US in the Mediterranean tries to Counter-Pivot Turkey away from the Middle East

Amid news on escalation of diplomatic tensions in the Mediterranean waters, there are rising concerns that the conflict between regional powers over the natural gas reserves may instrumentalized by the Americans to stimulate Turkey’s pivot away from Middle East where Ankara and Washington find it increasingly harder to compromise on interests and find q common ground for productive cooperation.

Rise of Erdogan and his party in the early 2000s was accompanied by Turkey's rapid opening to Middle East. Under the AKP government Turkey successfully promoted its image as a predominantly Muslim society with a functioning democracy. Its reliance on soft power and readiness to mediate between the West and others helped Erdogan’s party to gain trust among political establishment in the West and further strengthen its legitimacy.

The tectonic shifts cause by the events of the Arab Spring radically changed nature of Turkey’s engagement in the Middle East. Change in balance of power tempted Ankara into trying to use its hard power assets by either directly interfering in domestic affairs of the Arab world.

Rising Instability in Turkey’s immediate neighbourhood led to proliferation of transborder threats like terrorism, radical violence, uncontrolled mass migration. The ever worsening security situation on Turkey's borders was further deteriorated due to breakdown of state institutions in Syria and Iraq. Power vacuum resulted in violent competition of global and regional players.

Political changes significantly altered Turkish approaches to dealings in the region. Turkish government found itself deeply enmeshed in the escalating power struggle. Ideologically bound to the Middle East, ruling political elites couldn't abstain from being involvement in the region. Neutrality wasn't a viable policy option as well because domestic security situation was forcing Turkey to actively interfere to confront rising challenges.

Parallel to this, Turkey’s principal political and military partner in the region, United States, has been trying to build a new a stable architecture of security guarantees between major stakeholders: Gulf monarchies, Israel and Egypt. Closer dialogue and coordination between these players were supposed not only to contain Iranian expansion, but also to uphold US supremacy in the face of ascending profile of Russia.

For the last several decades US-Turkish cooperation in the Middle East was frameworked by Washington’s attempts to keep Turkey away from physical entanglement in regional affairs. US has long been ready to tolerate Ankara’s activism unless its foreign policy initiatives don't threaten security arrangements with NATO and put the alliance’s security guarantees to test.

Post-Arab Spring chaos seriously strained relations between Turkey and United States. The latter is used to deal with a Turkey which is demonstrating increasing assertiveness to pursue its own interests in Iran, Syria, Iraq in disregard to the US concerns. Turkey is both forced to act or feels ambitious about its chances to once again rule the Middle East.

Improving military capabilities and expansion of its physical military presence in the strategic points of the region give Turkey less incentive to choose compromise over pressure, dialogue over conflict.

Indeed, for years Turkey has been a valuable asset in the Western mechanism of the regional control, Turkey, however, has never been given a leading role in formulation of relevant policies. Turkey, in the eyes of many military political elites in the West, was a part of the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe, rather than the Middle East where Ankara’s involvement would always be regarded as a destabilizing factor for Western interests.

In the last few years the United States has been expanding its presence in the Eastern Mediterranean where Washington seeks to reinforce cooperation among regional states in the military affairs. Ties between Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel are spurred by common economic interests whereas United States tries to facilitate political dialogue as was evidence by recent US proposal to mediate between Lebanon and Israel on maritime border.

Exclusion of Turkey from such initiatives seems to be deliberately instrumentalized by the United States. The region may see controlled escalation of tensions around issues like sovereign rights on disputed islands and gas exploration to trigger substantial changes in the foreign policy decision-making process in Turkey and ultimately veer Ankara away from deeper engagement with the Middle East.

First of all, Eastern Mediterranean is dominated by the Western security guarantees with the US being the supreme military and diplomatic power. Once Ankara decides that it no longer can tolerate violation of its sovereign rights, sooner or later will be forced to engage in more sincere dialogue with Washington compelled to compromise in other regional issues.

Secondly, possible military escalation in the region may prompt Turkey not only to use Russian air defense weaponry, but also to demand from Russia concrete support. Once Ankara confronts inevitable Moscow’s reluctance to provide diplomatic assistance, it will realize that rapport with the US, rather than direct confrontation is the only solution to keep nation from further diplomatic isolation.

Finally, resurgence of heated discussions in Turkey around status of islands and Cyprus may galvanize further rise of Turkish nationalism in the country, turning the public away from affairs in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere to the events in the Mediterranean and prompting Turkish government to respond to demands discouraging it from activism in the Middle East.

US diplomatic activism in the Mediterranean seeks ways to bring Turkish foreign policy back to this region, counterbalancing Turkey’s pivot deeper to the Middle East, where US has been historically against Turkish involvement which is today unfolding more and more against Western interests.


Paradox of Russian political investments in Erdogan

Elections create a miniature crisis for every political regime. Local elections in Turkey elections and the run-off election in Istanbul exposed a serious deficiency in nature of Erdogan’s rule and its legitimacy in large urban centers. 

This has serious implications for Russian-Turkish relations, with the legitimacy of foreign policy decisions falling hostage to fluctuations of domestic politics. Arrangements with long-term strategic implications become hard to sustain. Few foreign players would wish to engage a ruler with uncertain future. This, however, doesn’t stop Russia from dealing with Erdogan.

For the past three years, Erdogan proved himself as an acceptable counterpart for Russian officials in many regional issues. 

The increasingly unstable position at home forces the Turkish leader to seek validation through its active foreign policy. Under increasing international isolation, Erdogan, who wants to deliver ostensibly successful deals, can rely on few foreign partners – and Russia has appeared the most willing to cooperate.

This kind of cooperation heavily tilts bilateral relations in favor of Russia. The Turkish leader’s ambitions and anxieties can be successfully channeled in the right direction and ultimately converted into long-term commitments conducive to Russian strategic interests both in the adjacent regions and inside Turkey.

It is in this context that the nature of the S-400 deal is most revealed. While it can be argued that the arms contract is a purely commercial deal, as Russian officials have been asserting, the sale of Russian air defense systems to Turkey would not have been important for Russia if it didn’t serve Russian long-term interests.

