TSG IntelBrief: Russia and Turkey’s Strategic Rapprochement
October 12, 2016

Russia and Turkey’s Strategic Rapprochement

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• An October 10 meeting between Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin continued to signal the rapprochement between the two countries that began after the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

• Russia has demonstrated the ability to leverage short-term, high-cost geo-economic pressure in pursuit of its long-term political objectives with Turkey.

• Turkey is important for Russia’s Ukraine strategy, and the renewed construction of the vital TurkStream pipeline will strengthen Russia’s position towards Europe.

• For Erdogan, regime change in Syria has taken a backseat to internal security concerns in the aftermath of the coup attempt, as well as preventing the emergence of a Kurdish enclave in northeastern Syria.

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In their second meeting since August 9, Russian President Vladimir Putin was warmly received by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul this week. The meeting signified the continued dramatic improvement in bilateral relations since last year, when Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft near its border with northern Syria. In the October 10 meeting, both leaders expressed the desire to continue construction of the TurkStream gas pipeline, which had been halted since the downing of the Russian war plane. Russia also lifted a ban on several agricultural imports from Turkey. Improving Turkish-Russian relations present several critical geopolitical security implications, linking Russian interests in Ukraine and Syria with Turkish domestic priorities. 

The renewed economic ties are especially important for Turkey. The country has faced several setbacks since Russia took a number of punitive steps after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian aircraft in November 2015. Moscow’s retaliatory measures included a ban on Russian tourism in Turkey, the blocking of agricultural imports, and the suspension of two major energy projects: the TurkStream pipeline project, and the $20 billion construction of four nuclear reactors in Turkey by Russian state-owned Rosatom. After the imposition of the sanctions, Russian tourism reportedly dropped by around 90%. The Russian sanctions came at a time when Turkey’s economy was already facing pressure on all sides. With a tourism industry hit by concerns of terrorism, and tensions with the EU flaring over the Syrian refugee crisis, Turkey’s long-term economic stability was further jeopardized by the additional Russian pressures. 

By lifting these restrictions after less than a year, Russia demonstrated its ability to leverage short-term, high-cost geo-economic pressure in pursuit of its long-term security and political objectives. As Russia remains involved in conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, bringing Turkey closer into alignment with Moscow is more than an economic imperative. The TurkStream pipeline is a major strategic objective for Russia, allowing it the option to reroute its oil and gas around contested Ukraine. Thus, the normalization of relations between Turkey and Russia was critical to Russian interests, as it facilitates the continued flow of oil and gas into Western Europe.

In Syria—where Russian interests increasingly conflict with the West—Turkey is critical to both sides. While Erdogan was a major proponent of U.S.-backed efforts against the Assad regime for years, internal security threats and the risk of a prospective Kurdish enclave on the border seem to have moved Turkish interests closer to Russia’s. Spill-over from the conflict in Syria has forced Turkey to reconsider its overall strategy, and its efforts now focus on countering the onslaught of terror attacks by the so-called Islamic State and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as well as preventing the creation of a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria. These objectives are more aligned with Russia, which has heavily invested in propping up the Syrian regime.

In the aftermath of the failed coup attempt against Erdogan in July, Russia has advanced its image as a champion of Turkey’s internal security. In a personal call to Erdogan in the immediate aftermath of the coup, Putin assured Erdogan of his support, which he reiterated during their August 9 and October 10 meetings. This is in contrast to the reaction of the U.S. and EU, which have condemned the attempt to overthrow Erdogan, but have been critical of Erdogan’s post-coup crackdown. As Erdogan continues to accuse the U.S. and the EU of supporting the attempted coup, Russia has been quick to take advantage of the tensions between Turkey and the West. Furthermore, as tensions between the Turkish government and the PKK broke into renewed conflict in the southeast over the summer, Russia arrested an arms-dealer in July who was allegedly delivering weapons to the PKK. On the domestic front, Turkey increasingly sees Russia as a security partner. 

Turkish and Russian economic re-alignment has more to do with Russian priorities in Syria and Ukraine than it does with repairing the economic and political damage caused by Turkey’s downing of the Russian aircraft. In less than a year, Putin and Erdogan’s tenuous relationship has undergone a dramatic transformation, as a variety of factors have driven them towards cooperation. As strongmen cast in the same mold, Putin and Erdogan are destined to remain in close partnership on security and economic issues. However, they will continue to face the prospect of confrontation when their priorities collide, as both leaders seek to revive the historic legacies of their respective nations.

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