The main feature of Turkish-Russian relations is that both parties see each other as an instrument to use in their relations with the West. That is stopping them from a real breakthrough in bilateral relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend a session of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo: Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on Oct. 10 in Istanbul on the margins of the 23rd World Energy Congress. According to reports, the talks focused on Syria and energy cooperation. In the end, Turkey and Russia signed an intergovernmental agreement on the implementation of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project.

The Syria issue

The violent Syrian conflict has had some serious repercussions on Turkish-Russian relations. Failure of the U.S. and Russia to implement their agreement on Syria, the latest military deployments and coming U.S. elections have become the source of significant tensions in the region.

Moreover, the preparations for liberating Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and, especially, recent developments in Syria, have become critical for all of the parties of the conflict. Those are clear signals that the Syrian war is likely to move into an even bloodier final stage.

Turkish-Russian relations were normalized this summer and the recent Turkish intervention into northern Syria, in order to force the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) to retreat to east of the Euphrates river, was a direct product of the Aug. 9 St. Petersburg meeting between Putin and Erdogan. Turkish Special Forces started to target both ISIS and PYD forces in order to clear the border from the terrorists and to prevent the Syrian Kurds from uniting all Kurdish regions in Northern Syria.

However, the initial enthusiasm to complete the mission quickly has ultimately declined. It is clear today that the progress of the operation, as well as the battle for Aleppo, will become the decisive point in bilateral relations between Ankara and Moscow. If cooperation continues, then we will witness reconciliation of Ankara with Damascus and re-consolidation of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. That could potentially stop the Kurdish enlargement in the country’s north. However, this will be a huge challenge for Washington, which does not seem willing to give up its undeclared aim to break up Syria and create an independent Kurdish entity.

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There is mutual understanding today between Ankara and Moscow that Syria’s territorial integrity is beneficial for both of them. Nevertheless, their capability and desire to achieve this goal is an open question. Although Turkey and Russia have repaired their bilateral relations and are seeking to upgrade ongoing cooperation, there are two setbacks that prevent the formation of a solid strategic alliance between the two.

Firstly, Turkey is confused regarding its own international standing. It is hesitant to move against the interest of its allies (NATO and the U.S.) in the region. Besides, domestic instability, a worsening economy and terrorist threats are the main obstacles for some decision-makers in Ankara to take radical steps on the nation’s path to strategic cooperation with Russia.

Secondly, Moscow seems quite reluctant to change its policy regarding the Syrian Kurds and some decision-makers are still dreaming of having the Syrian Kurds under their control. Thus, the coming days will show the strength and weakness of Turkish-Russian cooperation on Syria.

Energy agenda

During the World Energy Congress, Turkey and Russia made some important progress on their energy cooperation. Although there are still significant complexities with the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant project, cooperation on natural gas is improving. During the summit, an intergovernmental agreement for the realization of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project was signed after two years of talks.

The agreement envisions two lines with a total capacity of 31.5 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year. One of the lines will be constructed for the Turkish domestic market. The first line is planned to be constructed by the end of 2019, and there are no serious problems there. Russian gas contracted by Turkish firms in the amount of 14 bcm per year that is currently imported by Turkish firms through the Trans-Balkan route will be diverted to this new infrastructure.

Last but not least, the new contract conditions should be negotiated between Gazprom and Turkish gas importers to divert 14 bcm per year in gas volume from the West Line to the Turkish Stream. For the second line, which will further go to the South European gas market, uncertainty continues. The future of Russian gas flow through Turkey depends more on EU-Russia energy negotiations. Moreover, current EU legislation of energy is an obstacle. EU legislation could be avoided by forming a new gas trade company in Turkey, which would be responsible for the deliveries to South Europe.

Nevertheless, instead of insisting on construction of the second line, Gazprom might focus on using Turkish Stream in order to get some concessions from the EU for the realization of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. Nord Stream 2 (55 bcm per year), combined with only the first line of Turkish Stream (15.75 bcm per year) are more than enough to meet the strategic aim of Russia to replace Ukrainian transit. However, this prospect is difficult to achieve.

The main feature of Turkish-Russian relations is that both parties see each other as an instrument to use in their relations with the West. The St. Petersburg and Istanbul summits have confirmed this once more. When the two give up this established pattern in their relationship and focus more on their bilateral relations, there will be a new picture. Only time will tell whether Ankara and Moscow will be able to change this understanding.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.