There are two important things to bear in mind . First, Russian defense systems, designed to counter NATO’s fifth-generation F-35s, are supposed to stay in service within the Russian A2/D2 perimeter for the next 25 to 30 years. 

The radar components of the system are expected to contribute to the Russian counter-measures against attempts of the NATO alliance to build advanced offensive potential in Europe.

Second, disagreements between Ankara and Washington over the purchase of the Russian weapons exacerbated the deep-rooted conflict of worldviews between political elites in both nations. This is not only about how to treat Russia, what to do with Assad or how deal with the Kurds in the Middle East. 

Desire for a more independent foreign policy and more assertive posture in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean is shared by Turkish elites, ruling and opposition. The drive behind this exceeds the lifespan of Erdogan’s rule.

One could argue that decision to sell the S-400s to Turkey is short-sighted. Why would Russia invest this much in a regime that is gradually losing its legitimacy, capacity and resources to keep the agreement? Moreover, there is broad opposition to the Russian arms acquisition and rapprochement with Moscow among major opposition parties in Turkey. With a change of government in Turkey, if it happens democratically, the strategic effect of the S-400 deal on the Western security alliance can be mitigated considerably and technical secrets of the Russian arms could be compromised.

The Crimean example shows that Russia may have long-term plans to reinforce its influence in its surrounding alleged “zone of influence.” Russian leadership, however, is neither ready nor capable of directly challenging Western interests and the existing status quo in the nations under normal conditions of political processes. Moscow feels more confident in mobilizing its resources to take quick advantage of the emerging critical situation to dramatically tilt the balance of power in the area in its favor.

With the Turkish political processes getting increasingly derailed, any structural change in Turkey becomes possible only through extraordinary procedures (like calling for early elections, application to the Constitutional Court or boycotts, to name the least extreme). 

Political stakeholders feel more compelled to think about resorting to such measures not only to keep Turkey within realm of democratic rule, but to survive as well. 

Post-coup purges in Turkey failed to establish much-needed transparent public control over bureaucracy and security agencies. A lack thereof paved a way to increasing politicization of state critical personnel and, as a result, broadened venues for external interference.

The S-400 deal is designed to outlive Erdogan. The success of this project is warranted by the processes unfolding in Turkey, a bulk of which take place beyond conventional, and publicly accessible, political processes. 

Moscow’s confidence despite Erdogan’s government being under increasing pressure to cancel the deal may suggest that Russia has found a reliable partner in Turkey, which doesn’t feel threatened by prospects of the US sanctions, domestic political turbulence, or increasing public demands for more democratic governance.

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post

Further reading:


Translation: Turkey in the structure of a multipolar world

by Alexander Dugin

Today, it is important for all nations, in particular Turks, to understand the essence of a multipolar world that a modern Russia is building today. Multipolarity and geopolitics - stemming from it - are what will be the main theme of the strategic thinking of the 21st century. Multipolarity is in a state of emergence. This is not an established model, but only a movement in a certain direction. Like any phenomenon in history, multipolarity can either happen or not happen. This is not fatality, it is an opportunity, and whether it is realized depends on all countries and peoples.

It is the construction of a multipolar world that is the main key to understanding the policies pursued by modern Russia in the era of Vladimir Putin. And although we could say that this strategy is an expression of Eurasianism, nevertheless the Eurasianism itself in the 21st century has changed significantly and needs new thinking. Moreover, it is only in the context of multipolarity that Eurasianism gains its meaning. Therefore, it is worthwhile in this preface to dwell on multipolarity.

Multipolarity is fundamentally different from:

  • The Westphalian system, based on the recognition of the absolute sovereignty of each individual nation-state;
  • The bipolar system prevailing in the era of the Cold War;
  • The unipolar world spontaneously emerged after the fall of the USSR and the countries of the socialist camp.

The Westphalian world was formed after 1648 and was built on the principle of nation states. By the twentieth century, and especially at the end of the First World War, it became obvious that individual national states of Europe, and especially other parts of the world, are not able to defend their sovereignty alone. This led initially to the formation of three blocks - capitalist, socialist and fascist, the culmination of which was World War II. After the defeat of the Axis countries, a bipolar world emerged, where only two superpowers possessed genuine geopolitical sovereignty - the United States and the USSR, while the rest of the countries were forced to join either one or the other camp. According to this logic, Turkey turned out to be in NATO, on the side of the capitalist West.

The beginning of globalism

After the fall of the USSR and the countries of the Warsaw Pact, a unipolar world took shape, where the West came close to sole world domination. This was the beginning of globalism as a planetary ideology. Fukuyama proclaimed the thesis about the “end of history”, that is, the total victory of the West over all others. Genuine sovereignty was the only monopoly of the United States and its allies.

However, almost immediately after such a model actually took shape, opposing tendencies began to be felt. They were expressed in the rise of the Islamic world, which rejects the sole hegemony of the West, in the growth of independent China and India, as independent civilizations. Finally, the prerequisites for multipolarity were formed after the terrorist acts of 9/11, which led to the actual war of the United States and its allies against Islamic states, as well as due to the sharp rise of China and the restoration of Putin’s independent policy and sovereignty in Russia. So the Islamic countries, China and Putin’s Russia challenged unipolarity. Huntington, in anticipation of such a turn of events, in the early 1990s began talking about a “clash of civilizations”, which became a fact in the 2000s. However, the return of civilizations to history did not mean the inevitable clash between them.

The concept of civilization

The concept of civilization is the most important thing for deciphering multipolarity. This is not a national state (as in the Westphalian system), and not a political ideology (as in a bipolar world), and not all of humanity (as in theories of globalists). Civilization is a large space that needs to be integrated. In the case of Russia, this is Eurasia, in the case of China, this country itself, as well as the region, its neighboring peoples and states. The Islamic world is a civilization, although inside it there can be separate large spaces - Shiite, Turkic, Arabic, Malay, etc.

