Can Turkey and Russia be in the same camp?

By Cenk Başlamış

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s suggestion in the New York Times article that Turkey shall "search for new friends and allies" inevitably brought Russia to mind. This issue, which comes to the fore because of the "Pastor Brunson crisis" between Ankara and Washington, is not really that new. Since the July 15 coup attempt Turkey has been witnessing discussions whether the axis of Turkey changes and whether the nation breaks away from the West. At first glance, indeed, it seemed so with relations with the US and European Union member visibly deteriorating relations in times of rapid rapprochement with Russia.

Tactical cooperation between Russia
and Turkey can become strategic

There are concrete developments in Turkish-Russian relations that entered the recovery period after the "jet crisis" exploded on 24 November 2015. Turkey returned to the field in the reconciliation primarily through cooperation in Syria, military operations and was able to take place in Astana process with Russia and Iran. Steps were taken in the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant project with the Turkish Stream Project, to which Moscow attaches great importance, and an agreement was reached to deliver the S-400 systems in 2019. All of these are important examples of the political, energy and military alliance between the two countries that have proved to be a focal point. It is possible to conclude that when Erdogan is saying "we can search for new friends and allies" he implies, first and foremost, Russia.

For a long time, there have been debates on Turkey being increasing attracted by Moscow while severing its ties with the United States and Western alliance. However, these discussions in Turkey, and even in the West, focus primarily on Turkish vision of the issue, while few analysis is devoted to the other side in this picture, Russia, especially to things like what Russians really think about Turkish-Western relations and whether they really want Turkey to break away from the West. This prompts us to think whether Turkey and Russia really belong to the one camp. My answer is no. Let me explain why.
To understand what I mean it is important to see how Russian strategic thinkers define Turkey’s role in the world and where they position Ankara in global arrangements. During the Cold war contours of alliances and loyalties were crystal clear and Moscow didn’t approach Turkey as a player independent from the NATO interests. Such views underwent few changes after the collapse of the Soviet Union, even more, in the 1990s, a period of the greatest weakness of Russian positions, Moscow under the influence of these continuing views was inclined to mistrust intentions and disprove ambitions of Turkey in the Caucasus and Central Asia. 

Eurasian vector in Russian-Turkish relations

Major blow to this vision was delivered by the vote in the Turkish Parliament against cooperation in Iraq with Washington in 2003. The vote disproved Moscow’s view of Turkey as being uncapable of acting independently from Western interests and, in general, open way to changes to Russian policy on Turkey. This today allows us to see that Russia doesn’t merely want to create a joint camp with Turkey, but rather to weaken West and use this to reinforce its own positions. It is just to ask a question what Russia pursues with this strategy. Explanation lies in how Russia perceived modern world. Even though, Putin may present Russia as a super power that can challenge the United States, Russian leadership accepts current world order. “Revolting against the American imperialism and support of the oppressed” is a part of good image strategy.

Russia doesn’t have serious objections against current state of global affairs because, despite all recent diplomatic and political achievements, it would not be able to resist against the United States and support, at least today, any alternative world orders. In such conditions, instead of trying to form new global constellations and prepare for possible resulting chaos, Russia makes use of crisis in relations between Turkey and West.

Besides, Russia for centuries have been perceiving Turkey, a regional competitor, not through true, native accounts, but always through some third-party glasses. Russia doesn’t want to intimately closely attract Turkey due to different historic experience, religious and cultural identities. Instead Russia wants a Turkey, that could both stand separately from the political camps, hostile to Russia, and be not very independent as a separate entity for ease of controllability from Moscow. In short, Russia prefers NATO members, but alliances with troubled countries in terms of interests, to meet under the same roof with a country that they do not see in themselves, and they are suspicious of their long-term plans in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East.

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