In order to assess the consequences of the Ukraine crisis on relations between Turkey and Russia and their future development, it is important to understand the current dynamics and underlying nature of the relationship.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, the Turkish-Russian relationship has experienced an unprecedented boom. Considering that these two countries share a five centuries long history, which has mainly been dominated by intense rivalry and occasional wars, this new shift towards expanding the areas and scope of bilateral cooperation is still rather young. The origins of this emerging trend lie largely in the 1984 bilateral agreement on energy cooperation. However in the early 2000s both Erdoğan and Putin began to look at Turkish-Russian relations as an area of untapped opportunity. Since then, a variety of global and regional developments (such as the Iraq War in 2003 and the Russo-Georgian War in 2008) have also facilitated a re-prioritisation of the relationship, especially in Moscow. When the Turkish Parliament voted to deny U.S. troops access to Turkish territory for their operations in Iraq, or when Ankara cited the Montreux Convention in its refusal to allow of the US to send hospital ships to Georgia in August 2008, Moscow took notice and began to see Ankara as an independent actor that had proven its ability to stand up to the imposing will of its Western allies. In light of these developments, Ankara and Moscow started to define one another as the “key actors” in ensuring regional security and stability.
The products of this new positive trend have been the institutionalization of bilateral relations and the widening and deepening of cooperation. The High Level Cooperation Council, which functions as a cabinet of Russian and Turkish ministers, was established in 2010 and has become a forum in which almost 40 agreements have been signed, including the visa-free travel agreement. Aside from its strong institutional framework, the intrinsic nature of the relationship is also worth mentioning. Booming economic relations and energy cooperation on the one hand and social-cultural relations on the other have reached an unprecedented level. To quantify it, the overall bilateral trade volume between Russia and Turkey reached almost $34 billion in 2014 (mostly due to Turkish imports of Russian natural gas) and Russia has become Turkey’s second largest trading partner, second only to Germany. Turkey has also emerged as Russia’s largest trading partner when it comes to services, according to statistics acquired from the Russian Central Bank. Turkey is also the leading destination for Russian tourists, with some 4 million vacationing in the country in 2014.
However, not all that glitters is gold. Any Turkish-Russian cooperation in the field of foreign and security policy is faced with considerable limitations. Moreover, while no steps have been taken to solve already existing differences over Nagorno Karabakh or Cyprus, various new developments, including the “Arab Spring” and its aftermath, the Syrian Civil War, and the Ukraine crisis have added to the list of disagreements. The current upward trend in Turkish-Russian relations is thus more a result of “compartmentalisation”: both sides allow for positive developments to reinforce their bilateral relationship and encourage further dialogue while simultaneously setting their disagreements aside. Here, the Ukraine crisis can be seen as the most recent example of such behavior.
In terms of the effect of regional and global developments on Turkish-Russian relations, it seems that the ongoing “agree to disagree” approach applied to issues such as Syria and the Ukraine crises will continue in the short run. In fact there has been a conscious effort to prevent the Ukraine crisis from contaminating the nascent initiative of both countries’ leaders to better bilateral relations. Aided by this mutual understanding, when it comes to Ukraine, Ankara and Moscow have focused on crisis management and preventing the crisis from negatively affecting bilateral relations.
As far as its official policy is concerned, Turkey is unlikely to ever formally recognize the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and will continue to appeal for the respect of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Notably, the historic relationship between the Crimean Tartars and their diaspora has led Ankara to be cautious towards the status of the Crimean Tatars, who constitute one of the main minority groups that inhabit the Crimean Peninsula. As a result of migration and changing population structure, before the annexation they comprised around 12% of the total population there. Nevertheless, given that Crimean Tatars were more or less the only group that had refused to participate in the referendum on Crimea’s absorption into Russia and to accept the annexation, the socio-political conditions and treatment of Tatars by Russian authorities has become one of the main concerns for the Turkish government. In order to ease tensions and to fulfill the basic demands of Turkey, Russia commenced a number of new initiatives on the peninsula aimed at improving its stance with the Tatars, such as making Tatar one of the official languages of the administrative region. Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov also attended to the meeting of the High-Level Council on Russia-Turkey Cooperation chaired by President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in December 2014. However, while this approach has sought to mitigate Turkey’s concerns it has also faced many challenges, especially when Russia effectively barred prominent Crimean Tatars such as Abdulcemil Kırımoğlu from entering the peninsular.
As long as Turkey and Russia maintain salient points of disagreement, whether in Ukraine, Syria, or Cyprus, the policies of crisis management and de-escalation will play the most prominent role in the two countries’ bilateral relations. The tendency of both countries to follow the “agree to disagree” policy will not always be easy to implement or go according to plan.
While Turkey has expressed its reservations on the rights and well-being of the Tatars in Crimea, a harsher approach towards Russia should not be expected. Moreover, given that even Western countries are not willing to discuss Crimea in their negotiations with Russia, it should not be expected that Turkey will escalate this issue into a crisis.
Turkey’s refusal to partake in the US and EU sanctions against Russia, coupled with its continued cooperation with Moscow, has paved the way for suggestions that both countries are on the way to establishing an “axis of the excluded”. However, it is important to emphasize that while relations between Turkey and Russia can technically be seen as a partnership, this is far removed from what could be considered as an alliance, especially considering that the trust-building mechanisms between the two countries are still at an early stage. The Ukraine crisis has so far not caused much damage to Turkish-Russian relations, but it did however show that Ankara and Moscow have fundamentally different understandings not only of the region, but also of the international system and of the organizing principles of the current world order. While evaluating Turkey-Russia relations, one also needs to consider the Western dimension of Turkey’s foreign and security policy.
In conclusion, while Turkish-Russian relations have historically been characterized by rivalry and great wars, a rapid process of transformation in recent years has seen these countries move toward closer cooperation. The nature of their current bilateral relations can be conceptualized as the “compartmentalization” of negative issues in order to focus of the positive aspects. This strategy enables bilateral economic and socio-political ties to flourish, whilst also allowing the Turkish-Russian relations to weather the storm over Ukraine with minimal damage.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.