Now it is clear what Eurasianism is: the unification of a large space around Russia. But this is Eurasianism in the narrow sense. The Turkish version of Eurasianism can be described as the restoration of the unity of the Turkic world or some kind of analogue of the Ottoman Empire. Greater Eurasia is built on the strategic alliance of Russia and China. The Eurasian Triangle - the axis of Moscow-Ankara-Tehran. The Chinese project of the OBOR Initiative is even more extensive and involves the economic and transport integration of the entire Eurasian continent, including Europe. But all projects of multipolarity and different versions of Eurasianism necessarily reject the West’s monopoly on hegemony and the universalism of their values. Therefore, all multi-polar projects are oriented against unipolarity and liberal globalism. With all the differences of Islamic, Chinese, Russian or Indian cultures are all completely distinctive and sharply differ even more from Western individualism, hyper-capitalism (turbo-capitalism), the advancement of the LGBT community and a radically secular-atheistic value system. This is the context of a multipolar world.

West divided in two

The West and globalists, however, are not going to give in without a fight, despite the fact that protests against globalism are growing in the West itself. We see this in the Trump phenomenon itself and in the wave of populism (right and left) in Europe. Therefore, it is no longer possible to reduce everything to the dualism of the West against the Rest, as Huntington formulated this problem. The West itself is divided in two: some continue to leave unipolarity and globalism, others see the West as one of the civilizations along with others, designed to preserve their identity and culture, preserving it from artificial mixing. Such an analysis shows that the movement towards multipolarity is growing, and the unipolar world is gradually collapsing, although it is still quite strong.

A bright symbol of unipolarity and globalism is multibillionaire George Soros, the sponsor of color revolutions, or Hillary Clinton, who shamefully lost her previous choice to Trump just because of the persistent upholding of classical liberal-globalist ideology rejected by the majority of Americans.

It now remains to find out: what is the place of Turkey in a multipolar world? This is an open question. On the one hand, Turkey remains a member of NATO and part of the western strategic structure. This is the inertia of the Cold War and the bipolar world. It is less and less justified, since there is practically no threat from modern Russia to Turkey, and the United States, on the contrary, is dissatisfied with Turkey’s desire to increase its sovereignty, which is clearly seen in Erdogan’s policy. In addition, the Turkish society is becoming more and more aware of the contradiction between globalist liberal ideology and Islamic values. Hence the logical conclusion: the place of Turkey in the camp of supporters of a multipolar world.

The role of Turkey in a multipolar world

But being an Islamic country, Turkey is different from both the Arab and Iranian culture. Turkey is a distinctive large space that combines several traditions - the Turkic states of Turan, starting with the First Turkic Kaganate and the Blue Horde, the Islamic Caliphate, the Byzantine Empire. The intersection of these traditions and created historical Turkey.

Therefore, in the context of multipolarity, Turkey can play a crucial role, since it partly belongs to the Islamic civilization, partly Eurasian, and partly European. This opens up wide opportunities for Ankara and allows it to become one of the main poles of the Islamic world - first of all, in its Sunni component. At the same time, the Turkish-Russian alliance would allow Turkey to significantly strengthen its position in the face of the West and in the face of other Islamic countries. So the coordination of positions with Russia during the Syrian conflict showed what can be achieved by both countries, if they act in concert and together. Therefore, a multipolar world for Turkey is a chance.

Further reading:


Turkey may use Russian S-400s to improve its posture in the Mediterranean Sea

NATO turned 70 in April - a solid age for any international organization. It seems, however, that for such a long time the United States has never learned to see in Turkey a full-fledged ally who may have its own interests. Pending the delivery of Russian S-400 air defense systems to Turkey in July of this year, the parties are trying to find a common language, but Ankara’s American partners out of habit speak the language of ultimatums.

Turkey must decide whether it wants to remain in the most successful military alliance in the whole history of the world or put the security of this cooperation at risk," US Vice President Mike Pence said recently. The White House is concerned about of strategic weapons in Turkey's hand, which could potentially threaten the alliance and US interest in the region.

In talks with his obstinate ally, the Americans point out that Ankara should not simultaneously operate fifth-generation F-35 and S-400 air defense systems due to the fact that the radars of the Russian system may disclose technologies that make the American aircraft especially valuable in the upcoming conflicts: rapid exchange of data on the combat situation with the central command post on the battlefield and the ability to maintain low visibility in the fight against the air defense of a potential enemy, Russia or China.

Turkey, while acknowledging concerns of the Americans, proposed the creation of a technical commission, whose task would be to eliminate any fears of Washington. In response, the Americans continue to escalate the situation, threatening Turkey not only with complete exclusion from the F-35 program, but also with the imposition of sanctions and the cessation of military-technical cooperation on other defense projects.

The US response may indicate the existence of growing mistrust and even fear of the US political elites regarding Turkey’s long-term plans to expand its interests in the region.

The change in the global balance of power is not in favor of the United States forcing Americans to reconsider extend of their involvement in the affairs of the Middle East and the Mediterranean. The focus is not only on finding more effective methods of projecting force in exceptional cases, as shown by the recent shipment of an aircraft carrier to the shores of Iran. Of special importance for the global domination of the United States is the defense potential of the regional allies networked with the American political system, not through market interests, but via cultural affinity and ideological heritage.

First of all, we are talking about security guarantees for Israel. The US administration is not limited to promoting the rapprochement of the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Tel Aviv on the basis of common anti-Iranian sentiments. The United States is making a significant contribution to the development of Israeli defense capabilities and energy security. Such support in practical terms is expressed in the transfer to Israel of an exclusive export version of the F-35 (with heavy contribution of the Israelis with their avionics), as well as in promoting cooperation in the Eastern Mediterranean waters with Greece and the Republic of Cyprus in the field of natural gas production.

In parallel with this, Turkey is trying, on a number of critical issues for US interests, to adhere to an independent position, which is not always approved per se in Washington. For example, Ankara’s desire for an independent foreign policy in the Middle East effectively leads to a weakening of the US sanctions blockade against Tehran. The United States cannot but be disturbed by Turkey’s stubborn desire to support the Muslim Brotherhood movement in the region, which Washington is about to classify as a terrorist organization upon request of the Gulf monarchies.

