The strategic partnership between Turkey and Russia appears to be enduring despite deeply rooted contradictions. Benyamin Poghosyan discusses why this is the case in this op-ed for commonspace.eu
Growing Russia - Turkish relations are one of the strangest partnerships in the Middle East. Both states have centuries of history fraught with wars and relentless struggle. They were bitter enemies during the Cold war and had little in common in the Middle East and in particular in Syria after the Arab Spring. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union Turkey has made enormous efforts to strengthen its positions in the South Caucasus and the Central Asia which Russia perceives as a sphere of its special and legitimate interests and where it is very suspicious of any foreign power influence. The November 2015 incident when Turkish forces shot down Russian military plane was perceived by many as a point of non return.
However, quite surprisingly, in the last three and half years Moscow and Ankara were able to overcome contradictions in their relations and launch an effective partnership. The "golden years" of the Russia - Turkish honeymoon were 2016-2018. The turning point was the July 2016 military coup attempt in Turkey, when President Putin was among the first leaders to offer support to Erdogan while the latter had suspicions that the US was somehow involved in the coup. Turkey turned a blind eye to Russian military support to its erstwhile archenemy Syrian President Assad, while Russia effectively gave its consent to the Turkish 2016 and 2018 military incursions into Northwestern Syria. In late 2018 both sides signed a memorandum on Idlib, the last rebel controlled province of Syria, which effectively recognized Turkish control over that territory. Besides Syria, relationships were growing also in other spheres, such as military - technical cooperation and economic partnership. Despite strong objections from Washington, Turkey purchased advanced Russian S-400 air defense systems, the construction by the Russian state Rosatom company of the first ever Turkish nuclear power plant was launched in April 2018, and on January 8, 2020 the opening ceremony of Turkish Stream gas pipeline was held in Istanbul. The pipeline will annually deliver up to 31.5 billion cubic meters gas to Turkey, half of which will be than exported to Europe via Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary.
However, both sides continue to have deeply rooted contradictions. Russia has many times reiterated its vision for the restoration of Syrian territorial integrity and sovereignty. This means the withdrawal of the Turkish forces from both Northwestern and Northeastern parts of Syria, a step, which Turkey is very reluctant to implement. Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Ankara has always viewed Northern parts of Syria and Iraq as a legitimate part of its sphere of influence, and after a century since the end of the WWI finally has started to implement its dreams. Another sour point in Russia - Turkey relations is Idlib. Turkey has no intention to remove all Islamist terrorist groups from the province, many of which are under its influence. Meanwhile, Russia, Iran and Syria are not going to tolerate the rebel group activities in Idlib forever. The recent attacks by the Government forces supported by the Russian air power could put Russian and Turkish supported forces at loggerheads. As for now Moscow and Ankara have managed to avoid the direct military clashes but the risk of even unintended incidents is high.
Another point of irritation is the situation in Libya. Ankara and Moscow are on different sides of barricades there. Turkey supports the Tripoli based Government of National Accord (GNA), viewing its relations with it as a cornerstone for its policy of expanding Turkish influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. In late 2019 Turkey signed an accord with the GNA that sought to create an exclusive economic zone from Turkey's southern Mediterranean shore to Libya's northeast coast. Ankara said the deal aimed to protect its rights under international law, and that it was open to signing similar deals with other states on the basis of "fair sharing" of resources. Meanwhile, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and France denounced that deal saying the accord was null and void.
Given the growing contradictions between Turkey on one side and Israel, Greece, Cyprus and Egypt on the other regarding gas production and export in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well the January 2, 2020 Greece, Cyprus and Israel signature of a deal to build a 1,900 km subsea pipeline to carry natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean's gas fields to Europe, support to the GNA is vital for promoting Turkish interests in the region. Not coincidently, on the same day as the three Mediterranean states signed a deal to construct the EastMed gas pipeline, Turkey's parliament approved by a large majority a bill that allowed troops to be deployed to Libya in support of the Tripoli-based government. Meanwhile, Russia supports the head of the Libyan National Army Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, whose forces have launched attack against the Government of National Accord since April 2019.
On January 13, 2020 Turkish foreign and defense Ministers have arrived to Moscow for the annual 2+2 format meeting with their Russian counterparts. After intensive negotiations which included German chancellor Merkel visit to Russia on January 11 and series of phone calls between President Putin and several Gulf states leaders, Fayez al-Serraj, the head of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and Field Marshall Haftar visited Moscow on the same day seeking to finalize a ceasefire agreement, which had been preliminary agreed during Putin's visit to Turkey on 8 January. However, after hours of deliberations and delays, Haftar left Moscow without signing the ceasefire agreement, which had already agreed by Fayez al-Serraj. Meanwhile, Turkey accuses Russia of sending paramilitary contractors under the infamous Wagner group to support Haftar. Simultaneously, Russian diplomats stated that Turkey sent Syrian rebels to Libya as part of a deal reached between Ankara and Government of National Accord.
Thus in both Syria and Libya Russia - Turkish contradictions are growing. However, most probably the uneasy partnership will continue. Russia mainly needs friendly relations with Turkey as a tool to weaken NATO's positions in the Black Sea, as a leverage to undermine US influence in the Middle East, as an effective way to check Iranian ambitions in the region and foster the more Russia friendly balance of power there. Turkey needs partnership with Russia to counter US pressure and implement more independent foreign policy. Given the strategic significance of the above-mentioned tasks for both Moscow and Ankara, they will do their best to find a right path not to jeopardize their cooperation.
source: Benyamin Poghosyan is the Founder and Chairman of the Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies in Yerevan.
photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a joint press conference following their talks in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on 22 October 2019 (archive picture)
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