions and violence in the life of a state,” and confirmed his intention of holding a personal meeting with the Turkish president. Even though Ankara had been signaling regrets for the downing of the Russian jet, Russia’s immediate show of support for the Turkish government presented an occasion for a serious turn-about of the damaged relationship. Erdoğan responded to the Russian charm with an official visit on 9 August and suggested that a new framework of relationship can be created based on cooperation between the two countries on the Syrian issue. Besides, both leaders agreed to the restoration of full-scale cooperation.
A rapprochement between Turkey and Russia is the last thing the West needs because it means a crack in its anti-Moscow alliance. Following Erdogan’s visit to Russia, NATO, in a panic, declared that Turkey is a “valued ally” whose alliance membership “is not in question.” Now the million dollar question is whether Turkey’s snuggling up to Russia is just a gimmick to send a message to the West to service its interest or a real shift in alliance.
Turkey has too much to gain from a renewed relations with Russia to limit the purpose of its recent overtures to an exercise in gimmick. Moscow’s economic sanctions have been too damaging for its struggling economy. In addition to the debacle of its Syrian policy, Russia’s strategic advance in the Black Sea, eastern Mediterranean, and South Caucasus and Western reluctance to aggressively come to Turkey’s aid— as evidenced in the aftermath of the downing of the Russian jet— leaves no room to it except to improve relations with Moscow.
Additionally, there are signs that Turkey is back tracking from its persistent call to see Assad go from power, but what Turkey cannot afford to see is the strengthening of the Syrian Kurds. Therefore, it will likely convince Russia to stop supporting the Syrian Kurd fighter. Plus, by now it’s has become very clear that Turkey understands that there is too much at stake for it to put all its strategic eggs in the Western basket. Therefore, it is safe to conclude that Turkey is serious about its plan to improve relations with Russia. But still there a snag: Russia is pulling Turkey to its fold on its own terms and can Turkey really afford to toe Moscow’s every geopolitical line?
If history affords any clue, Russian-Turkish relationship can’t completely replace Turkey’s relationship with the West. There are many irreconcilable geopolitical interests between the two countries. Russia’s desire to dominate the Black Sea is not in Turkey’s strategic interest. Neither, for that matter, is the Moscow’s desire to expand its influence in the Middle East. Moreover, Turkey’s desire to expand its influence among the Turkic peoples that inhabit the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan does not sit well with Russia’s goal of projecting influence in that region and, more importantly, controlling the region’s hydrocarbon wealth and especially the pipelines that move it to markets in Europe.
In light of the above, what post-coup Turkey will do is not going to be a complete break from the West and turning itself into Moscow’s call boy. What Turkey will attempt to do is a clever play of realpolitik and a charting out of a pragmatic middle ground between the West and Russia— a policy aptly termed as “Turkish Gaullism,” which emphasizes independence, sovereignty and national prestige, glory and grandeur.
Joe Hammoura, “Turkey and Russia: An Alliance or a Gimmick?”, MEIRSS (Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies), October 10, 2016.