Not surprisingly, Israel today is talking about the undesirability of transferring fifth-generation F-35 aircraft to Turkey. Future strategic deterrence weapons may not be effective in the event of a regional conflict with the likely involvement of Turkey or the pro-Turkish forces. The ability to study the behavior of these aircraft in critical situations, along with the effective use of the S-400 can limit the freedom of action of the Israeli Air Force .

Israeli air forces operate openly in the Turkish zone of influence near Cyprus and Aleppo, which indicates the likelihood of a repetition of the unauthorized invasion of Israelis into Turkish airspace (as was the case in 2007 when the Syrian nuclear reactor was successfully bombed by the IDF). Such an incident will obviously lead to a diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Tel Aviv. Turkey is unlikely to be sincerely ready to engage in a dialogue with Israel on military-political issues, given the Israelis ' active support of Kurdish nationalism.

Apparently, the United States understands the importance of taking preventive steps, not waiting for Turkey to receive Russian air defense assets and integrate them into the actively developing navy and amphibious power projection capabilities. According to Washington, the transformation of the mechanism of economic cooperation between Greece, Cyprus and Israel into a system of mutual security guarantees will serve as a deterrent for Turkey.

The start of the exploration of natural gas reserves by the Turkish vessels in the disputed waters of the Mediterranean provoked criticism not only from Greece, Cyprus and the EU, but also from the United States as well. It seems that Turkey does not intend to wait for the resolution of the Cyprus issue, on which the demarcation of international maritime borders depends.

Russian S-400 air defense systems can give Turkey the necessary confidence in defending its national interests. The reason for the disagreements between Washington and Ankara over Russian air defense systems lies not in the technical details as such, but in the growing mistrust between the two NATO allies who are not ready today to share influence in the region. Against the background of the weakening of the combat potential of the Turkish Air Force, subjected to large-scale purges after the attempted coup in July 2016, Russian air defense systems capable of closing most of Turkey’s exclusive economic zone in the Mediterranean Sea can significantly strengthen Ankara’s position.

Obviously, Russia, as one of the world's leading exporters of weapons, should carefully monitor that economic transactions do not undermine the existing foundations of military-strategic parity in the region. In such an important matter, it is necessary to know the buyer by sight: to understand his long-term political plans well and to have guarantees that the weapon will not be used against the core interests of Russia itself anywhere.

Further reading:


Multi-dimensional analysis of Russian-Turkish relations

With ongoing debates on Russian-made S-400 deliveries to Turkey, fate of continuing cooperation of Russia, Turkey and Iran in Syria and future of Ankara’s relations with the European Union and NATO, it is high time to make an honest review of Russian-Turkish relations, define weaknesses of bilateral cooperation and try to sketch a framework for a better future. Inspection of historical legacy and nature of current ties may be of big value for those who want to grasp contours of common future. Analysis of existing political constellations in both countries, study of actors who shape or strive to shape bilateral relations and investigation of today’s cases of regional cooperation between Turkey and Russia may further contribute to explaining trajectory of bilateral relations.

Historical background

During the first years of the Russia–Turkey relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union were defined by views of leaderships that were formed during the Cold war era. In the aftermath of the Independence War, Kemalist regime viewed its ties with the Soviet Union as a political alternative for Ankara's relations with the European countries. The balanced approach in cooperation with the Soviets was gradually complicated by Moscow's insistence upon Ataturk to redesign Turkey’s political regime according to the socialist principles. Left-leaning members of the Kemalist establishment came to support this idea.

Relations with Moscow were further marred after 1945 with the USSR threatening to reconsider the Straits regime and change Turkey’s eastern borders. Later, Soviet officials in later did confirm that Stalin's insistence was a primary reason for Turkey's decision to ally itself with Western powers. The Soviet Union interpreted Turkish participation in the Marshall plan, membership in the NATO under the Eisenhower Doctrine were as a further step to get security guarantees in face of the Soviet threats. On the other hand, it also prompted Moscow to consider Turkey’s foreign policy as being to a large extent defined by the NATO strategic plans rather than national interests.

The crisis in Turkey’s relations with its traditional allies over the Cyprus issue in 1964 and later in 1974 showed the Soviets that Turkey was increasingly diverging from the western line. The Soviets saw this situation as an opportunity to relaunch contacts with Ankara. From the mid 1970-s, the relations between the USSR and Turkey started gaining their own logic and that was largely expressed in trade, gas, and technology exchange cooperation. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Moscow's support for the Workers' Party of Kurdistan, on the other hand, didn't allow these improvements to gain larger potency.

Gradual transformation from competition to cooperation

It is against this background that bilateral relations were developing in the 1990s. Political elites in both countries were still thinking in terms of bipolar confrontation and felt a lot of distrust towards each other. On the other hand, both countries were experiencing profound difficulty in finding their places in a new world defined by instability around their borders and lack of acceptable set of rules of global political engagement.

Areas that Russian elites viewed as Russia's traditional sphere of influence were witnessing increased involvement of Western and global players. Growing instability in the Caucasus, Central Asia, the Balkans did not allow both countries to reshape their perception of each other and find a common ground. Relations were further complicated by the fact that Russia perceived Turkey as a tool in the hands of Western powers to minimize Russian presence.

With regard to the Caucasus and Central Asia, Turkey had very good potential to become a driver of positive political and economic changes. With the fall of the Soviet Union and collapse of bipolar competition Turkey lost its strategic importance in the Western eyes and this fact made Turkish elites look for areas where Turkey could be again an important ally.

By the 1990s it was evident that the countries’ elites were gradually moving from confrontation and competition, concentrating on areas that were mutually benefiting. Two points should be stressed here: this decision was a result of political will and had non-partisan character meaning that this approach enjoyed legitimacy among broader groups of political elites. Secondly, problematic areas in bilateral relations were not resolved or given increased attention but rather mitigated and pushed from the agenda.

Since the later years of the Cold war, certain areas have been pushing both countries to more cooperation and trust. These areas became relevant in the Russia–Turkey relations as well. Trade agreements on gas were a primary area where both countries had a chance to prove themselves as reliable partners. For Turkey, it was important to get stable contracts on gas deliveries for its growing economy during 1990s. For Russia, it was important to have Turkey as a reliable transit partner for its gas supplies to the European markets.

