On November 24, a Russian Su-24M bomber was shot down by a Turkish Air Force F-16 after it allegedly violated Turkey’s airspace during combat operations in northern Syria. This event has led to a serious downturn in relations between Russia and Turkey with each accusing each of other aggressive and provocative acts. The shoot down of the Russian plane should be viewed as one aspect of a renewed great competition that is brewing between Russia and Turkey for influence not only in Syria but in Russia’s near abroad. The Kremlin’s own Sputnik news seems to believe so though the situation is somewhat overstated. The question that should be asked is what are the motivations that are driving Turkey’s relations with Russia today?
Historical Russia – Turkey Relations
The predecessors of what are today modern Russia and Turkey have long had strained relations and conflict since the 16th century up until the end of WWI was a regular occurrence. In fact, Russia and the Ottoman Empire engaged in 12 significant conflicts in a period of around 350 years. Relations between the two in the past were that of great powers competing for influence. The advent of the Cold War in the mid-20th century and Turkey’s NATO membership again strained relations but the same can be said of the relations between any NATO and Soviet-aligned powers. Economic opportunities following the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed for significant inroads to be made in the relationship.
Today the relationship is dictated by economic factors such as Turkey’s dependence on Russia for around half of its natural gas imports and Russia’s role as Turkey’s second most important trading partner. Additionally both countries have numerous shared economic projects. While the downing of the Russian jet has seriously soured relations between the countries to the lowest point since the end of the Cold War, much more is at stake. While Turkey is opposed to Russia on many fronts, the threat of conflict is unlikely barring any real grave situation arising. Regardless, while many interests intersect necessitating collaboration, both countries have been and continue to be engaged in rivalry over influence.
Role of Putin and Erdogan
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are both widely viewed as strongmen trying to restore former glory to their countries. Erdogan is trying to move Turkey towards a more active role in the Middle East, a region it once dominated and desires Ankara to be increasingly independent of NATO, the U.S. and the EU. Putin meanwhile has been working to rebuild Russia from the disaster that befell it in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. His actions have been aimed at regaining and enhancing the influence Russia once had in its near abroad while also carving out a role for Russia in the post-Cold War world.
Over the years Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have been steadily solidifying power. So far Erdogan has been attempting to change the constitution of the country to affect a swing in the political system; from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Erdogan has also been pushing Turkey away from the secular system which has defined courtesy of the reforms led by Ataturk in the wake of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Threats from the military which have historically acted as a check on the government straying from secular ideals have been removed by Erdogan. Meanwhile journalists and the media have been repressed through state control and large-scale arrests.
Since coming into power, Putin has worked towards dismantling the oligarchs that defied the Kremlin while solidifying and centralizing his political power. Serious threats from political opponents have been removed allowing Putin and his cohorts to exercise almost total power in a country that is still technically democratic. Russia’s foreign policy is bolder now and this can be seen by the interventions in Georgia in 2008, the continuing proxy war in Ukraine, and now the military campaign in Syria. In the post-Cold War period, Russia was left without a defining role in the world order though this has changed.
Syria is where the two countries are most in competition now. Ankara is opposed to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad while Moscow is extremely supportive. For Russia, Syria is its sole outpost in the Middle East and the overthrow of Assad will signify a loss of Russian power in that region and the Eastern Mediterranean. For Turkey, the crisis in Syria has led to a sizeable influx of refugees into the country while military engagements have occurred on the border. Turkey also fears the roles and future of the Kurds as a result of the conflict.
Due to the Syrian Civil War, conflict has been reignited between Ankara and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK), a conflict which was dormant since a 2013 ceasefire. Erdogan fears the rising influence of Kurds in Syria and that given the current situation, the conflict in Turkey on the border between the PKK and the government will only grow. On the other hand, the Kurds have been the most influential group in Syria in fighting against ISIS.
Turkey has been reluctant to offer any assistance to the Syrian Kurds despite their role in fighting ISIS. Instead, Turkey is funding and arming other groups in Syria which are mainly engaged in operations against Assad, some of which have ties to ISIS. So far it would seem that Ankara is primarily interested in eliminating Assad than ISIS while forcing the Kurds into a corner.
