The pending summit between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia is increasing speculation of an eastward pivot by Turkey away from its traditional alliance with the US towards Russia and the Eurasian powers.
This speculation is undoubtedly correct for the short term. However it remains far from clear how far that pivot will go and how successful it will be.
Turkey and Russia have had a complex relationship. Before the First World War tsarist Russia and Ottoman Turkey were traditional enemies fighting a long succession of wars against each other. However since the establishment of the Turkish Republic by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922 relations have alternated between short periods of friendship and longer periods of hostility.
Kemal himself for most of the period of his rule maintained very close and friendly relations with Russia. Indeed in the 1920s and early 1930s the USSR and Turkey were often thought of as allies. Relations however began to deteriorate towards the end of Kemal’s life and following the end of the Second World War Turkey aligned itself decisively with the West and against the USSR by joining NATO.
In the late 1970s Bulent Ecevit, during one of his brief periods in office as Prime Minister of Turkey, visited Moscow in a way that appeared to signal an attempt to achieve a sustained improvement in relations. The attempt – if such it was – was short-lived, and the two countries shortly after once again began to distance themselves from each other.
Relations however improved again following the coming to power in 2002 of Erdogan’s AKP party and for a time appeared to become very close. However there was a sharp deterioration in relations at the end of last year, when the two countries fell out because of their conflicting positions in the Syrian war and following Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian SU24 aircraft near the Turkish – Syrian border. Relations remained extremely tense until just a few weeks ago when Erdogan (to most people’s surprise) suddenly apologised for the SU24 shoot-down. Relations have since improved, and following the recent coup attempt there has been a dramatic improvement.
This history should however serve as a warning against any idea that the two countries are natural allies or friends. On the contrary the fact that for most of their history – including their recent history – they have been enemies, all but confirms the opposite. It is significant that the only two periods when relations between Turkey and Russia have been close have both been periods when Turkey has had unusually strong leaders: Kemal and Erdogan. At all other times, when the political situation in Turkey has been more normal, relations have gone back to being bad.
That suggests that a state of conflict with Russia, rather than friendship with Russia, is Turkey’s natural or default position. That in itself must call into doubt the prospects of a sustained friendship between the two states.
What chance however is there for a decisive pro-Russian pivot by Turkey whilst Erdogan remains in power?
The first point to say is that such a pivot would for the first time in the history of Russian – Turkish relations make economic sense. Trade links between the two countries have burgeoned in recent years with Russia becoming a major investor in the Turkish economy and a key exporter to Turkey of energy and manufactured goods. Turkey for its part until the recent short period of bad relations had become a major destination of Russian tourists and was becoming an important exporter of agricultural and other goods to Russia. Russia was also becoming an important market for Turkish businesses. To those who believe that good political relations follow trade (actually a highly debatable proposition that finds little support in historical experience) conditions for sustainably good relations between Turkey and Russia have never been better.
It is also true that Turkey has become increasingly disillusioned with the West.
Turkey has had an association agreement with the EU since 1963. It formally applied to join the EU in 1987. It has however since then and to its growing frustration been obliged to witness a string of former Communist East European states, all of whom applied to join the EU after Turkey, being admitted to the EU ahead of Turkey, with Turkey constantly being put back to the end of the queue. Turkey has so far not even managed to gain for its citizens visa free access to the EU. Some EU politicians have even recently taken to saying that they will never agree to Turkey joining the EU.
In the meantime, as part of this seemingly endless accession process, the Turks have had to endure the usual lectures and demands for “reform” from the EU. Not all of these reforms are popular or make much sense in Turkey. Erdogan himself has also had to endure the indignity of being constantly mocked and ridiculed in Europe and of being patronised by EU politicians in ways he must find infuriating. By contrast the Russians – even when they have been angry with him – have always treated Erdogan with respect as the leader of a great nation and state.
Unsurprisingly some sections of Turkish society have become increasingly disenchanted with this never-ending quest for EU membership and in recent years doubts have increasingly been voiced about whether it is even worth pursuing. Turkey’s recent economic boom – which has shown that Turkey is perfectly able to prosper outside the EU – and the crisis in the Eurozone have meant that for the first time in decades there is a nationalist case for not joining the EU which in Turkey is gaining an increasing hearing.
Beyond Turkey’s disappointment with the EU there is also deepening frustration and anger with the way Turkey feels it has been treated by the US. This centres on US treatment of Turkey during the Syrian conflict.
Prior to the start of the conflict Turkey had built up close and very friendly relations with Syria, with Erdogan forging a strong personal bond with Syria’s President Assad. Though it is not well remembered today, when the protests against Assad’s government in Syria began in 2011 the Turks were initially very reluctant to become involved. Turkey was however strongly pressed to do so by the US and its other Western allies, with the result that Turkey rapidly became the chief base and staging post for Syrian rebels entering Syria to take part in the war there.
Turkey made this commitment under the impression – and assurance from its allies – that Assad’s government in Syria would quickly fall. To Turkey’s dismay that has not only failed to happen but as the conflict in Syria has dragged on it has spread to Turkey itself. Turkey is now the target of numerous jihadi terrorist attacks on its own soil, its large Alevi minority, which sympathises with President Assad, is deeply unhappy about the war, and a painfully negotiated settlement of the Kurdish issue with the Kurds has unravelled as Turkey has become increasingly concerned at the emergence of autonomous Kurdish controlled territories within Syria along the Turkish border. To add insult to injury the US – Turkey’s NATO ally – has allied itself with some of these Kurdish forces in Syria despite warnings from the Turkish authorities that they are closely linked the Kurdish groups fighting the Turkish army in Turkey.