Economic cooperation and increasing mutual interdependence stimulated contacts in other areas, including construction. Turkish companies became especially famous in Russia for their road building technologies, and Russian companies were welcomed in Turkey due to their know-hows in building of large infrastructure objects like factories, dams, channels, or nuclear plants. Further areas included production and manufacture facilities in Russia, especially in culturally affiliated republics like Tatarstan.

Political leadership

It is important to note that since 2000s cooperation in these areas didn’t lead to increasing influence or effectiveness of lobbying among economic groups. Many experts point to the considerable control of formal politics over the business in both countries: with exemption big economic projects like Akkuyu NPP or TurkStream gas pipeline, economic and business ties don’t define political agenda between Turkey and Russia, commercial activity heavily dependent on political decisions and rapport. Although, this is less relevant for Turkish case since in Turkish export to Russia dominate goods and products produced by a large number of smaller local producers.

Predominance of political leadership in channelling of the bilateral relations is another dimension. Heads of state in Turkey and Russia are viewed as key actors who define bilateral relations. This also suggests that relations lack deeper institutionalization despite rich scope of agreements signed in the last 15 years: Moscow and Ankara are struggling to bring bilateral relations onto more stable and rigid foundation, which makes relations susceptible to situational politics. The establishment of the High-Level Cooperation Council in 2010, i.e. 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, shows how slow the progress in this direction really is.

The lack of stable institutional base is coupled with the lack of unity in ideological views on a series of issues dealing with global and regional agendas. Turkey’s foreign policy is defined by personal interests of the country’s leadership, who has been trying to consolidate power within close circle of people loyal to Erdogan. Foreign policy decision-making process in both countries is very personalized: even though bilateral relations are not driven by common values and norms, as in the Turkey–NATO relations in their best years, both Moscow and Ankara may pursue personal political gains.

Nevertheless, it is important to underline that principle shift towards more cooperation may have deeper roots than solely the will of political leadership: rapprochement between Turkey and Russia started in 1997–1998, i.e. before Putin and Erdogan came to power. This observation is further confirmed by the fact that during these years both Ankara and Moscow decided to give up on using Chechen and Kurdish issues to pressure each other in other political questions.

Eurasianism and other groups of influence in Russia–Turkey ties

One of the ideological premises that many observers attribute to bilateral cooperation is the idea of Eurasianism. The concept is widely used in discussions on current state and the future of bilateral relations. The analysis of how elites understand Eurasianism in both countries reveals that there are both commonalities and differences. Russian and Turkish elites tend to view Eurasianism as a suitable ideological semantic tool to express their common desire to put their relations on ideational base. Further commonality includes the idea that Eurasian powers are destined to unite in order to challenge the West or at least to resist the pressure from the Western liberal democracies.

At the same time, there are considerable differences in what the elites understand under Eurasianism. In Russian case, Eurasianism was an ideological tool to protect Russian traditional sphere of influence by bringing local societies together under Russia’s guidance. For Turkish elites, primarily among left-leaning anti-imperialist politicians, Eurasianism is a way to challenge Turkey’s overly serious dependence from the West and to seek support from non-Western powers in resolving existing problems. Eurasianism is also popular among some of pan-Turanists and pan-Turkists, who channel their attention to the geographical regions covered by Eurasian ideology.

It can be said that Eurasianism is supported by small part of political elites in Turkey: after the 1990s, Turkey realized that it has a very limited scope of influence in the core of Eurasia, Central Asia and Russia, meaning that Turkey can be a part of Eurasia, but not its leading power.

Another aspect that defines bilateral relations is the attitudes to power and ability to influence regional politics is also. Both Turkey and Russia can be considered as rising powers who want to redefine rules of game of global and regional politics, established after the Cold war largely without much involvement and contribution of the latter two. These rising power demand recognition as rightful players in global politics. With consolidation of political regimes in Turkey and Russia, elites in both countries are becoming increasingly allergic to Western pressure and criticism and, therefore, tend to counter-balance these challenges by improving their own international stance and by developing closer ties with other rising powers.

Still, it is important to emphasize several crucial points. Eurasianists include very different political groups with different understanding of this ideology itself. In Turkey, the label Eurasianist may unite anti-Western and pro-Russian groups. However, this does not imply that being anti-Western automatically refers to being pro-Russian. On the other hand, the group is attractive for left-leaning activists, even though there are aspects of right ideology of pan-Turanism and pan-Turkism in it.

Another important point is a scope of real influence of the Eurasianists. For decades, the group around Perinçek has managed to consolidate around its political platform many influential former military officers and wage successful media campaigns, their influence and, most importantly, access to the decision-making process remains, however, very limited. The fact that this group failed to prevent escalation between Turkey and Russian right after the jet crisis in November 2015 despite all its mediation efforts and alleged contacts with Russian side may indicate their limited influence on politics in Turkey. The influence of this political group may depend on current reforms of the Armed Forces where Turkish government is trying to establish new rules of the game making it harder for the officers to exert their political influence.

Thirdly, it is important to understand why Perinçek group in Turkey is popular today and enjoys benevolence of the ruling party despite its criticism of the current Turkish foreign policy and domestic policies of the AKP. One way to answer this question is to consider assumption that AKP doesn’t attach to ties with Russia strategic importance, using it merely as an instrument, implying that today’s rapprochement is driven by current international conditions where Turkey is experiencing lack of dialogue with its Western partners and, thus, feels increasingly isolated. On the other hand, it is fair to say as well, that Erdogan may be allowing the Perinçek group as much freedom mainly to communicate to the Russians red lines of cooperation that Turkey may have in many areas of mutual interests like Kurdish issue in Syria.

