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Frenemies: Putin and Erdogan

Carol R. Saivetz
Sunday, March 4, 2018, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: The relationship between Russia and Turkey has risen and fallen as the two have quarreled over Syria and their respective regional postures in general. MIT's Carol Saivetz examines this relationship and argues that the frayed ties are being repairedbut that there are serious limits to any rapprochement.


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Editor’s Note: The relationship between Russia and Turkey has risen and fallen as the two have quarreled over Syria and their respective regional postures in general. MIT's Carol Saivetz examines this relationship and argues that the frayed ties are being repairedbut that there are serious limits to any rapprochement.


At a joint press conference in early December 2017, the presidents of Turkey and Russia lauded the dramatic improvement in their bilateral relationship: Between August 2016 and December 2017, trade rebounded, the Turk Stream Pipeline is going forward, Syrian negotiations are ongoing, the Akkuyu nuclear reactor is under construction, and Turkey finalized a deal to purchase Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missiles. The goodwill between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin stands in marked contrast to the animosity after November 2015, when Turkey, after repeated violations of its airspace by Russian planes, shot down a Russian fighter that had strayed across the Turkish-Syrian border.

Russian retaliation to the incident was swift: a full embargo on Turkish exports to Russia, delays on the Turk Stream Pipeline, cessation of Russian tourism to Turkey, and work stoppage on the Akkuyu plant. But, Putin’s revenge went only so far, and Russia never halted its gas deliveries via the Blue Stream Pipeline. It would seem fair to guess that Russia and its state gas company, Gazprom, could not afford to lose the income stream.

Nonetheless, the losses inflicted on the Turkish economy were estimated to be in the range of $10 billion. In June 2016, Erdogan was forced to issue the apology that Putin had demanded. In a letter sent to Putin, the Turkish president offered condolences to the family of the deceased pilot, adding “May they excuse us.”

By the time of the December press conference, relations were restored to the status quo ante. Some observers see in the reconciliation the makings of a new alliance pattern and the further distancing of Ankara from its NATO partners. Others doubt the resilience of relationship and its longevity. The mutuality of relations is evident, but there are also irritants and risks.


Observers frequently emphasize that both Putin and Erdogan share an authoritarian outlook. Both fear challenges to their power—in Russia it is the danger of popular demonstrations and in Turkey it was the threat of a military coup and the alleged conspiracy of the Gulenists. Vladimir Putin sees the West behind the massive street protests that erupted in 2011, while Erdogan faults the West for being slow in condemning the July 2016 attempted military coup, for criticizing the widespread arrests that followed, and for refusing the extradition of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen. According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin called Erdogan and emphasized “the principal position of unacceptability of government coups, be it in Turkey, Ukraine, Yemen or anywhere else.” And Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu thanked Putin for his support, adding “[w]e have received unconditional support from Russia, unlike other countries.”

Though their shared authoritarianism underlies the renewal of ties—and it should be noted that the coup attempt occurred just a month following Erdogan’s apology—it has been economics that has underpinned the relationship for the past 15-plus years. Analysts estimate that between 2002 and 2013 bilateral trade increased five times and the volume of Turkish investment in Russia reached $420 million. Turkey is ideally situated to be a major conduit of oil and natural gas both from Russia itself and the Caspian Sea region (not to mention from Iran and Iraq). And, since the 2002 completion of the Blue Stream Pipeline, Russia has exported 16 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Turkey annually. According to the Energy Information Agency, 56 percent of Turkey’s internal gas needs is supplied from Russia and 11 percent from Azerbaijan.

Even before the invasion and annexation of Crimea, Russia proposed the South Stream Pipeline to augment exports to Turkey and deliver gas to Europe. South Stream ultimately fell victim to EU regulators, but it has been replaced by Turk Stream. Russian-Turkish negotiations over the pipeline, which will run under the Black Sea from Anapa in southern Russia to northwestern Turkey, stalled after the downing of the Russian fighter, but later resumed and the deal has since been concluded. Construction is underway: The first pipe was laid in July 2017.

The bilateral energy partnership was expanded when Turkey and Russia signed an agreement for a 4.8 gigawatt nuclear power plant in 2010. Site preparation and construction began in 2013, but all building was stopped in late 2015. Interestingly, Rosatom (the Russian atomic energy agency) did not walk away from the contract, but merely ceased work at the site. Construction resumed following Erdogan’s apology, and in June 2017 Rosatom won final regulatory approval for the project.

