The repercussions of the downing of the Russian jet have left a lasting mark on bilateral relations. It is highly unlikely that Turkey will persist in allowing Russia to have such an important role in Turkey’s economy and security.
In the presence of presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the energy ministers of Russia and Turkey sign an intergovernmental agreement on the Turkish Stream pipeline in Istambul, Oct. 10, 2016. Photo: Kremlin
The meeting that took place on Oct. 10 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul was proclaimed by both sides to have been successful. Contrary to Putin’s more reserved posture in the first meeting between the two leaders in St. Petersburg back in August, at a time when the two states had just managed to get relations back on track, in this meeting he seemed much more at ease. It was also notable that this time around, Putin came to Turkey for the meeting.
Following the downing of the Russian bomber by Turkish fighter jets in November 2015, which sparked a deep crisis in relations, Russia had not only imposed a series of restrictions on trade with Turkey but also allowed the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), to open an office in Moscow, signaling Russia’s support to the group.
Indeed, Turkey had difficulties facing the economic repercussions of the Russian steps against it. More importantly, it felt that Russian support had given the PYD confidence to try and achieve territorial contiguity in the areas adjunct to the Turkish-Syrian border. Kurdish advancement west of the Euphrates was long presented as a Turkish red line and there is great frustration in Ankara from U.S. support to the PYD.
Only recently, U.S. presidential democratic nominee Hillary Clinton suggested that she would recommend arming the Kurds in the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) and this has sparked criticism from both the Turkish prime minister and Turkish president.
In the grand bargain that seems to have been achieved between Putin and Erdogan, Turkey has significantly lessened its criticism regarding Russia’s involvement in the Syrian civil war (and against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad retaining power at least in the interim period) and Russia has not tried to obstruct Turkey’s recent incursion into Northern Syria against the Islamic State and the PYD.
Another important element giving boost to the current better atmosphere between the leaders is what is considered to be robust support from Moscow following the July 15 failed coup attempt in Turkey. For Erdogan, Western countries had not only voiced with delay their criticism of the coup, but had accompanied this criticism also with condemnation of the post-coup crackdown. This is not the case with Moscow, which only presented unequivocal support to Erdogan and full condemnation of the plotters.
Washington-Ankara relations are also tense regarding the request of extradition from the U.S. of the Islamic cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who is seen to be behind the failed coup, something that Moscow doesn’t have to worry about. In addition, Turkey clumps together its frustration from the stalled EU accession process with the tensions with the U.S. – the combination of the two marks a big disappointment with the West.
The most notable result of the October meeting has been the signing of an agreement regarding the Turkish Stream pipeline – a project to carry Russian natural gas to Turkey and in a later stage, from Turkey via Greece to Europe. Another noteworthy result has been that Turkey will allow Russia to bid again in Turkey’s missile defense tender. China had won Turkey’s previous tender and after fierce criticism from its NATO allies and specifically the U.S., Turkey had cancelled the bid all together, vowing to go for domestic development of the systems.
Already following the previous meetings between the two leaders it was agreed to renew charter flights between Russia and Turkey (extremely important from the Turkish perspective due to the plunge in the number of tourists arriving to Turkey in 2016) and to speed up the building of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant by Russia’s government-run company Rosatom.
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While the warming of Russian-Turkish relations clearly signals Turkey’s wish to show its Western allies that it has other options in the international arena, moving ahead with all the current negotiated deals with Russia will only amplify Turkey’s weaker position vis-à-vis Russia. It should also be noted that relaxation of tensions between Turkey and Russia are basically in line with NATO interests since there was a concrete fear following the November crisis that Turkey might invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter at some point because of its fear of Russia’s ire and possible reprisals.
Thus, all three of these developments – being even more dependent on gas supplies from Russia, having Turkey’s first nuclear power plant being built and operated by Russia, and purchasing a missile defence system from Russia that will not be interoperable with NATO systems– will create problems for Ankara. As the repercussions of the downing of the Russian jet have left a mark on bilateral relations, it is highly unlikely that in the long-run Turkey will persist in allowing Russia to have such an important role in Turkey’s economy and security.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.