It is important to mention the role that other groups are playing in formation of bilateral official dialogue, be it negative or positive. Business circles represent the most potent forces that can in theory exert a level of influence. A number of Turkish construction companies like Ant Yapi, Renaissance Construstion, Enka, Limak, Costa Group are working and successfully expand its presence in the Russian market: in 1972–2016 Turkish companies participated in 8755 projects around the world with total value of USD 325 billion among them 1939 projects worth $64.8 billion in the Russian Federation. Naturally, Turkish companies operating in Russia have gained experience in handling with local political establishment and bureaucracy, sometimes engaging in non-transparent business schemes. This laid a foundation for further ties and connections with politicians on federal level.

But still, even if Turkish companies have limited influence in Russia, they are unlikely to have a say in strategic decision-making process, especially on security related issues. This could be seen from their participation in construction of very profitable objects. Russian business circles, with exception of energy and automobile giants like Gazprom, Rosatom, Gaz, is very poorly represented in Turkey and has very limited experience in dealing with Turkish clients with their own cultural specifics.

Another group that can influence bilateral relations are ethnic minorities. Historically, Turkey hosted refugees and emigrants from Russian Empire, Soviet Union and later Russian Federation. Today, groups like Crimean Tatars, Circassians, North Caucasian diasporas influence public opinion on Russia in Turkey, though their activity is limited due do strict Turkish nationalism and firm grip of current ruling party on media and public demonstrations. These groups may find themselves in the center of new frictions between Russia and Turkey, especially considering the ongoing migration of foreign fighters from Syria back to Turkey and Western Ukraine. Religious groups like South Caucasian Salafist networks still can pose a danger to Russian national security from Turkey thought its presence in Georgia and western Ukraine. Existence of sympathizers to the groups’ cause among Turkish bureaucracy may further complicate Russian-Turkish rapprochement and attempts to strengthen anti-terrorism cooperation.

The role of the West and third countries in dynamics of bilateral relations

Russia and Turkey perceive bilateral cooperation over gas supplies and Akkuyu nuclear plant as almost an ideal platform to improve their negotiating positions vis-à-vis the European Union. For Turkey, better terms for gas deliveries from Russia and Russian assistance in building of the nuclear facilities have direct implications for the long-term economic development plans, as Turkish government is expecting a rise in energy demands. On the other hand, Russia gets stable revenues from its exports to Turkey, a good asset for its budget stability in times of Western sanctions and pressures on domestic economic plans. All of this indicates that economic cooperation contributes to advancement of their negotiating positions via-a-vis Europe and the US.

By the same token, Russia has been using Turkey's support on multiple issues as a very effective asset in its own competition against the NATO. For Russian elites, Turkey's independence from the Western alliance is very important. A number of Turkish experts emphasized the fact that Turkey didn’t join Western sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014.

While both leading actors want to gain more influence in the global politics, this transformation, however, will not come without problems for bilateral relations. Turkish elites seem to have accepted the fact that without considerable Western backing Turkey has very limited room for action in the Central Asia. This approach is further nuanced by claims that Turkey is aware that its relations with Russia are uneven, especially in military and diplomatic terms, therefore, when and where possible, Ankara would like to counteract Russian dominance through soft-balancing, expanding discussions of NATO–Turkey cooperation, for example, in Georgia or Azerbaijan. Russian military build-up in the Black Sea is also causing concerns in Turkey. This claim can be related to the ongoing efforts of the Turkish government to increase navy capacities in territorial waters.

Another interesting point in terms of influence of the third parties in the bilateral relations is the role of the Central Asian leaders in this process. These leaders are forced to mediate between the two because of their political reliance on Russia and cultural affinity to Turkey. There are, however, tendencies in Russian policies to minimize Turkic solidarity with Turkey among Russian Turkic communities.

Informal dimension of bilateral relations

Despite political elites’ vocal support for and visible official efforts to strengthen non-official bilateral ties, connections between private parties, NGOs, and academia exert limited influence on official relations between Russia and Turkey. Primary reason behind this lies in systemic position of civil society in decision-making process in each country. According to experts, scholars, who make research on bilateral relations, often lack necessary linguistic skills. There is still ideological bias in many academic circles, both in Russia and Turkey as well. For example, sometimes, scholars, who write on bilateral relations, do it in a form to confirm their personal, professional, political loyalty to institutions or movements, meaning that the scope and tone of analysis may eventually change according to the agenda. That is why many Turkish or Russian speaking scholar prefer engaging in history and culture studies rather than doing research on current political affairs. There are problems of insufficient funding and institutionalization between academia in Turkey and Russia as well. 

Civil war in Syria

Nowadays, Russia seems to be rediscovering itself as a global power again. Russian elites are eagerly engaged in the Middle East, and state-supported energy and military companies increase their impact in the regional political landscape. On the other hand, Middle East became by the matter of choice an area of foreign policy activism of Turkish elites.The AKP government has been increasing gaining self-confidence in dealing with regional issues, possibly, hoping that cultural and geographical proximity to local population may be translated into real life political and economic gains for Turkey.

Syria was possibly the prime example of recent regional activism of Turkey, but civil war changed this approach with rising instability threatening Turkish security and coming of many new global and regional players in the conflict. The problem for the Russian-Turkish relations is that Syria turned out to be an area where Russian and Turkish interests clashed. But eventually increasing number of challenges transformed foreign policy dynamics in Turkey, and securitization of the process led to re-evalutation of priorities, where closer contacts with Russia became to be seen as one of the channels to enhance security situation on Turkish borders. Moscow positively reacted to Turkish concerns over the PKK/Kurdish issues, seeing them as a legitimate topic of discussions with Turkey.

As far as we can see today, Turkish elites are trying to adapt to new realities by getting used to Russian presence. Watching NATO allies increasingly abandon Ankara, Turkish elites are trying to become more active in broadening areas of cooperation with Russia and Iran. Judging by the lessons from the past, Turkey and Russia are able to find a common solution and acknowledge their corresponding legitimate interests and concerns. Turkey’s cooperation with Russia is a tactical phenomenon that was caused by Western partners’ inability to show solidarity on many occasions and to act against Russia.

Differences over political issues like the fate of Assad’s regime or scope of rights for Kurds may be pushed from the agenda in the mid-term, allowing bilateral cooperation on Syria to be focused on economic matters like reconstruction, trade, energy projects. These are the areas that are important for Russian plans to rebuild Syria and that Turkey can be interested in as well. Still, Turkey would like to keep supporting opposition, because, otherwise it would have to deal with Assad through Russian mediation therefore falling into more dependence on Moscow.


