Russia and Turkey have plenty in common. For one they both sit at the geographical cross-roads between Europe, the Caucasus and central Asia. Furthermore, they have often struggled with their European and Eastern identities and wavered between Europe and the East, while both have also been on the receiving end of the European cold shoulder. Yet, despite these commonalities both history and political realities have meant that they have not always seen eye to eye. The Syrian crisis alone has contributed to numerous disagreements – with their starting point being the Russian veto on action in Syria, through to claims that Russia has sought to illegally transport radar equipment to the Syrian regime. However, as I will argue, despite their current disagreements particularly over Syria, both these states value their relationship and proximity to the extent that despite this they will and do seek to promote better economic and political bilateral relations.
Just a few weeks ago Vladimir Putin visited Ankara to meet with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – a trip which had previously been postponed following the interception of a Syrian jet originating from Moscow by Turkey and claims by the latter that illicit radar equipment, destined for Assad’s forces, were on board. On this basis alone it is fair to suggest that tensions very much exist in the relationship. But the wider context of this is even more illuminating. Sitting on the Syrian border, Turkey has been concerned from the very beginning of the unrest. After openly criticising the Assad regime over its treatment of Syrians during the conduct of the war, it also proceeded to cut trade relations, while the on-going violence has resulted in Turkish attacks on Syrian soil following mortars landing over the border. The Turkish government went as far as approving cross-border operations. Obviously the continued influx of Syrian refugees also worries Turkish authorities.
The Russian approach however has been to openly and continually support the Syrian regime. Its veto, with China, of the UN Security Resolution for action on Syria is well known. But also worth noting are the long-standing links between the Russian and Syrian regimes as well as the long-standing arms deals between the two countries, which Russia continues to honour. As such, a serious picture of discord seems to emerge because Russia has cultural, economic and political reasons to support Syria, while Turkey has political, geographical and military reasons to oppose Assad and his regime.
Putin’s visit to Ankara thus would seem to represent an unlikely reproach between the two countries in a time that has been marked by particularly uneasy relations. Yet, in reality, both countries have a number of other ties which link their bilateral relationship, making the Syrian situation more of a blip (albeit a serious one), rather than a serious reason for a long-term breakdown of relations. In fact, the two leaders signed no less than eleven different agreements, mainly in the realms of trade and energy. As one commentator has noted of their disagreement surrounding Syria, the situation is hardly without precedent: “over the years, Russia and Turkey have done precisely that in Cyprus, Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh”.
So what is it that ties them together, despite their frequent political disagreements. Unsurprisingly, considering Russia’s rich energy resources, the main answer to this question is trade. Russia is Turkey’s main trading partner while the two also co-operate on nuclear energy projects in Turkey. Hence, a mutual dependence very much seems to dominate the relationship, resulting in pragmatism despite some serious political divergences.
But where will this lead? Arguably it would seem little will change in the coming years. The two have ridden out disagreements of this sort before, and despite some heated rhetoric in recent months it would seem they do not intend to allow this to affect their overall dealings with one another. As Putin said: “The positions of the Russian Federation and Turkey completely correspond regarding what has to be attained (in Syria), but as of yet no shared approach regarding methods of how to attain it has been reached”. While this is not the most transparent of statements, it does seem to suggest that, in essence, they have agreed to disagree. It also suggests that little has changed in the relationship between the two despite this most recent cause for concern. They have a recent history of co-operation in policing the Black Sea under the auspices of NATO, while the aforementioned economic links mean that neither side is willing to jeopardise their multilateral understanding which is based on a serious dose of pragmatism.
Undoubtedly the Syrian crisis will continue to dominate headlines as the international community struggles to agree on what to do about the situation and Turkey and Russia will continue to be at the forefront of this as the former continues to receive refugees while dealing with the arduous task of sharing a border with the war torn state, and the latter continues to support the Assad regime and to financially benefit from arming it. Yet, the mutual economic dependence, and growing strategic co-operation should mean that pragmatism will continue to dominate their relations. They may not always like each other, but it seems Turkey and Russia will have no option but to maintain the status quo.