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Between “Coopetition” and Resilience: Russia-Turkey Relations in the Context of the Ukraine War

Against the recent Wagner mutiny in Russia and the presidential elections in Turkey, the future evolution of the Russian-Turkish relationship is challenged through geopolitical realities in Ukraine.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the opening of the Turkstream Natural Gas Pipeline in November 2018 Istanbul.

On June 24, one day after the Russian state-funded private military company Wagner Group almost staged a rebellion against Vladimir Putin, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called his counterpart to offer unconditional support and mediation with Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin. Erdoğan’s gesture reflected not only the depth and breadth of the relationship between Russia and Turkey but also the personal bond between the two leaders. In light of the ongoing war in Ukraine, and Erdoğan’s victory in last June’s elections, two questions should chiefly occupy policymakers in the West: what is the way forward in the relationship between Russia and Turkey? And to what extent does the Ukraine war create new challenges for Russian-Turkish cooperation?

Turkey remains Russia’s main trading partner in the Middle East and North Africa region, but it is also a historical rival. Interestingly, relation between Russia and Turkey, which is often described as “cooperative competition”, is mostly transactional. These relations unfold across a wide array of crises, from North Africa to the South Caucasus, where Moscow and Ankara do not always see eye to eye. Russia’s war in Ukraine has opened a new arena for Turkish-Russian “coopetition”, with the former attempting to mediate between the belligerents all the while supplying UAVs to Ukraine and refusing to impose sanctions against Russia. Both partners have a shared interest in not severing their relationship despite profound differences on many issues, including in Syria, Libya, and the contested Nagorno-Karabakh area in South Caucasus. They can rely on the resilience of their bilateral links, which went through a deep crisis in 2015 after the Turkish Air Force downed a Russian jet in Syrian airspace, followed by several months of confrontation. While the US factor plays a significant role in structuring Russia-Turkey relations, the dialogue between Moscow and Ankara tends to prioritize their respective national interests and put aside any form of ideology. 

Bilateral Trade Supported by Structural Projects

Turkey has been Russia’s primary trading partner in the MENA region for the last two decades. Bilateral trade averaged $26.8 billion annually from 2008 to 2021, with a maximum of $33.6 billion last year. While 2022 marked a turning point, Russia-Turkey commerce soared to a new high, reaching a record $61.4 billion, according to the Russian Customs Federal Service database. Ankara ranks second behind Beijing among Moscow’s main foreign trade partners. In the Middle East, Turkey is Moscow’s biggest commercial partner, far ahead of Algeria with $3 billion of bilateral trade, Egypt with $6 billion, and the UAE with $9 billion in 2021-2022. The reason for this 84 percent increase in bilateral trade last year is the dramatic collapse of Russian-European trade against the backdrop of Western sanctions against Russia. Germany, once Russia’s main EU trading partner, saw its export decrease by 60 percent during the first four months of 2023 compared to 2021.

2012

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

2022

34,278

32,756

31,581

23,373

15,743

21,604.1

25,708

26,034

21,041

33,584.7

61,640

Scroll Right

Volume of Russia-Turkey trade ($ mln) from 2012 to 2022. Source: Russian Customs Federal Service database.

Since February last year, Turkey has become a route for parallel imports to Russia as well as a key logistical hub for inbound and outbound goods traded between Russia and foreign partners, via air and sea routes. In short, in 2022 Russia has traded with Turkey as much as with the entire MENA region in 2021, whereas the aggregate balance of the bilateral trade from 2008 to 2022 amounts to $437.7 billion.

 graph1

Variation of Russia’s trade ($ mln) with Turkey and the MENA region from 2008 to 2022. Source: author’s research based on Russia’s Customs Federal Service database

This flourishing commercial partnership is supported by structural joint projects, particularly in the energy space. In 2020, Moscow and Ankara launched TurkStream, a new gas project with a 930-kilometer pipeline and an overall capacity of 31.5 billion cubic meters per year. Stretching across the Black Sea, Moscow conceptualized this pipeline as a solution to reduce its reliance on Ukrainian routes for its gas shipment to European clients. From Ankara’s perspective, this gas is aimed at supporting the growth of the Turkish economy. The share of total Turkish energy consumption of Russian gas has reached 30 percent in 2022, with Russia still supplying 40 percent of gas consumed in Turkey in 2022 (down from 45 percent in 2021). 