Even though one may witness rapid development of political ties between Turkey and Russia in recent years, relations are not immune to unforeseeable shocks. Heavy accent on political dialogue, political connections and consultations between the governments may be of great importance in general, but at times reveal that it is insufficient for development of full-fledged relations. Today’s cooperation between Moscow and Ankara in Syria serves as a good platform for both to test their political trust and to learn to listen to each other’s concerns, which so far have been largely ignored or pushed out of the agenda. Despite current existing moods in Europe and the United States on Turkey planning to leave the NATO, analysis of historical legacy and present situation in the world suggest that Turkey neither would prefer nor would afford to leave the Western security and political structures. On the other hand, Turkey’s rapprochement with the West would not be necessarily against interests of Russia. Interconnectedness of Turkey with Europe and USA may be of good utility for Russian global foreign policy. Current positive dialogue, however, should be used to include non-state non-official players and give them space to direct and shape bilateral relations. Their presence and contribution would be a best guarantee against political fluctuations which we will definitely witness in the future.

Originally published by Russian International Affairs Council

Further reading


The emerging diplomatic Crimea-Cyprus highway

More than four years ago, Russia unilaterally imposed its sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula. During these four years, Ukraine has been trying to challenge the Russian presence in Crimea by lobbying in European capitals for stricter sanctions against Moscow. There are few signs showing that Crimean sanctions are to be abolished any time soon. Multiple votes in the UN General Assembly show that the international community largely holds negative views on the Russian presence in Crimea. This, however, also shows how Russian diplomatic efforts to legitimize its actions failed to change that international climate.

On the background of these developments, Turkey has been demonstrating a rather distinct position on the issue. With its large Crimean Tatar diaspora, the Turkish position in the European public has been perceived as an indication to the situation in the peninsula. Turkish officials, despite presently having functional cooperation on other issues like Syria or energy related projects, openly described the Russian presence in Crimea as an occupation. Moreover, the Turkish government has been promising to continue its support of the Crimean Tatar’s rights.

Nevertheless, Turkey, with all its criticism of Russia, didn’t join European sanctions once Crimea was reincorporated into the Russian Federation as a result of the March referendum in 2014. Ankara successfully managed to position itself as an approachable mediator between Russia and Ukraine, a case that the release from Russian jail in November 2017 of two Crimean Tatar activists, Ilmi Umerov and Ahtem Chiygoz, may suggest.

The Russian Foreign Ministry may have already realized that any efforts to make the world acknowledge facts on the ground in Crimea after 2014 would necessarily involve working closer with Turkey. This may explain why the attention of Russian officials has increasingly been focused on ways to nurture Turkey-located Crimean Tatar civil groups, which would advocate for the Russian agenda on the issue.

Another direction of efforts seems to involve closer contacts with nationalist think tanks. Such dialogue can potentially create a positive agenda where Russia could list concerns of the nationalists regarding the status of the Crimean Tatars. Finally, Moscow can try to attract more private Turkish investments to Crimea by granting an exclusive status to Turkish business. It is worth remembering that it is a Turkish businessman residing in Russia who initiated a series of reconciliatory steps, which eventually led to restoration of dialogue between Ankara and Moscow after the jet crisis.

Yet, attempts to sway Turkey can’t be limited to regional affairs in Crimea alone. Diplomatic advances can be seen in other direction as well. One can say that Russia may have cracked the Turkey code: Moscow tries to embed Ankara into arrangement of agreements on multiple important questions, where any step away in one area may have implications in other areas.

For Russia’s Crimean dossier, this arrangement would mean Turkey will stay within the scope of predictability while its behavior could be increasingly prone to restraint. Cooperation between Ankara and Moscow in Syria presents two good examples of how a web of agreements may exert a constraining effect on Turkey. Russia has brought Turkey into a row of agreements and given it reasonable concessions. Now Turkey, once it decides to openly challenge Russian interests in Syria, may face an escalation of multiple fronts in Idlib, the Kurdish issue and anti-Turkish sentiments in the Arab world.

By the same token, Russia may try to use the Cyprus issue to induce Turkey to make concessions over Crimea. Russia has been witnessing how Turkey is increasingly isolated by regional powers on the issue of gas exploration, in violation of its own sovereign rights and the rights of the Turkish-Cypriot community.

Vocal opposition of the Russian Foreign Ministry to US attempts to turn Cyprus into another military base in the region may send a strong signal of support to Turkish nationalists within the political and military establishment. Russian officials mention Cyprus issues when making an analogy to the Crimean problem, thus trying to put Turkey within the same camp and turn in its unwilling ally, by speaking the language every Turk understands.

Finally, the call of Russian diplomatic officials to carry out gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean with respect to all parties involved suggests that Moscow will become increasingly involved in regional affairs. Expansion of Russian military presence in Syria will add yet another dimension to bilateral ties between Moscow and Ankara, which is having troubles diplomatically asserting its rights over gas projects.

Further reading


Why Erdogan loses his own party in local elections

The presidential system built by Erdoğan failed to become a universal solution to all Turkey's problems as was initially promised by its pundits. It did not help the authorities to work out a clear plan to deal with the economic crisis and other issues, instead it only facilitated further concentration of the entire political process on Erdoğan's figure, resulting in bleeding out of its own ruling party and depriving it of its independence.

Local elections, especially in unitary states, rarely attract much attention, but those that will take place on March 31 in Turkey are a clear exception. The strong polarization of public life in combination with the economic crisis is doomed to make any voting in this country politically important. Therefore, even local elections, which are supposed to deal with local issues of urban and municipal life, in today's Turkey have become a full-scale plebiscite about the political course of the Turkish President.

