To characterize Russian-Turkish relations as complex would be an understatement. In economic and diplomatic relations Russia’s and Turkey’s position remain far apart, but currently circumstances are forcing pragmatic cooperation at various levels nevertheless. The only question is how long that cooperation will continue before centrifugal sources fragment it, particularly their growing rift over Syria and Iraq, and the newly strengthened hand of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan following Sunday’s election victory.
On the PR side, on September 23 President Erdoğan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. A photo-op was provided when the pair opened Moscow’s largest mosque, capable to holding 10,000 faithful.
Less than a month later, a glimpse into the strains in the relationship was provided on October 15 by Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioğlu, who said of Russia’s actions in Syria, “Russia has made a big mistake. What it has been doing will not bring any good other than delaying Syria’s transition period and its possibility of getting out of this turmoil. We will continue our warnings on this issue.” Even as Russia ramps up its Middle East presence, Turkey remains consistent in its efforts to remove Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Ever since November 2011, Turkey has been one of the most consistent supporters of the revolutionary changes unleashed in the Middle East by the “Arab Spring,” actively supporting “regime change” in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, even as Russia voices its support for strengthening state structures as the only alternative to chaos and rising terrorism.
What binds the two in a binary embrace is energy, but here too, their paths increasingly diverge. Turkey, even though remaining heavily reliant on Russia, is becoming an increasingly important transit hub for oil and natural gas supplies not only from Russia, but Central Asia and the Middle East, destined for Europe and other Atlantic markets. Turkey has a strategic role in natural gas transit because of its position between Europe, the world’s second-largest natural gas market and the massive natural gas reserves of both the Caspian and the Middle East.
Russia views Turkey as both a major export market and home to one of the world’s busiest maritime chokepoints, the Turkish Straits, over which Turkey has sovereignty and through which almost three million barrels per day transited in 2013.
In 2014 Turkey imported 1.7 trillion cubic feet (tcf) of natural gas, accounting for 99 percent of Turkey’s total natural gas supply.19 Through liquefied natural gas (LNG) tanker shipments and multiple pipelines, Turkey has a reasonably diversified supply mix. Gazprom however remains Turkey’s largest single supplier, in 2014 accounting for 57 percent of Turkey’s total natural gas supply and making Turkey is Gazprom’s second-largest export market for natural gas after Germany. Several years ago, supply and demand led Russia and Turkey to draw up plans for a new Black Sea subsea pipeline, dubbed Turkish Stream.
Much has shifted in the energy export market in the past year, beyond lower prices. The Turkish Stream gas pipeline project remains important for Russia, but it is no longer essential, as the country now has an alternative northern supply route for its gas exports to Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Center for the Study of Central Asia and Caucasus of the Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow researcher Stanislav Pritchin observed, “If earlier, the construction of the Turkish Stream was in fact the only possible way to the European market for Russia bypassing Ukraine, now there is an investment agreement on construction of the second stage of the Nord Stream with the participation of major European companies.”
In reality, both an upgraded Nord Stream and Turkish Stream represent Gazprom’s efforts to lock in European and Turkish exports at a time of growing West-East confrontation over Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea. Impacting this are both the European Union and Turkey’s efforts to diversify their natgas sources, with the continuing development of the Caspian Basin and Iran’s imminent reentry into the global hydrocarbon market providing future alternatives to Gazprom.
During the August Eastern Economic Forum Gazprom signed an agreement with the New European Pipeline AG joint design company for collaboration on creating a “Nord Stream-2” pipeline, envisaged as two subsea Baltic pipelines with a total capacity of 55 billion cubic meters (bcm) stretching from Russia’s coastline to Germany. Besides Gazprom, the joint design company’s shareholders will include E.On, Shell, OMV, BASF/Wintershall and Engie, formerly GdF Suez.
The Turkish media reported that Erdoğan carried proposals on Turkish Stream revisions to Moscow, but reportedly that the construction of Turkish Stream and discounts requested for Russian gas imports would be discussed as two separate issues during the visit.
The Turkish government sees Turkish Stream pricing and construction issues as inextricably linked. The Turkish Stream project as first proposed involves the construction of four separate gas pipelines, each with a capacity of 15.75 billion bcm, one of which would be dedicated solely to the Turkish market, with the remaining 47.25 bcm sent to Turkey’s border with Greece, where a gas hub was planned to be located.
But politics and economic turmoil derailed the grandiose project, leading Gazprom in early August to scale back Turkish Stream by abandoning the third and fourth pipelines, reportedly because of the “absence of a key agreement on granting Ankara a discount on Russian gas.” Little is likely to be resolved during Erdoğan’s visit, particularly as Nord Stream-2 will be completed before any countervailing Turkish projects, strengthening Moscow’s hands in negotiations.
In the diplomatic sphere, Russia has also scored a quiet triumph over Turkish foreign policy by not only continuing its support for embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and upgrading its military presence in Syria, but forging a tacit agreement with the Obama administration to coordinate military efforts against the Islamic State, which for the past two years Russia has maintained is a greater regional threat than al-Assad’s regime. It is now understood from Brussels to Washington that that al-Assad is going to remain in place for the foreseeable future thanks to IS excesses. Despite Russian and U.S. rivalry in a seemingly new Cold War, Washington and Moscow’s determination that the radical Islamist groups not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East are now the “essential common enemy” is a harbinger of the new regional paradigm.
This attitude shift represents a crushing policy defeat for Erdoğan, who has had the overarching objective for the past four years of assisting efforts to overthrow al-Assad. Ankara simply doesn’t have the diplomatic firepower to revise this realpolitik, which has not only left Turkey diplomatically isolated, but flooded with more than two million Syrian refugees.
Not that the Turkish government is reconciled to the new reality of a Russia-U.S. rapprochement over Syria. On September 22 Sinirlioğlu said, “Can there be any partnership with al-Assad in seeking a solution to the crisis in Syria? Al-Assad is the fundamental cause of this problem. A tyrannical dictator who has launched a war against his own people cannot be a part of a political solution in any way. It is not possible in any way for this to happen.”
Turkey has one hardball card left to play in the military sphere. Turkey has the upper hand, not only controlling the Turkish Straits but being a NATO member, allowing since March 2014 flotillas of NATO warships to enter the Black Sea in a show of solidarity with Ukraine while simultaneously rattling the maritime saber at Putin. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet can only access the Mediterranean. Turkey has denied Russian resupply flight to Syria through its airspace, a situation that is unlikely to change soon. Aerial incidents arising from Russian military operations in Syria have further stressed bilateral relations, as Russian air force planes consecutively violated Turkish air space on October 3 and 4, earning a diplomatic rebuke from Ankara and an apology from Moscow. On the diplomatic front, the Turkish government is infuriated that Russia does not recognize either the PKK or Syria’s PYD Kurdish organizations as terrorist.
Turkey has fought more wars with Russia in the past four hundred years than any other nation – eleven. While another armed conflict between the pair seems unlikely for the moment, differing diplomatic and economic policies between Russia and Turkey seem to be producing a new regional mini “Cold War” that grows frostier each day, despite fraternal photo-ops, while differing military operations in Syria and Iraq are increasing tensions and producing increased chances of inadvertent military confrontation.
Erdoğan’s apparent victory in the November 1 elections will likely only strengthen his belief that his Syrian policies are correct, which can only strain further the increasingly wobbly Moscow-Ankara “axis of convenience.”