Ömer Çelik, strategist and advisor to Turkish President Recep Erdogan recently said that Syrian Kurdish forces are moving beyond territory traditionally claimed by the Kurds. In overrunning ISIS territory, they are attempting to establish de facto Kurdish control by forcibly removing Arab and Turkmen populations. Turkey has noted that the Syrian Kurds are establishing relations with Russia and has warned Moscow about this.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria has primarily been directed against groups opposed to Assad, many of which are supported by Turkey. The day that the Russian jet was downed, it was reported that it was conducting a bombing mission not against ISIS forces but Turkic opposition groups. With the downing of the plane, accusations between the two countries have swelled.
Moscow has repeatedly stated that Ankara is supporting ISIS in Syria, specifically through economic means through the sale of oil. These assertions have been denied by Turkey and in the west. What is clear is that Russia is primarily motivated in Syria to retain its strategic footing in the country. For Turkey, while it is opposed to Assad and for the most part to ISIS, the Kurdish factor is most important. The Kurds in overrunning ISIS are expanding their territory and pushing out Ankara-allied populations while increasing their influence in not only northern Syria but Kurdish areas of Turkey. Turkey does not want to see the Kurds gain any more strength as it poses a serious threat to stability.
Once aspiring to join the EU, Turkey has since been turning its back on Europe due to economic problems and growing mutual disdain. In so much, Ankara is looking at Central Asia and its many Turkic countries which share cultural and linguistic similarities with a new vigor. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkey was among the first states to recognize and initiate cooperation with countries in Central Asia. The Turkic Council established in 2009 is one of the methods Ankara has used to push forth a collaborative vision with Central Asia countries based on shared similarities.
This Central Asia outlook by Ankara has not been without difficulties and the influence of Moscow has repeatedly been a factor. While Ankara originally intended to promote democratic reforms in the region, it rather quickly discovered that Central Asian governments were not overly interested as many leaders saw such reforms as a threat to their own standing. As a result Turkey look at economic measures but its own limitations have so far prevented major inroads. What Turkey has actually accomplished in the region though is debatable.
Ankara lacks the economic leverage of China and the military and political strength of Russia over Central Asia. While similarities do count somewhat, the notion of cooperation and influence based on a shared historical background becomes suddenly less appealing when an offer by another of major infrastructural investment is made. Furthermore, the region is considered by Russia as it’s near abroad. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, the two countries Turkey has been most successful in gaining some influence in are also Kremlin favorites. Additionally both are already members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).
In the eyes of the Kremlin, China’s increasing influence in the region through economic projects such as the New Silk Road do pose a threat to its influence, they are for the most part beneficial; Beijing has something to offer. What does Turkey have to offer besides meddling? The Turkic Council has largely proven ineffective as a method of advancing significant economic and trade achievements. Central Asia countries are still highly aligned with Russia militarily, politically and economically while China has now strongly entered the region.
It should not be said that Turkey has given up on Central Asia despite all of its setbacks, rather the opposite. Enhancing relations with China is one way Turkey can still gain influence as Beijing’s New Silk Road initiative presents Ankara with an opportunity to positively invest in countries such as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
Turkey and Russia are competing for influence across Asia. In Syria the competition is between Russia’s strategic interests and Turkey’s security interests. In Central Asia, Turkey is attempting to expand its influence into a region dominated by Russia. Competition is occurring elsewhere such as in the Caucasus and Crimea. Turkey has been concerned with Russia’s treatment of the Tatar minority population in occupied-Crimea though the response from Ankara has been somewhat muted. The recent sabotage of Crimean powerlines has been attributed in some circles to the Tatars and questions have been raised if Ankara was at all responsible.
Both Putin and Erdogan have embarked on foreign policy agendas aimed at enhancing the influence of their countries. At this time though, Russia has the advantage in Central Asia due to political and economic factors. In Syria, the situation is far more complicated due to the number of actors involved and numerous competing goals. The nature of the relationship between Russia and Turkey serves to limit their competition somewhat. Ankara can try to extend its influence but must bear in mind its economic ties to Russia. Is spreading and gaining influence worth destroying these bonds? Much of the competition today can be placed on the shoulders of Putin and Erdogan, two strongmen with divergent foreign interests through constrained by necessary ties.