Economic problems and the growing influence of nationalists make Erdogan go to the people and fight for the result: the experience of past decades shows that the loss of majority of votes in municipal elections by a ruling party is fraught with bigger defeats in the future and at higher levels. But even before the vote, it became clear that this time Erdogan could be left without his own party. It managed to lose both a clear political platform, and an understandable social idea, and, finally, a renewed identity — all of which was eclipsed the cult of the president’s personality. The zenith of Erdoğan’s personal power turned out to be a sunset for his own Justice and Development Party.

Economic success has always been the trump card of the Islamist Justice and Development Party. The growth of the country's welfare since the Islamists came to power in 2002 has meant a stable level of political support. The fall of the lira at the end of 2018 and the growing problems in many sectors of the economy have badly tarnished the image of the party.

Attempts to reverse this trend have so far given the opposite effect. For example, the authorities recently decided to fight rising food prices, opening kiosks in Ankara and Istanbul, where fruits and vegetables are sold at low subsidized prices. In one hand, you can be released no more than 3 kg of vegetables of each type, if, of course, you can stand for several hours in the queue.

It was suggested that cheap vegetables would raise the popularity of the ruling party, but the effect was the opposite. The type of long queues for basic products only highlighted economic problems and high inflation, which over the year  exceeded 30%. Rising prices for fuel and imported fertilizers are forcing Turkish farmers to raise selling prices. But the government prefers to accuse the mafia of middlemen and retailers of artificially high prices. Erdogan speaks of "vegetable terrorists" and promises to fight them with the toughest methods.

Severe punishment is promised to those who, with their research, are destroying the idyll in the banking sector in Turkey. Agency banking regulation and supervision is going to launch an investigation against JPMorgan for published before the election report that the budget deficit is fraught with problems in the Turkish state-owned banks. It also said that the Turkish authorities themselves undermine financial stability in the country by handing out cheap loans to unreliable companies before the elections.

Now JPMorgan in Turkey is accused of undermining the reputation of local banks and provoking volatility in the country's financial market. At the same time, the authorities surprisingly disregard the verbal interventions of President Erdogan, which harm the Turkish financial sector much more than any international reports. For example, in February, Erdogan announced that he intended to transfer part of İş Bankası shares to the Treasury, which immediately brought down quotes of one of the largest private banks in Turkey.

In order to bring down the wave of economic negatives, the Turkish authorities are trying to limit access to objective information about the situation in the country. The first blow was delivered to foreign media - it became much harder for their correspondents to get accreditation in Turkey.

The second blow fell on non-governmental organizations and civil society activists, who were already in a half-dead state. The trial of the well-known entrepreneur and patron of the arts Osman Kavala, who is accused of trying to overthrow the government during the protests in Gezi Park in the summer of 2013, should diminish the enthusiasm of everyone who wants to be active today. Even if the authorities fail to close you, you will spend years behind bars waiting for a court decision.

Finally, public opinion research agencies came under Erdoğan’s criticism . The president’s appeal to ignore their reports and polls surprised many - until recently Erdogan and his party worked closely with similar firms and even took the results of research into account when making decisions.

But this love was doomed to live only as long as it was mutual. Erdoğan not without purpose accuses sociological agencies of bias and manipulation of data - most polls clearly show the low ratings of candidates from the coalition of the ruling party and nationalists in the major cities of the country.

In order to bring down the focus of the campaign from economic problems, the authorities are trying to create an atmosphere of alarm and imminent catastrophe in the country. It seems that the elections are only local, but they are accompanied by constant accompaniment from statements that Turkey is about to fall apart and cease to exist as an independent state.

The candidate for mayor of Ankara from the ruling party, Mehmet Özkhaseki, as if feeling that Erdoğan’s lengthy statements need specifics, says that the threat from Turkey comes from those who want to divide Turkish society far and wide, geographically and politically, into right and left, into the Turks and the Kurds. It is clear that he is referring to the Turkish opposition, but in fact the radical statements that most split the Turkish society are made by President Erdogan. He openly accuses the Kurdish Peoples Democracy Party of terrorism, and its supporters of sympathizing with the terrorist organization, which is more than 10% of Turkish voters.

The situation in large cities for the ruling party is especially difficult, which pushes Erdogan to more and more radical methods. In the course are open threats to opposition candidates: the Kurds are promised to remove the elected heads of municipalities suspected of having links with terrorist organizations, and replace them with appointed managers from the center. Even more noise was made by Erdoğan’s threats to put behind bars the leader of the opposition nationalist Good Party Meral Akşener, who was able to split a significant number of supporters from the ruling coalition. The media close to the authorities urge to hang the leader of the main opposition Republican People's Party.

The Turkish opposition has learned from past elections. The largest opposition parties were able to nominate in a number of large cities single candidates within the framework of the National Alliance. They deliberately do not enter into a war of words with Erdogan, who is famous for his oratorical abilities and can crush anyone, especially when there is a colossal propaganda apparatus from controlled media on his side. Instead, the opposition has consistently placed the main emphasis on economic problems, employment, infrastructure development and improvement.

Erdogan has ruled Turkey for many years, but for the first time, he was so actively involved in the campaign before the local elections, ignoring the provision of the Constitution on the neutrality of the head of state. This suggests that from the once mighty Justice and Development Party, where Erdogan was only one of the leaders, now there is little left. Regardless of what the results of the local elections will be, the election campaign has already shown that an increasingly amorphous ruling party did not have any bright candidates or an attractive program. Erdoğan's sun eclipsed the movement, thanks to which he once came to power.

Despite the cooperation, the opposition forces could not offer a credible alternative, but the Justice and Development Party also stopped playing the role of an inclusive movement capable of representing various social strata. The resulting void is so tangible that the authorities are seriously worried by rumors that former prominent leaders of the ruling party, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and former President Abdullah Gül, may lead a new conservative party. Both politicians have considerable sociopolitical weight in Turkey, so Erdogan has already covertly accused his former comrades in betraying ideals and apostasy.

The presidential system built by Erdogan did not become for Turkey a universal solution to all problems. It did not help the authorities to develop a coherent plan for dealing with the economic crisis and other problems, but only concentrated the entire political life on Erdoğan’s figure, bleeding the ruling party and finally depriving it of its independence.

This article was originally published in Russian by the Moscow Center of Carnegie Foundation

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