As the reconciliation sped forward, President Erdogan announced in September 2017 that a deal for the S-400s was finalized and that Turkey had made a down payment. The other 55 percent was to be financed through Russian credits. The decision is emblematic of Erdogan’s frustration with NATO and his feelings that the Western alliance is minimizing the threats to Ankara’s security.

Geopolitical Irritants

Economics form the foundation of the bilateral relationship, but geopolitics and divergent foreign policy goals create obstacles. With a brief exception immediately after the 2008 Georgian war, the two states have generally managed to compartmentalize, if not protect, their economic ties. But because Russian retaliation for the shoot down of the fighter took the form of an economic boycott, the two spheres merged. This has created a more volatile situation. One need only look at the politics surrounding Ukraine and Syria.

In the Ukrainian case, President Erdogan temporized. Although he never participated in the Western sanctions regime imposed after the annexation of Crimea, he also never formally recognized the change in international boundaries. Erdogan’s mantra has been that Crimea is an integral part of Ukraine. It is important to note that despite the burgeoning rapprochement between Russia and Turkey in 2017, Erdogan pointedly declared during his October visit to Kyiv, “Turkey will continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Unsurprisingly, Russian officials reacted negatively and openly criticized Erdogan.

Turkey has even put its words into action. Until the downing of the fighter, Turkey maintained a ferry service between Crimea and the Turkish port of Zonguldak. The service resumed operation in August 2016, after Erdogan’s apology, but was abruptly terminated in March 2017. Some observers claim that Erdogan was at the time attempting to push Russia to lift the last Russian sanctions, which targeted Turkish tomatoes; others argue that Ankara couldn’t both support Ukrainian sovereignty and sell agricultural and consumer goods to Crimea. It may be equally true that Turkey, which hopes to build up its domestic defense industry, does not want to jeopardize its newfound military ties with Kyiv. These include the joint manufacturing of aircraft engines and military communications, among other projects.

A full discussion of the complexities of the civil war in Syria are beyond the scope this post. For the first several years of the war, Turkey backed a number of forces that opposed both Assad and the Islamic State (ISIS). During this same period, Putin, determined to maintain the Assad regime, provided supplies and logistics, and in September 2015 intervened militarily. In August 2016, Ankara launched Operation Euphrates Shield, ostensibly designed to combat ISIS but more likely to contain the Syrian Kurdish forces. With the changing battlefield and with both countries engaged on the ground, the two sides moved to cooperate in Syria—despite their conflicting goals and priorities.

By December 2016, following the brutal battle for Aleppo, the two announced a series of peace conferences to be convened in Astana, Kazakhstan. A few weeks later, and despite the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Ankara, the two leaders agreed to coordinate their airstrikes. But questions remain about the fate of the Syrian Kurds, whom both Russia and the United States view as the most effective anti-Islamic State fighters. And equally important, the two sides do not seem to agree about whether Assad can remain in power as the fighting ostensibly winds down.

After several rounds of the Astana talks, Russia intensified efforts to declare a Syrian victory under its auspices. The presidents of Russia, Turkey, and Iran met in Sochi on November 22, only a day after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a surprise visit there. Putin clearly hoped to convince Assad to be flexible, but the way toward a permanent cease-fire remains elusive. Iran seemed unlikely to agree to pull its forces or its proxies like Hezbollah out of the de-escalation zones, and President Erdogan declared at the end of the summit that the participation of Kurdish “terrorists” was unacceptable for Ankara.

In the lead up to the late January Sochi Conference, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Kurdish representatives were among those invited to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress. He stated that Syrian Kurds should play a role in the “future political process” and added that this “role should certainly be ensured.” But there was a caveat: All of Syria's ethnic groups should accept the country's territorial integrity. Ultimately, only Kurdish groups acceptable to Turkey were invited, excluding the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (the PYD), with whom Russia has cordial relations. If nothing else, Russian acquiescence to Turkish demands betrays their determination to convene the conference quickly. Without doubt, a Putin-brokered peace in Syria would allow the Russian president to claim victory and a future role in the region.

Sochi was not a success: In the end, most of Syria’s rebel groups refused to attend and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was heckled at the event itself. Also left unresolved was the fate of Syrian President Assad, and Erdogan continues to refer to him as a “terrorist.” The final communique papered over these differences. “We agreed to form a constitutional committee comprising the Government of the Syrian Arab Republic delegation along with a wide-represented opposition delegation for the drafting of a constitutional reform as a contribution to the political settlement under the UN auspices in accordance with Security Council Resolution 2254.” If Putin hoped that the Russian-sponsored talks would sideline the UN and the US, they clearly failed.