The second key project is the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu by Russia’s civil nuclear operator Rosatom. In April 2023, the first core fuel arrived on the site of this $25 billion project. Until the war, Russia and Turkey also developed structural technical-military cooperation after Ankara had bought S-400 anti-air systems from Moscow (a $2,5 billion contract signed in late 2017), much to Washington’s dismay. Following this contract, the US expelled Turkey from the F-35 program.

The scope of the strategic cooperation in the energy realm could soon be widened since both partners work on a projected regional gas hub on Turkey’s Black Sea shore. Vladimir Putin floated the idea of setting up this new gas hub in October 2022, soon after the sabotage of Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines. From October 2022 onward, Gazprom and the Turkish energy operator Botas developed their blueprints, with Gazprom formally presenting its conception of the gas hub to its Turkish partners in June. Around that time, the former Turkish Minister of Energy Fatih Dönmez stated that the hub would appear within a year. Should it take place, this energy infrastructure is set to boost Ankara’s imports of Russian gas in order to reexport part of it to foreign consumers. According to some studies, it could bringAnkara $30 to $35 billion a year of additional income while providing Turkey with powerful geopolitical leverage. 

Finally, another structural axis of Russian-Turkish economic links is tourism. Russian tourists remain a key source of income for the Turkish economy. Last year, Russian tourists ranked second with 5.2 million people visiting Turkey, behind the Germans with 5.6 million tourists. Since tourism accounts for an estimated 11 to 15 percent of Turkish GDP, tourism from Russia remains a key factor in bilateral relations. Moreover 100,000 Russians were granted a residence permit by the Turkish authorities last year, accounting for the first contingent of foreign residents in Turkey (25 percent), ahead of the Ukrainians (32,000). Accordingly, Turkish house sales jumped last year with the Russians tripling their home purchase- across the country.

The Geopolitics of Russia-Turkey Relations

In 2022, Putin and Erdoğan met physically or virtually nineteen times. During their latest call on 24 June, Erdoğan expressed support for Putin while Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin staged a mutiny in Russia. This talk echoed the one from July 2016, when Putin supported Erdoğan in the context of an aborted coup in Turkey. Erdoğan is one of the world leaders with whom Putin talks the most, illustrating the range of issues they have to deal with to avoid a collision of their respective interests. From North Africa to the South Caucasus, their “coopetition” shows a shared willingness not to escalate, while their trade partnership plays the role of a safety net. Having gone through multiple stress tests during the 2010s, mostly in Syria, bilateral ties remain resilient. It is clear that Ankara and Moscow do not want to see their overall relationship being held hostage by a local or regional crisis. 

A wide array of actors from the Russian foreign policy and security establishment deal with Turkey. The military channel is omnipresent and directly tied to the Syrian and, to a lesser extent, the Libyan theatre of operations. Since March 2020, joint military patrols were regularly held in northern Syria. Last January, the then-Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar stated that these joint patrols could be expanded “as part of an effort to bring peace to the region”. The military channel is also essential to the technical arrangements of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which includes a security corridor across the Black Sea and inspections of tankers by Turkey. 

Another key Russian actor is the presidential administration, whose role is specifically connected to the political process in Syria. President Putin’s special envoy Aleksandr Lavrentiev has overseen the relations with Turkey and Iran, and by extension other regional actors such as Egypt, and Saudi Arabia in the context of the political settlement of the Syrian crisis. Since the start of the Ukraine War, Russia has opened another channel towards Turkey. The speaker of Russia’s parliament Viatcheslav Volodin was twice dispatched to Ankara where he met with President Erdoğan. One can assume that Volodin’s role regarding Turkey potentially goes beyond parliamentary diplomacy and embodies a new channel of communication between the two administrations. Finally, Russia’s foreign ministry seems to play a purely technical role in the relationship, having much less political space because of the already numerous Russian actors involved in the bilateral relationship. 

In Syria, Moscow has long advocated and supported diplomatic normalization between Damascus and its neighbors since the end of the active phase of the conflict. In the context of the war in Ukraine, Moscow needs even more stability in Syria. The normalization of the relations since 2018 between Syria and the Gulf monarchies has this year enabled the reintegration of Syria into the Arab League and the subsequent visit of Bashar al-Assad to Saudi Arabia in May. 

