Turkey: Lacking Geopolitical Leverage In Russian Relations

Turkey - Pakistanjoannaoman / Pixabay

Turkey: Lacking Geopolitical Leverage In Russian Relations by EurasiaNet

Russia’s entry into the Syrian conflict is upsetting Turkey’s diplomatic ambitions. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s power play has shown that his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, lacks geopolitical leverage.

Prior to the Syrian intervention, robust trade relations, particularly in the energy sphere, had brought Turkey and Russia closer together. The strong-arm governing styles of both Putin and Erdo?an likewise helped the two leaders develop a strong working relationship.

“He [Erdo?an] saw Russia as [a] counterbalance to NATO and [the] US,” recalled Suat K?n?kl?o?lu, a former MP for Erdo?an’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the former spokesperson for parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.

The Kremlin’s Syrian intervention has quickly driven a wedge between Putin and Erdo?an. The political future of incumbent Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is the main stumbling block: Putin is determined to keep Assad in power, while Erdo?an has long considered his ouster to be the key to restoring Syrian peace.

On a state visit to Ankara last December, Putin proclaimed Turkey to be a “strategic ally” of Russia. Yet the Syrian crisis ultimately revealed it was never a relationship of equals.

“Behind Putin’s smile, Russia remains a big state and can show its claws whenever it is convenient,” said retired Ambassador Murat Bilhan, the former head of the Turkish Foreign Ministry’s Strategic Research Centre. “Now Russia found the time and place to use its power. This has always been the Russian mentality, back to Soviet days. It has not changed.”

“Turkey could never compete with Russia in any field,” added Bilhan, who served as a diplomat in Moscow during the Soviet era. “Russia is a superpower and Turkey is a regional one. Turkey miscalculated.”

While the Kremlin may act as though Turkey is a bystander when it comes to Syria, Putin still seems somewhat sensitive to Turkish concerns. After al-Assad’s visit to Moscow, the Kremlin on October 22 announced that Putin called Erdo?an to provide an update on the meeting and discuss Syria.

Erdo?an’s frustration over his inability to influence Kremlin behavior has occasionally bubbled up in public. Following the launch of Russian air strikes in Syria, along with Turkish claims that Russian warplanes had violated its air space, the Turkish president made a thinly veiled threat – reminding Moscow that Turkey is its biggest customer for natural gas and that could change.

But one analyst believes the president risked overreaching. “That’s not feasible. Turkey imports 55 percent of its gas from Russia, 10 percent of its oil from Russia. In the gas business, you simply can’t diversify overnight. These things take time,” pointed out analyst Volkan Özdemir of Ankara’s Institute for Energy Markets and Policies.

If anything, it is Ankara which should worry, cautioned Soli Ozel, an international relations expert at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University. Russia retains the power to manipulate energy exports in order to punish Ankara. “Turkey cannot afford to upset the Russians beyond a certain limit,” he cautioned. “Because somehow the pipelines can have an accident or need repair and this may last 20 days in the dead of winter. But fortunately for Turkey, Russia these days needs as much money as it can get.”

Ankara could reduce its energy dependence on Moscow by switching to liquefied natural gas, Özdemir said. The Turkish government could also take a current pricing dispute with the Kremlin-controlled energy company Gazprom to international arbitration, like it did with Iran.

For now, Ankara has not indicated that it will take such steps. That may be a sign that Turkish leaders have already come to terms with the new geopolitical reality.

That reality is not pretty for Turkey. Former Turkish Ambassador Bilhan said recent developments have created a far more forbidding neighborhood for Ankara. “Turkey finds itself encircled by Russian power, both from the north, the Black Sea, Caucasus and Syria. Turkey did not expect anything like that.”

The downturn in Turkey’s diplomatic fortunes can be traced back to Russia’s forced annexation of Crimea. Turkish leaders were restrained in their criticism and did not join their Western allies’ economic sanctions against Russia. That stance came in the face of calls from Turkish nationalists to support Turks’ ethnic kin, Crimean Tatars.

