23.03.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Is Turkey an enemy or a friend, a partner or a rival for Russia?

Is Turkey an enemy or a friend, a partner or a rival for Russia?

There can be no permanence in relations between states (even more true for those with imperial pasts) due to the nature of conflicting interests and “changeable weather” in geographical latitudes (simply put, geopolitical conjuncture). In this respect, Turkey and Russia are an example of both convergence and divergence of approaches. Naturally, such a shift is predominantly determined by the objective state of the Russian state’s power. If Russia demonstrates strength, Turkey tries to maneuver and gain benefits. If the Kremlin loses its power, Ak Saray tries to finish it off in alliance with our main adversaries in the West. This is the way it has constantly been, is now, and will always be.

Russia extended its hand of friendship and partnership to Turkey three times in the first half of the 19th (1833-1841), 20th (1918-1923) and 21st centuries (from 2004 to the present). Twice our friendship was short-lived, for the Turks switched alliances back to England and destroyed the prospect of stable partnerships with Russia and the USSR. It seemed that in the new century the leaders of Russia and Turkey (Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan) laid a solid economic platform for the rapprochement of these two important states in Eurasia, where the pragmatism of interests would be above the emotions of Ottoman revanchism and awe of Anglo-Saxons.

It should be recognized that Turks and Russians are heirs of imperial entities and both remain large nations. Neither the Turks nor the Russians will accept the supremacy of one over the other, but each seeks to revive its influence on strategically important post-imperial territories and form its own pole of geopolitical dominance. It is all a question of state capacity and strength.

In Russia, many experts (for example, Sergei Latyshev) argue that allegedly modern Turkey does not have the capacity to put into practice its revanchist ambitions of building a new Eastern Ottoman Empire of Turan according to the plans of the doctrines of neo-Ottomanism and neopanturanism. In particular, Ankara depends on Russia for energy (especially gas, oil and nuclear power plants), Russian tourism, and the Russian market for agricultural products and textile consumer goods. Our S-400 Triumf SAM system reliably protects the skies of NATO member Turkey. In addition, Russian manufacturers of military equipment, according to Andrey Buravov, the Russian Consul General in Istanbul, are ready to develop business and technical partnership with the Turks in the finalization of Turkey’s 5th generation KAAN fighter jet.

Moreover, in addition to the economy, Russia has a fairly high levels of partnership with Turkey in the sphere of regional politics in the Middle East, the South Caucasus and Central Asia (in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and the Turkic post-Soviet republics). Moscow’s “soft stance” allowed Ankara to “establish a foothold” in Azerbaijan, sign the famous “Shusha Declaration” on strategic alliance and create the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) as a basis for future geopolitical and geo-economic integration of Turan. Is this policy of Russia to be considered a weak or forced concession to Turkey, or is the famous Russian patience just giving time to our Turkish friends?

So maybe it’s better to trade in a mutually beneficial way and not succumb to conflicting contradictions. This conclusion is undoubtedly fair. But the Turk does not reason like a Russian. Today, one cannot fully agree with the opinion that Turkey is supposedly weak, that it does not have the necessary capabilities to implement the Turan project, and that it depends on external factors (including Russia) for everything. There are several facts to consider:

First, everything flows and everything changes. Second, Turkey is not just paying lip service but is actually diversifying its energy policy. In particular, in 2023 Ankara imported more gas from Algeria ($1bn) and the US ($648m), while Russia moved to third place ($348m). Third, Turkey is getting the first Akkuyu NPP in its history from Rosatom at the expense of Russian investments (based on the “pay-build-operate” principle), and then expects a second NPP, Sinop, according to the same scheme, hoping to turn from an importer of electricity into an exporter and to develop its own production. Fourth, Turkey maneuvers between the US, Russia and China; it expands its zone of influence in the Middle East, South Caucasus and Central Asia, develops its own military-industrial complex and exports weapons to the countries in our closest circle (including CSTO members Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan), not to mention military supplies to the Kiev regime. Fifth, Turkey is keen on the Turan project with access to historical Western (Russian) and Eastern (Chinese) Turkestan, and plans to use the Zangezur road in Armenia as the main thoroughfare of pan-Turkic communication with the formation of the Turan common market. Sixth, it cannot be said that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are weak partners of Turkey, as they are linked not only by ethno-cultural and spiritual affinity, but also by strategic resources and communications. In addition, together (including Kyrgyzstan) they account for almost 148 million people.

