Turkey and Russia have fought numerous bloody wars in the past, pitted against each other, while to this day they support opposing sides on several fronts in the wider European periphery; in Libya, Cyprus, Syria and the south Caucasus.
One of the two is predominantly Muslim – most of Turkey is Sunni, yet the country remains antagonistic to Saudi Arabia, which is also Sunni albeit from a different legal school of thought. The other is predominantly Christian – Russia is mostly Orthodox, yet the country is antagonistic to the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate (in Istanbul).
Turkey aims to reclaim leadership of Sunni Islam from the Saudis, converting Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia back into a mosque in the process, while Russia attempts to revive the concept of “Moscow as the third Rome,” to make Moscow the spiritual centre for Orthodox Christianity to replace Constantinople that replaced Rome centuries ago.
Five years ago on Nov. 24, 2015, mere months after Russia threw its weight behind Syrian President Bashar al Assad in the civil war, Turkey downed a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 fighter jet within the borders of Syria, bringing the two countries to the brink of a war-like confrontation.
The feeling among analysts back then was that Ankara had been trying to provoke a Russian response so hard and direct that NATO would be compelled to get involved more assertively in the Syrian front on the side of Turkey – perhaps even under Article 5, the principle of collective defence.
Turkey could have been hoping for an intervention on not only Assad, who enjoyed a close friendship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan until 2009, but against Syrian Kurds as well, who notably spent the years prior to expand their foothold in northern Syria, called Rojava in Kurdish, under the aegis of the U.S. government of former president Barack Obama.
But despite losing a jet, Russia didn’t resort to hasty action or vengeful bursts of anger in Syria. Moscow tends to meet any force head-on when it comes near its borders. The 2008 war in Georgia, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea should serve as examples of how direct and gutsy it can be when dealing with tension at its doorstep. As conflict moves further away from Russian borders, though, Moscow becomes more flexible and hybrid in its tactics.
Drawing a parallel between geopolitics and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s favourite sport, Russia can be said to sometimes move like a “judoka,” using the strength of its opponents against them before taking them into an arm-bar submission.
This is what happened with Turkey, at least to an extent.
Looking back at the course of events as they unfolded after the 2015 downing of the Russian jet, Erdoğan’s Turkey appeared to cajole Russia with the purchase of S-400 missile defence systems against NATO’s will, signing a deal for Russia to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, building the natural gas pipeline TurkStream, and other ventures. Eurasianist segments of Turkish politics had been, after all, calling for such a pro-Russian turn for a long time.
At the same time, though, revisionist Turkey was hedging its bets, trying to scare the West with the prospect of a Russo-Turkish bloc taking shape and, thus, making the West yield to all other of Ankara’s demands.
Russia and Turkey make strange bedfellows. However, and despite their numerous differences, they seem to form a (dis)united front that challenges the West and Western interests in Europe’s geopolitical neighbourhood.
In theory, both countries pledge allegiance to multilateralism. In practice, however, Erdoğan’s revisionist “multilateralism” has become a byword for neo-Ottoman irredentism.
When writing about the biggest current threats to European security, acclaimed analysts such as Wolfgang Münchau point to “empire-building” in the European neighbourhood as one.
Russia and Turkey, both heirs to former empires, maintain official and unofficial military presence in North Africa today, via proxies and shadowy mercenaries, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and South Caucasus.
If one could ultimately control routes leading to the gates of Europe, then that country could also control the flow of people, energy, goods, etc. into the European continent, rendering it incapable of defending any of its red lines.
Both countries have tried using this in their own interest in the recent past. Russia cut off power supplies to Ukraine and Belarus, while Turkey used the migrant/refugee issue as a blackmailing tool to pressure Europe for funds and political support (against the Kurds, against Assad, against Cyprus and Greece).
However, it is not only “empire-building in the European neighbourhood” that threatens European security at the moment. There is also the spill-over stemming from infighting within these “empire-building” efforts. Case in point: When Russian-Syrian airstrikes in Idlib killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers on Feb. 27, 2020, the Erdoğan regime responded by allowing migrants to cross the land border with Greece, in a bid to garner Western support for Turkish actions in Syria.
Russia and Turkey are working to transform themselves into indispensable players in the MENAP region post-Arab Spring. They interfere by exploiting security vacuums (in Libya, Syria) and frozen conflicts (in Cyprus, Nagorno Karabakh), often at the expense of the West which is noticeably absent. They opt for transactionalism, without overextending their reach or military exposure. According to French President Emmanuel Macron, they both play on “post-colonial resentment.” However, both will need the West if they want – for example – to move on with grand projects such as the reconstruction of Syria.
Putin and his Foreign Minister Lavrov have said their relationship with Erdoğan’s Turkey was based on pragmatism and flexibility, with the latter taking on the opposite of a rules or common values-based approach.
So, yes, their relationship is insincere. However, both Turkey and Russia frame foreign policy in terms of interests, not relationships. Could these interests drive them against each other?
Before it’s here, it’s onAhval
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