“[Erdo?an] calculated given his close relationship with Putin that he could manage to get certain rights and protection for the Crimean Tartars by not publically opposing Russia’s move in Ukraine loudly, but I think that has pretty much backfired,” said K?n?kl?o?lu, now the executive director of STRATiM, an Ankara-based think-tank.

Erdo?an’s supporters are striving to put the best spin on an increasingly difficult position. “There are areas of excellent relations side by side with areas of disagreement, so it’s a complicated relationship,” AKP spokesperson Ömer Çelik, a close presidential confidant, said when discussing the new parameters of the Turkish-Russian relationship with foreign journalists earlier in October.

Editor’s note: Dorian Jones is a freelance reporter based in Istanbul.

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About the Author

EurasiaNet.org provides information and analysis about political, economic, environmental and social developments in the countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as in Russia, Turkey, and Southwest Asia.

11 Comments on "Turkey: Lacking Geopolitical Leverage In Russian Relations"

  1. China’s economy is behind the USA’s. Check nominal GDP figures, not PPP.

    A superpower is a country that has lots of global influence. The USA’s huge influence can be felt everywhere from Europe to Asia. It is a true superpower. With an economy smaller than Italy’s, far less global reach in its military and virtually no soft power, Russia is in no way a superpower. It hasn’t been one since the end of the Soviet Union.

    The USA is the world’s only superpower.

  2. Turkey thought that they would be the center distribution hub for ME oil and gas pipeline coming thru Syria. The problem is Syria is not in the Saudi and Gulf states sphere hence the problem. Russia has decided for their best interests that Eurasian Pipeline Network would be connected to the Egyptian, Israeli, Iraq (Kurdish) and Iranian gas and oil resources . It is a lot cheaper to pipe the resources then ship them via a neutral country such as Russian Syria. By doing that Turkey and the Gulf states will lose billions.

  3. yes Russia is a superpower with enough nuclear missiles to destroy the whole world… Russia produces its own military planes. Turkey buys them from U.S. the size of economy is not important. China’s economy is bigger than USA but China is not a super power.

  4. “Russia is a superpower and Turkey is a regional one. Turkey miscalculated.”

    Russia, a superpower? With an economy smaller than Italy’s? lol no.
    I think it is you who miscalculated, Bilhan.

  5. John Aziz Kent Kent | Oct 27, 2015, 5:53 am at 5:53 am |

    W?th out NATO member Turkeys help that reg?on could be ?n far more problems than today the World ?s lucky to have Turkey where they are and help?ng for peace

  6. John Aziz Kent Kent | Oct 27, 2015, 5:48 am at 5:48 am |

    Mr Erdogan ?s do?ng h?s atmost to keep Turkey out of any more
    Troubles than had been ?mposed on h?s country w?thout h?s
    Knowledge or any th?ng Turkey wanted GOD HELP TURKEY AND THE WORLD from ?d?ots WHO are so jealous of Turkey

  7. Erdogan doesnt care about the Tatars. He only cares about skimming more money, destroying democracy, closing down TV stations, jailing anyone who is a critic and then labeling them as terrorists, supporting ISIS, holding staged rallies, using taxpayer’s money to fund is AK Party, censoring over 60,000 websites, endless lying, destroying the checks and balances, and of course rigging elections.

  8. (Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, lacks geopolitical leverage.)
    He is copying H Obama style of leading from behind..That never works..A leader must do the talk and the walk like Mr Putin..

  9. “[Erdo?an] calculated given his close relationship with Putin that he could manage to get certain rights and protection for the Crimean Tartars”

    What are Crimean tartars? Tartar sauce? What illiterate idiot wrote this garbage?

  10. Wikipedia needs to update its map to include Crimea as part of Russia since May 2014.

  11. Turkey armed Nusra and Daesh with sarin and killed 1300 civilians just to get Obama to attack Assad. Erdogan is a War Criminal and should be arrested. There is no Justice in NATO. How Turkey can be a member while Criminal Islamist is beyond me…..

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