Unfortunately, behind these plans of Turkey is the shadow of the UK and the might of the US, which continues the logic of the Big Game with the hope of weakening Russia, forcing it out of the post-Soviet space, and creating strategic fault lines between the Russian Federation, the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

With the beginning of the Special Military Operation in Ukraine, Russia pinned special hopes on maintaining partnership with Turkey due to their mutually beneficial trade and economic partnerships, and successful interaction in the Syrian and Karabakh theatres. Ankara demonstrated a course independent of the West, tried for a long time not to join anti-Russian sanctions bypassing the UN, took a formal mediatory position between the conflicting parties, initiated the Istanbul talks between Moscow and Kiev, facilitated the exchange of prisoners, and achieved a favorable “grain deal”. All of this in no small measure allowed Turkey to help Azerbaijan to achieve new successes in Karabakh, to get new favorable contracts from Russia (for example, the Gas Hub mega-project and construction of the Sinop nuclear power plant). And now the Turks are trying to bargain for themselves a favorable pricing policy with Russian gas, and it insists on the construction of a new gas pipeline across the Caspian basin to access Turkmen and Kazakh gas. In Syria, our long efforts to negotiate a rapprochement between the positions of Ankara and Damascus have not yet been successful, because the Turks are not going to leave the occupied territories in the north of the Syrian Arab Republic, considering this the new reality and a fight against the imaginary separatism of the Syrian Kurds.

All that would be all right if Turkey continued to develop trade with, and parallel transit of goods from third countries to, Russia in the current situation of global pressure on Moscow. However, as early as autumn 2022, five major Turkish banks (in particular, Halkbank, Ziraf Bank, Vakif Bank, Denizbank and Isbank) refused to accept payments with Russian Mir cards for fear of secondary US sanctions for cooperation with Russia. In January 2024, Turkish banks massively refused to accept payments from Russian companies and Turkish exporters to Russia. The motivation is the same – the tough US and EU sanctions.

The Russian side officially expresses its understanding of the difficulties faced by its Turkish partners, as they are under severe pressure from the United States. Almost on a daily basis, many media outlets broadcast a short phrase: “The issue is being handled by the Turkish Ministry of Trade, Moscow is in dialogue with Ankara.” But this does not make Russia feel any better, because time is passing and the situation is not changing for the better. As a result, trade is decreasing, and with it the search for alternative partners (for example, Iran or the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf) is becoming more relevant. As EADaily notes, “Russia needs to quickly find a replacement for what we get from and through Turkey, for there will soon be problems with that. It is (but) one step from insincere friend to enemy.”

It turns out that Turkey is joining the economic and financial sanctions against Russia, whether forced or voluntarily, fulfilling the US instructions. Meanwhile, as Dogu Perinçek, leader of the Turkish opposition party Vatan (Motherland), notes, “the Russian government provides Turkey with favorable prices and guarantees for energy sales. In addition, Turkey serves as a bridge for Russian energy exports to the world and very important investment projects are on the agenda. The government’s submission to U.S. pressure undermines the trust of Turkey’s neighbors, especially Russia, on which our energy security depends.”

However, Perinçek is not Erdoğan, his words do not make much difference and nothing at all changes in the policy of the Turkish government. Moreover, there are no special achievements in terms of Ankara’s mediation efforts between Moscow and Kiev, where the Turkish side still supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine within the 1991 borders, without considering the realities on the ground and Russia’s interests.

It is well known that the leader of the faction of the ruling Servant of the People party in the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada, David Arahamiya, admitted that it was the head of the British government, Boris Johnson, who in 2022 had opposed an ending to the Russian-Ukrainian military conflict in exchange for Ukraine’s neutrality and Kiev’s refusal to join NATO (along the lines of Finland after the Second World War). Today, however, Recep Erdogan is once again expressing his readiness to launch the Istanbul talks. But what has changed in Ankara’s position, if Erdogan himself at a meeting with Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of the NATO summit in Vilnius in July 2023 approved the idea of Ukraine’s membership in NATO? Turkish diplomacy is increasingly inclined to the past times of contrasts, which cannot serve as a basis for strong friendship between our countries.

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently called Turkey the most reliable energy partner, noting the stable functioning of the TurkStream gas pipeline. In Turkey, this opinion of the Russian leader was received with enthusiasm and called historic. However, apart from the energy sector, our partnership today cannot be called exemplary. And the problems with payments may lead to a decline in the energy partnership, which will have a negative impact, first of all, on the energy security of Turkey itself. Russia will not supply oil products to the Turks free of charge to its own detriment…


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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