Turkey, being sandwiched between the US and Russia, is in quite a complicated situation that, on the one hand, greatly troubles its foreign policy, but on the other gives it a chance to profit from the rivalry between Washington and Moscow.
The current Turkey crisis is just another chapter in the long history of the US and Russia’s troubled relationship. What Turkey is undergoing is one of the consequences of the US dealing with global problems passively during the Obama administration, which kept things pending amid Turkish maneuvers to balance out its strategy with Russia and America.
Now, the US under President Donald Trump is in a volatile period vis-a-vis foreign policy, as Washington has had problems with many world capitals. Although the recent conflict between Ankara and Washington appears to be a dispute over an imprisoned priest, the real issue dates back to the Obama era, when the US was dealing with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and the Gulen movement at the expense of the government of Turkey. The US administration’s response to the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, turned Ankara toward Russia and China.
Meanwhile, Turkish-Russian relations have gone through multiple stages. The failed coup improved their ties while it aggravated the Turkish-American bond. And, even though the US did not respond to Turkish demands and fears in Syria, Turkey found a way out from American pressure via Russia. The outcome of the Russian-Turkish rapprochement was political agreements and trade-offs on the geography of Syria.
Turkey’s importance in the eyes of the US has been reinforced by the ability of the Turkish rulers to present themselves as a party that the Americans can trust. Since the end of the Cold War, US-Turkish relations have entered a new phase that has strengthened Turkey’s status through its active roles in American plans, including through its participation in the international coalition against Iraq in the early 1990s and allowing US forces to use Turkish territory to carry out military operations against Iraq.
Russia is important for Turkish national interests and much closer to its borders that the US, having significant influence in the Caucasus region
But will Turkish-Russian relations now thrive at the expense of Turkish-American relations? Or will Turkey try to balance out its relations between the two parties?
Recently, Turkish-Russian relations have flourished. The areas of cooperation and interoperability are not limited to a single file, but rather a number of political and economic issues. These files can be addressed through two main axes: The first one, outside the Syrian arena, concerns economic relations. The second is within the Syrian arena and is related to political relations and understandings, represented by political trade-offs on the ground in Syria, and through adopting a political path to resolving the Syrian crisis by taking part in the Astana conference.
Economic relations with Russia include trade exchanges between the two countries and new economic partnerships. The volume of trade between Turkey and Russia reached $35 billion a year before the crisis caused by Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter in November 2015, but subsequently declined to $28 billion. Turkey’s Ministry of Trade and Customs now says economic ties have returned to previous levels, stressing Turkey’s desire to increase trade between the countries to $100 billion.
As for the new economic partnerships, these lie in three major projects. The first is the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, the first of its kind in Turkey, for which Russian President Vladimir Putin participated in the ground-breaking ceremony with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the southern province of Mersin in April. The plant will be built by Rosatom at a cost of $20 billion, and is likely to start operating in 2023. The second partnership involves the S-400 missile defense system. In September last year, Erdogan announced the signing of an agreement with Russia to purchase the S-400 system and both sides have since agreed to bring forward the delivery of the deal to the end of 2019 instead of 2020. Third is the TurkStream gas project that will connect Russia and Turkey.
Gazprom’s chief executive Alexei Miller has announced that the pipeline connecting the two countries will be operational in 2019.
If Washington and Ankara do overcome their differences and improve relations, Turkey will not make this improvement at the expense of its ties with Russia, even if the US pushes it to break its bonds with Moscow. First, nobody can dictate to Turkey while Erdogan is in power. Second, Russia is important for Turkish national interests and much closer to its borders than the US, having significant influence in the Caucasus region. Turkey will then seek to balance out its relations between the Americans and the Russians, with the aim of milking both.
• Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub).