The story of relations between Turkey and Russia has mostly been one of conflict rather than of peace. This could, of course, be said of Russia’s relations with most countries. But this relationship merits a new examination since the pair is going through something of a détente.
The thawing of relations has been relatively quick. Four years ago, things were frosty. In Syria, Russia had just intervened on the side of the Assad government, whereas Turkey backed various rebel groups in the conflict. In 2015, the downing of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force saw Russian President Vladimir Putin impose trade sanctions. The assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey in Istanbul a year later, probably caused by Turkish Muslim objections to Putin’s intervention in Syria, exposed the deep rift between the nations with respect to the Middle East.
Since then, though, the countries have shown greater willingness to cooperate. Putin and Turkey’s President Erdogan met regularly (a veritable Guess Who of world tyrants), Russia ended its sanctions and visa restrictions against the Turks in May 2017, and Turkey purchased the S-400 missile system from the Russian government later that year. In spite of their differences over Syria, the two countries negotiated a ceasefire in Idlib province in March. Such a rapprochement, if it is to continue, will have important implications for Europe and the US.
While Russia and Turkey are clearly a hybrid of the two continents they straddle, the relationship between them has always impacted Europe more than it has impacted Asia. The Crimean War was caused in large part because the Britain and France feared Russian encroachment on the crumbling Ottoman Empire. In the modern-day, the West looks upon the Russian-Turkish rapprochement with bewilderment because Turkey is a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) member fraternising with the alliance’s traditional adversary.
The pertinent question to ask, then, is why the two countries are getting closer. Certainly, with regards to Syria, the countries have little reason to be cuddling with each other. My argument would be that the thawing of relations tells you little about what Russia and Turkey think of each other, but that it does show what both of them think about America, NATO and the EU.
Putin and Erdogan, like all great chauvinists, don’t just claim to rule nation-states, but entire cultures and civilisations. They are the Tsar and the Sultan reanointed. Among other things, this has meant that both have touted the idea of acting unilaterally on the world stage, and a central plank of this foreign policy has been bashing the West.
The uncomfortable truth is that NATO and the US have at times given the two leaders ample opportunities to paint the West as a bad-faith actor, especially in the case of Russia. NATO has been expanding eastwards into Russia’s sphere of influence since the end of the Cold War, not just into the Baltics but even into Georgia. US sanctions against Russia and Turkey, imposed in 2014 and 2019 respectively, hurt the economies of the countries and turned ordinary Russians and Turks even more firmly against the West.
Now, you may say that you don’t care much for either Putin or Erdogan, and that you don’t care if the two countries are turning towards each other. It turns out, however, that isolating these countries means that they look elsewhere in the world for allies. Not phased by Turkey? How about by China? Or Iran? Russia now enjoys a relatively friendly relationship with the Chinese, underpinned by trade. It has also moved closer to Tehran, shown earlier this year when the killing of Qasem Soleimani by the US prompted a deeply negative response from Vladimir Putin.
If diplomacy is about anything, it is about choosing allies to support you against your enemies. The US evidently sees China and Iran as threats to the world’s international system. In the fight to contain these countries, Russia and Turkey could have been key allies, especially considering that the history of Russia and China isn’t friendly. In pushing Putin and Erdogan away, the US and NATO have bolstered their adversaries in the world. If the US wishes to intervene in Iran in the future, it will surely face opposition from Russia and Turkey. NATO is now powerless to influence events in Syria, having ostracised Turkey, the one member of the alliance capable of intervening quickly in the Levant. The US and Russia could have collaborated on containing China, in a manner reminiscent of how Nixon and Kissinger courted Mao to contain the Soviets. Sadly, China and Russia now seem to be beating the Americans at their own game.
The point of all this is that the US and NATO cannot stand alone in the world. They need allies. Russia and Turkey seem to understand what the US has forgotten: sometimes, you need to make deals with imperfect actors in order to heap pressure on genuinely malevolent ones. From the West’s perspective, I would put Putin and Erdogan in the former category, and the Chinese Communist Party and the Ayatollahs in the latter. In spurning Russia and Turkey, the US has made its objectives in the world much more difficult to achieve and has made these potential allies look much more adversarial and dangerous than they actually are.
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