The next step, in the Kremlin’s view, is to facilitate a normalization between Turkey and Syria to pave the way for a political settlement of the decade-long crisis. This process is promoted and supported not only by Russia but also by Iran. Two rounds of discussions between the ministers of defence and the heads of security services of Russia, Turkey, Iran, and Syria already took place. The respective foreign ministers and their deputies also met and, according to Aleksandr Lavrentiev, a “road map” for the resumption of official relations is being considered. However, there are solid obstacles to normalization between Damascus and Ankara, such as questions of the return of the six million Syrian refugees settled in Turkey, the Turkish military presence in northern Syria, and the activities of Kurdish militias. With President Erdoğan is looking towards the March 2024 local elections, the issue of the Syrian refugees remains a thorny question in the Turkish domestic scene. In order to boost its popularity in key cities where his AK Parti lost,Erdoğan could instrumentalize the issue of the normalization with Syria and the topic of the return of the refugees in order to boost his popularity.

The other key area for Moscow and Ankara is the Black Sea, where both actors have established their own de facto rules since 1991. In February 2022, Turkey invoked articles 19 and 21 of the Montreux Convention of 1936 and closed down the Turkish Straits to warships. As long as the conflict remains in an active phase in Ukraine, Ankara is unlikely to reopen the Straits to military vessels. Whereas NATO cannot dispatch naval units to the Black Sea, the Russian Navy cannot count on the Black Sea Fleet vessels and infrastructures to sustain its Mediterranean naval squadron. 

Russian and Turkish interests are set to collide more seriously in the South Caucasus, in Central Asia, and possibly, in Moldova. In Nagorno-Karabakh, after the 2020 war, competing international corridor projects are at stake. While Moscow has been pushing the North-South corridor with Azerbaijan and Iran, Turkey has embarked on an East-West corridor project linking Azerbaijan to the Mediterranean, possibly through Armenia. In Central Asia, Turkey has presented itself as a security provider through arms exports, capitalizing on its key support to Baku’s military victory in 2020. Kyrgyzstan bought last year a batch of attack drones in 2022 and 2023, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute database. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan also turned to Ankara to buy attack drones in 2022 and 2023. Turkey has relied heavily on the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) to expand its grip on the region. Its political and military foothold in Azerbaijan is set to help Turkey to expand its sphere of influence in Central Asia. In order to offset Turkey’s growing influence on its southern flank, the Kremlin has expanded its commercial and security partnership with Iran. Finally, in Moldova, one cannot exclude that Ankara will eventually offer to supply weapons to Kishinev, as it did elsewhere in the post-Soviet arena.  

Outlook on the Russian-Turkish Relationship

Russia and Turkey are unlikely to enter into direct confrontation anytime soon. The success of the modus vivendi of these two powers largely depends on the regular direct contact between the two presidents. This is underpinned by the weight of Russia in the Turkish economy, and Turkey’s enhanced logistical role as a hub for energy, people, and commerce. Ankara, therefore, is likely to continue to maintain the delicate balance it has successfully forged since February 2022 between Russia and the West. This position consisted in presenting itself as a mediator in the failed peace talks between Russia and Ukraine in Istanbul in March 2022, while supplying weapons to Ukraine and not taking any sanctions against Russia.

In the Middle East, the shared neighbourhood of the two powers is at the core of Turkish and Russian competing interests. In Syria, Moscow will pursue the goal of normalization, bolstered by recent developments between Syria and its Arab neighbors. Turkey is set to expand its sphere of influence in the post-Soviet arena, mainly in the South Caucasus and in Central Asia, to the detriment of Moscow. From Moscow’s perspective, the situation remains manageable since Russia and Turkey have developed an ability to deal with each other in difficult contexts such as Libya and Syria. In parallel, the Kremlin has expanded its commercial and security partnership with Iran to offset Turkey’s growing influence on its southern flank. 

Moscow and Ankara are set to pursue their “cooperative competition” in the new paradigm created by the war in Ukraine. Since 24 February 2022, their ties have adapted remarkably well to the new geopolitical reality which has, in turn, reinforced their resilience. The architecture of their relationship allows them to defuse most of the potential bilateral crises they could face while extracting concessions from each other. However, it remains to be seen whether this modus vivendi can survive beyond Erdoğan’s and Putin’s rule.

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