Bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia have been dominated by continuous instability in the last three decades almost entirely due to the lack of a permanent balance in political relations despite the formalizing impact of economic and trade relations. Bilateral political relations are formalized by the direct impact of the expectations and interests of both parties, which occasionally differ radically under inevitable pressure from global and regional developments. Both countries are under the shade of the personal expectations and relations of strong leaders who call the shots in almost every aspect of political life, which emerges as yet another decisive factor. This prevents the parties from developing a permanent and common perspective on regional and global matters since both parties have cultivated a strong mutual distrust as a legacy of geopolitical and historical competition.
The lack of a common perspective is mainly a consequence of the unstable relations the parties – each known historically as a European power – have with the Euro-Atlantic world. Each party pursues a priority to forge a bond with the Euro- Atlantic community focusing on its own expectations and interests, which is the reason why bilateral relations that are independent from that world and are based on a different regional/global vision cannot be established. The relations between the two countries have an influence on a broad geography the limits of which can be extended from the Black Sea to the Caucasus and from Central Asia to the Middle East in a way to cover almost the entire Eurasian region. That is exactly why the said relations cannot be considered within the sole framework of bilateral relations. An in-depth analysis of Turkish-Russian relations is only possible in the light of regional and global developments against a historical background. The recent security- focused and aggressive approach by Russia has caused significant fluctuations in Turkish-Russian relations. This plays a crucial role in shaping the structure of the relations the two countries pursue with Western countries as well as Turkey’s foreign and security policies. In a similar vein, Russia’s agenda on key priority matters such as energy, trade and economy, not to mention regional security and foreign policy, is very much determined by Turkey’s choices focusing on the Euro-Atlantic community, which it cannot/will not give up. That is why Russia is a balancing and driving force in the eyes of Turkish decision-makers, specifically against the Western world, in delivering Turkey’s regional priorities. However, it is mostly deemed as an opponent or obstacle. Similarly, Russia has considered Turkey a partner that could be cooperated with under certain conditions but mostly a barrier to fulfilling Russia’s priorities and interests in its immediate vicinity.
The perspective and attitudes of the Western world towards Russia and Turkey, a priority for both countries, impact both relations with these two players and the mutual perspectives of the two on each other. The Euro-Atlantic community defines Russia as a foe forged in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union but nevertheless a candidate for a partner who could be cooperated with, although in a limited fashion. Gradually emerging as an opponent starting from early 2000s following the enlargement of the EU and NATO, Russia has been marginalized once again after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and, following the conflict with the Ukraine over Crimea, has been further labeled as an open threat that should be sanctioned.
Engaged in accession negotiations with the EU and acting as part of the Euro-Atlantic security umbrella for almost 70 years, Turkey, on the other hand, has been regarded by its Western allies as a flank or mostly front country. Although Turkey’s view on Russia as a threat did not cause any problems on the Turkish side, this led to new issues starting from 2000s under the influence of the changing conjunctural policy. Discrepancies between Turkey on one side and the EU and the US on the other in terms of methodologies to be employed to define and eliminate regional issues and threats emerging in the Black Sea basin, Iraq, Syria and the Eastern Mediterranean led to reinforced tendencies in Turkish foreign policy to act autonomously and even independently.
To that end, the two countries which considered the other as an opponent/threat almost until the end of 1990s started to display a tendency to develop a rather independent foreign policy. The developments in the 2000s provided an affirmative response to the question on whether the parties could collaborate to ensure acting independently from Western countries at least within the context of regional matters. The synergy created under the strong governments of two powerhouse leaders in the early 2000s is the main reason behind the emergence of debates on whether there is a regionally and globally effective alliance in place. Bilateral relations were dominated by hostility for about a year after the warplane shoot-down incident but attained a level in July 2018 that “really made some jealous” as President Erdogan put it.1 Erdogan meant Western countries, chiefly the U.S., when he referred to ‘some’ in that statement.
Mutual dialogue and interaction created a new space for bilateral cooperation under the severe impact of a basically anti-Western geopolitical discourse adopted by Russia and Turkey and the changing perception on Eurasia. Given the progress of developments, it is hard to say that this cooperation is shaped by rational and realistic approaches.
Ideological, emotional and limited national considerations are usually more decisive. On the other hand, it is evident that bilateral relations fell short of being institutional. Although a meticulously-planned, high-level political body directly controlled by the presidents with the ambitious name of the High Level Cooperation Council was established in 2010 to offer joint and permanent solutions to regional issues and stabilize relations, the uncontrolled unfolding of events in 2015 pointed to a lack of institutionalization. Such lack of institutionalization renders the fate of bilateral relations dependent on the tendencies and expectations of both leaders. This is also the reason for the failure to adopt a joint perspective to eliminate the negative consequences of the competition in the Caucasus and Central Asia since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, such structures failed to prevent the instant disappearance of the security umbrella that took 20 years plus great challenges to build in the Black Sea basin, which is described as an area of cooperation, despite severe criticism from Turkey’s conventional allies. Events unfolding in Crimea and the Ukraine created yet another huge threat, with the differing approaches and expectations of Turkey and Russia destroying the grounds for a joint vision just as it had been the case in the aftermath of the warplane shoot-down incident.
The foregoing kept the parties from building visionary, permanent and stable relations and led to competition and, ironically, emerged as the major points pushing the parties to cooperate as well. Regional and global developments created by geopolitical competition, coupled with the disagreements with Western countries, force the parties to engage in permanent political relations and diplomatic cooperation. Two countries with enough historical experience to not trust each other are apparently forced into a fragile and sensitive cooperation by their wish to influence and even determine regional and global balances. It is a fact that bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia assumed a different tactic, even a strategic dimension, following recent developments in Syria. It is critical that the parties have been able to come up with common ground despite radically different expectations and interests when they established, together with Iran, the Astana Group. In addition to regional developments, the fact that Turkey did not get the interest and support it expected from its Western allies after the military coup attempt in Turkey resulted in Turkey’s redefining Russia as a partner which could be cooperated with in terms of regional and global issues, including security. The construction of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline, the ongoing cooperation for constructing a nuclear power plant and, most importantly, Turkey’s purchasing of air defense systems from Russia despite objections from its NATO-member allies are construed as concrete signs that cooperation between the two countries has set sail for new horizons.
In brief, understanding the nature of Turkish-Russian bilateral relations requires a full grasp of the history and limitations of bilateral relations as well as a consideration of the relations both countries maintain with other regional players, chiefly with the Western world. The parties occasionally have radically differing approaches to security and foreign policy within the context of NATO, the EU, Black Sea security, Crimea, the Ukraine and, most recently, Syria. Such approaches deserve a thorough analysis. This paper aims to use such a perspective to provide a closer view of the cooperation-competition cycle dominating the recent period of bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia with a focus on common and differing interests and on the basis of events, incidents and regions. Such an attempt inherently requires an evaluation, in consideration of the historical process, of the reasons behind the similar or differing perspectives of the parties on regional and global issues.