Are Russia & Türkiye moving to a collision?

The relationship between Russia and Türkiye is developing in the opposite direction of expectations after the Turkish elections.

Russia and Türkiye were expected to move closer after the recent elections. Erdogan and his government were perceived as somehow “better” options for that to happen. Were these expectations realistic? Are we making too much out of several unexpected moves by the Turkish president?

Adherents of the classical international relations theory consider the notorious “balance of power” to be the basis of state interaction. The state of turbulence on the world stage has provided new opportunities for revising the established order. Neo-imperial tendencies in the political culture of Turkey were the work of Ahmet Davutoglu’s “Strategic Depth”. It was perceived by many as a “manual on neo-Ottomanism”. 

In Syria, Türkiye effectively used its presence in Idlib as the main asset and the object of a possible deal with Russia. Moderate opposition formations began to be based in the Turkish buffer in Northern Aleppo. During the years of conflict in Syria, Türkiye has concentrated in its hands the resources that allow it to participate in determining the fate of Syria. 

It is impossible not to note the growth of Turkey’s geopolitical assets in the post-Soviet space. It is traditionally considered a zone of Russia’s particular interests. Ankara uses several tools: military-political assets, pan-Islamic ideas and doctrinal elements of neo-Pan-Turkism, which has become the successor of classical Pan-Turkism. After the collapse of the USSR, Türkiye began to claim to fill the ideological and political vacuum through not only the Turkic identity but also Islam. The activities of the Gulenists in the post-Soviet space in general, and Central Asia, in particular, come down to bringing together Islamic and secular nationalism, Islamic and ethnic identity, the nation and its state. 

How is Türkiye interacting with Russia in Syria? What role does Türkiye play in the South Caucasus? What are Ankara’s interests in Central Asia? 

Türkiye and Russia in Syria

The conflict in Syria has become a vivid example of the inconsistency of relations between Russia and The conflict in Syria has become a striking example of the inconsistency of ties between Russia and Türkiye. Russia and Türkiye were on opposite sides of the barricades in Syria. Today, Erdogan is trying to demonstrate his readiness to normalize relations with Damascus.

Moscow and Ankara have different views on the development of events in Syria and the future of this country. Russia invariably supports the crisis resolution and the legitimate President of Syria, Bashar al-Assad. Turkey’s strategy in the framework of the Syrian conflict has undergone several transformations. At the beginning of the conflict, Ankara adhered to a moderate position. Politicians said that strong ties between the countries would withstand any crises. However, Türkiye became one of the most active critics of Assad.

Turkey’s fears were caused by the terrorist threat that arose in the Syrian vacuum and the activity of Kurdish formations. However, she was unable to develop a coherent position on the conflict. 2015 was an important date in this process. Firstly, Turkey accused the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party – ed.) of a terrorist attack in Suruç, leading to an armed clash. Secondly, Russia has become a direct side of the conflict by deploying aerospace forces in Syria. That has changed the balance of power in the Syrian crisis.

Soon the incident with the downed Su-24 of the Russian Aerospace Forces by the Turkish Air Force will become a dark spot in the history of Russian-Turkish relations. However, this tragic event prompted countries to intensify security cooperation. One of the results of such collaboration was the establishment of the Astana format together with Iran.

Demonstrated ability to find mutually acceptable solutions

Since 2016, Türkiye has switched to a new strategy – military operations in Syria (“Euphrates Shield” in 2016, “Olive Branch” in 2018, “Source of Peace” in 2019, etc.). Turkey seeks to create a buffer zone along the Turkish-Syrian border, free from Kurdish formations. Moreover, new towns are being built in several areas for the return of Syrian refugees to their homeland.

Türkiye and Russia have shown the ability to find mutually acceptable solutions to all problems. Despite the existing differences in views on a number of issues, Moscow and Ankara, having survived the lesson of 2015, avoid escalation and resolve contradictions within the framework of a constructive dialogue.

South Caucasus

The South Caucasus is one of the most intricate and complex “geopolitical arenas” in the interaction framework between Türkiye and Russia. Armenia is traditionally considered a military-political ally of Russia. It is a member of the CSTO. Azerbaijan is the closest partner for Türkiye but is also bound by the Declaration on Allied Cooperation with Russia. It is no secret that Ankara has strengthened its position in the South Caucasus by actively supporting Baku in the Second Karabakh War in 2020 and achieving a de facto military presence on the territory of Azerbaijan.

The second Karabakh War demonstrated the deepened relations between Turkey and Azerbaijan. Baku made a good advertisement for the Turkish military-industrial complex and helped expand Ankara’s influence in the region. Of particular interest is how Ankara is increasing its influence on the “fraternal republic” through the military sphere. The Azerbaijani army has begun an active process of transition to Turkish standards. In 2022, Turkish General Ersai Bakhtiyar was appointed Advisor to the Minister of Defense of Azerbaijan. The continuation of the integration of the two armies was the announcement of the creation of the HAKİM air command and control system, which integrates the airspace control systems of Türkiye and Azerbaijan.

By increasing its influence in the South Caucasus, Türkiye will have more opportunities to create new points of cooperation/confrontation with other regional players. At the moment, Russia and Türkiye are cooperating in the framework of resolving crises. The Russian-Turkish monitoring centre in Karabakh is operating. It was the result of a constructive dialogue between the countries. It is this kind of dialogue that will ensure that the South Caucasus does not become an apple of discord between the countries.

Central Asia

Türkiye is highly interested in this strategically important region. Turkish activities often pass under the radar due to more bombastic US and EU attempts.

In recent years, Türkiye has stepped up the work of the Organization of Turkic States (OTG), which unites Turkey, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan (the latter as an observer). Ankara is actively using “soft power” and increasing cooperation with the region’s countries in the socio-cultural sphere.

The third section of the “Vision of the Turkic World – 2040” attracts special attention. The ATC states provide for curricular harmonization processes. The International Turkic Academy has already developed textbooks on general Turkic geography, history, literature, etc. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have stated that these textbooks will be used for electives. Through education, Turkey seeks to create a shared vision of their role and place in history among the Turkic peoples. The emphasis on commonality is necessary to make the impression of the continuity of the historical path of the Turkic peoples.

A common Turkic script would become a factor in strengthening the cultural and economic ties of the Turkic states. It was also proposed to create a “Commission for creating a single alphabet” under the UTC. In 2021, the Turkic World media platform was created. The news agencies of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have already connected. And in October 2022, the first meeting of the regulatory bodies of the audiovisual media of the UTC countries was held. Türkiye seeks to expand its influence on the region in other areas.

However, at the moment, its influence on the region is limited and cannot be compared with the influence of other regional players.

Possible conclusions

  1. Anyone expecting a decisive move by Türkiye from NATO towards Russia was unrealistic. That was not on the cards and, it will not be for quite some time. Reasons for that are many
  2. Türkiye is going through rough economic times and will need help from Western financial institutions. It is also dependent on trade with the EU.
  3. Despite conflicting interests between Russia and Türkiye – from Syria to South Caucasus to Central Asia – the two countries managed to find common ground and avoid serious conflict. That sort of attitude should continue regardless of some temporary setbacks.

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