Last but not least the conflict in Syria led to a major falling out last year between Turkey and Russia. Not only did Turkey and Russia apparently come close this winter to an armed clash – with credible rumours the Russians threatened the Turks with nuclear weapons – but over the course of the crisis Turkey’s economic links to Russia came close to falling apart and Erdogan had to endure the personal humiliation of having the Russians publicly accuse members of his own family of illegal links to Daesh.
Not only has the Syrian conflict been a disaster for Turkey. It has also brought home to the Turks how little the US ultimately cares about them. It is known that Erdogan was bitterly angry, and felt personally betrayed, when US President Obama at the last moment called off the bombing strikes on Syria he had announced following the Ghouta chemical attack in August 2013. Even more serious and unnerving for the Turks was the very tepid support Turkey got from the US and its NATO allies during the crisis in relations with Russia this winter following the shooting down of the SU24, with some German officials actually publicly blaming Turkey for the incident.
The Turks therefore already had good reasons to be angry with the US and the West before the recent coup attempt. However that coup attempt has now made the Turks angrier still.
As I have recently written, it is unlikely the US was involved in the recent coup attempt. The claim that it must have been involved because some of the F16 fighters involved in the coup took off from the giant air base at Incirlik is by the way wrong. Whilst Incirlik is a US base, it is also a Turkish air force base. The US does not control what the Turkish air force does there and is not in a position to prevent Turkish air force fighters taking off from a Turkish air force base in Turkey.
The important thing however – as I have also pointed out – is not whether the US was actually involved in the coup or not. It is that Erdogan and public opinion in Turkey believe it was. It is that belief which is now governing their actions and which is leading to a further sharp deterioration in relations between Turkey and the US.
The suspicions of US involvement in the coup meanwhile contrasts with clearcut Russian and Iranian opposition to it. As I have said previously, the rumours the coup failed because of a Russian tip-off are almost certainly true. Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek is incidentally just the latest in a long line of Russian and Turkish officials who have been given an opportunity to deny that there was a tip-off but have failed to do so. When asked to comment about the tip-off a few days ago he stuck to what is clearly now the agreed line, which is that he didn’t know anything about it, but then went on to talk immediately of Russia’s clearcut support for Turkey. His exact words – as reported by TASS – were as follows:
“I have no information on this matter, but I’d like to note that the next day after the coup attempt the most serious backing was provided by Russia that emphasised its support to the legitimate government of Turkey. We highly value the phone call of Russian President Vladimir Putin. This support was very strong.”
(bold italics added)
It can therefore be taken as read that over the course of the next few weeks the Russians and the Turks will move much closer to each other. Turkish anger with the US over the coup and gratitude to Russia will accelerate and intensify a process of Turkish – Russian rapprochement which was already underway before the coup.
How far however, will it go?
I would warn against over-high expectations. Economic links will surely strengthen. There is talk of a free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, and that must now be a real possibility. The Turk Stream gas pipeline project will surely be revived. The Turks will lessen their support for the rebels in Syria (the state of the Turkish army following the coup anyway allows for nothing else). There is even talk that they might join with the Russian military in joint operations against Daesh. It is by no means impossible that we could see a joint Russian-Turkish position for a Syrian settlement starting to form, with Turkey to some degree replacing the US as Russia’s main interlocutor in the negotiations to end the Syrian conflict. Lastly Turkey could move closer towards some of the Eurasian institutions that are being created such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (in which it already has observer status) and the Eurasian Economic Union, and it might even take some initial steps towards joining them. However actual membership of these organisations would be seen as incompatible with Turkey’s NATO’s membership, and I therefore doubt things will go that far (see below).
Simultaneously the Turks are likely to take more steps to distance themselves from the US. They may continue for example their ongoing harassment of US personnel at the base in Incirlik. It is not inconceivable that they might even start to float demands for the base to be closed, or for US nuclear weapons to be removed from there. They might even revive an incendiary proposal that was briefly floated for a few days shortly before the coup of the Russians using the base to conduct operations in Syria. The US was understandably enough horrified by this proposal, and succeeded in blocking it. If it is now revived it will trigger serious alarm and anger in Washington.
However I doubt that Turkey will take any immediate steps to expel the US from Incirlik or to withdraw from NATO or to abandon its links to the EU. Quite apart from the fact that taking such steps would reverse an alignment that is now 70 years old and which still has considerable support within Turkey itself, it would also antagonise the US, which would certainly at that point come to see Erdogan and his government as enemies. I doubt that Erdogan will want that, regardless of how angry with the US he currently is.
The ongoing Russian – Turkish rapprochement will continue and will intensify. I doubt however that there will be any formal reversal of alliances and I am sure the Russians don’t expect it. Since their priority now must be to keep Erdogan in power as a potential partner, they might even advise against it if they feel that doing it might threaten Erdogan’s position by calling down on him the wrath of the US.
However the fact of that rapprochement will certainly have an immediate impact on the international situation, especially in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East. It might even complicate NATO operations in the Black Sea, and lead to resistance from Turkey to any more anti-Russian posturing by NATO such as we saw recently at the NATO summit in Warsaw, something that might become increasingly important if (as seems likely) Hillary Clinton is the next US President. The Russians will surely feel that that is quite enough for the time being.