More Friends than Enemies?

According to most reports, Presidents Erdogan and Putin speak frequently, and they have certainly restored, if not enhanced, their mutually beneficial economic ties. The Turk Stream Pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear plant are under construction. And despite the drama of the past several years, even at the nadir of their relationship, gas shipments via the Blue Stream Pipeline were never disrupted.

But is this web of trade relations enough to cement a true friendship, or at the least buffer the relationship from the still strong disagreements? Still on the table are the terms of the S-400 sale. Turkey has requested that Russia transfer the technology, but so far Russia has averred. As recently as January 2018, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu offered that negotiations were ongoing. He added that “this [was] an issue to negotiate in the medium-term and long-term.” Turkey’s hopes to obtain the technology run directly counter to Russia’s desire to retain control of it, particularly as Turkey is a NATO member.

And then there’s Syria. The Russian intervention saved Bashar al-Assad for now, but questions about the kind of Syria he will rule linger. Turkey harps on the need for Syria’s territorial integrity and continuance as a unitary state to prevent a Kurdish entity. Moscow also promotes territorial integrity, but seems willing to consider a more decentralized system that would empower the Kurds near the Turkish border.

Events are moving quickly. Just two weeks before the Sochi peace congress, President Erdogan sent Turkish troops into the Kurdish stronghold of Afrin. The operation was ostensibly in response to a U.S. proposal for a 30,000-strong, predominantly Kurdish border patrol, which both Russia and Turkey called a “provocation.” According to published reports, General Hulusi Akar and Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan flew to Moscow to discuss the situation with General Valery Gerasimov, head of Russia’s general staff. Signaling approval, Russia withdrew its forces to avoid collateral damage from the attack. However, Russia equivocated publicly, urging caution and expressing concern.

Putin’s calculation may well have been that acquiescing in the incursion would keep Erdogan, in a sense, on his side and thereby further exacerbate the Turkish relationship with the United States. With the United States pretty well sidelined, Putin may well hope the changing situation on the ground would induce the United States to withdraw permanently. Finally, some observers speculate that Putin green-lighted the attack on Afrin in return for Erdogan ignoring Russia’s bombardment of Turkish-supported forces in Idlib, in support of reunifying the country under Assad’s control.

Despite approving of the incursion and excluding the PYD from Sochi, Russia’s success and links to Turkey are not guaranteed. Somewhat ironically, while Russia needs Turkey to remain a co-convener of the Sochi peace process, it was the Turkish military operation that triggered the boycotts of the conference.

On the ground, it has been reported that Russia proposed to the Kurds that they hand over Afrin to the Syrian central government, claiming that such a move would protect against the Turkish attack. While this would assist Assad in regaining control over more of the country, Iran and Assad do not approve of the Turkish action. (See, for example, the analysis of the situation in Idlib.)

Thus far, both Erdogan and Putin have played their cards relatively well—but both also much contend with domestic considerations. Putin needs a “victory” before the March 18 Russian elections. Yet, the failure of Sochi and the loss of a Russian fighter over Idlib, as well as the death of Russian mercenaries, indicate that the Syrian war will continue. Erdogan, for now, has parlayed the incursion into a much-needed boost for his popularity. But for him, too, success is not assured.

At the moment, the relationship between the two men and the two countries seems relatively solid, but it’s a stretch to call the two “friends.” There are too many unknowns. If, as Erdogan has now stated, the operation will continue until Syrian refugees can return, will Russia remain silent? What about Iranian and Syrian objections to the Turkish operation? Could the relationship depend on how extensive the incursion is? If Turkey leaves forces in the northwest of Syria over Assad’s objections, what will Russia do? If geopolitical objectives diverge, would Russia again retaliate economically? And finally, could the recent U.S. outreach to Turkey alter Ankara’s calculations about relations with Moscow?

Erdogan and Putin are engaged in a tactical—maybe short-term—alliance. In the words of Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova, “You don’t need to tell us how difficult a partner Turkey is. It’s a country with its own interests, which don’t always coincide with ours… It [finding common interests] is not easy to do even at the bilateral level, let alone in the Syrian settlement.” Between them, much will depend on both the Kurdish issue and the ability to guarantee some stability and de-escalation in Syria.

Carol R. Saivetz is Senior Advisor in the Security Studies Program at MIT.

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