Turkey is changing its foreign policy approach as the country has suffered much from spoiled relations with important partners like Russia.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan enters a hall to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Konstantin palace outside St.Petersburg, August 9, 2016. Photo: AP
On Aug. 9, for the first time since the crisis in relations between Russia and Turkey began last year, a meeting took place between the presidents of the two countries in St. Petersburg. During the meeting, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Vladimir Putin, “Turkish-Russian cooperation will make a great contribution to the solution of many problems in the region.”
Indeed, before the flare-up of tensions at the end of 2015, the two countries were close to establishing economic and trade ties as well as mutual understanding in the political sphere. Turkey had even turned into a favorite tourist destination for vacationing Russians. Unfortunately, these good bilateral relations took a huge blow when, in November 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber.
For Russia, this Turkish move was seen as an open act of betrayal. Putin took it as a stab in the back, and clear demonstration of Turkey’s support for terrorism. In fact, it meant that Turkey had decided to sacrifice all the great economic and political achievements in its relations with Russia. The fact that Moscow so painfully felt this action by Turkey, shows to what great extent Russia valued its relations with this country since the Cold War ended.
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As Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, pointed out in his 2013 book, “The World Unconditional: The Euro-Atlantic of the 21st Century as a Security Community,” the two countries were making a great leap forward from almost hereditary hostility that included 14 wars between the Russian and Ottoman Empires, as well as the Cold War.
And yet, even as the Russian-Turkish relationship showed signs of improving, Turkish leaders warned of potential tension with Russia. In 2002, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu (architect of the Turkish foreign policy of “zero problems with neighbors”) wrote that Russian-Turkish political and economic relations, despite their warm character, could enter into a crisis state.
In his opinion, this crisis in Turkish-Russian relations could occur due to the competition between the two countries in the Eurasian region, particularly in the Central Asian region. NATO and EU enlargement towards the East could also play a role.
Before the crisis in Ukraine, Davutoglu foresaw the crisis in relations between the West and Russia, where Turkey would be forced to take sides against Russia. In his academic articles and works, Davutoglu called on regional leaders not to alienate or exclude Russia when it came to deciding major issues of security policy in Eastern Europe.
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Turkey’s new policy of reconciliation
The Turkish decision to restore relations with Russia and Israel came due to the fact that Ankara started losing its power and influence, especially at the regional level. In the Middle East, the policy of supporting the “Arab Spring” turned into a fiasco.
Moreover, in placing its bets on President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan), Ankara harshly criticized the military circles that organized the subsequent coup by the Egyptian Army.
As a result, current relations between Turkey and Egypt are very poor. And this despite the fact that Egypt, in spite of all its internal problems, is a key country in the Arab world, whose position is often important in the Middle East. Relations between Turkey and Egypt have become so tense that Egyptian diplomats blocked a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning the attempted military coup in Turkey.
Moreover, several major terrorist attacks and military operations against Kurdish separatists have pushed Turkish authorities to restore security cooperation with Israel, one of the key players in the region.
For a long time, Turkey has been Israel’s main ally in the Muslim world. The two countries have actively cooperated on security, the arms trade, as well as in the peaceful settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Israel supplied arms to the Turkish Army, and was training its special anti-terrorist forces.
The trigger that led to the cooling of Turkish-Israeli relations was Turkey’s attempt to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip. In 2010, a Turkish ship that was participating in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla attempted to bring humanitarian aid and construction materials to the Gaza Strip. However, Israeli forces boarded the ships from speedboats and helicopters as part of a lethal raid that was widely condemned.
The deterioration of relations with Israel also became a serious blow for Turkey’s lobbying positions in the United States. For a long time, it was the Israeli lobby that helped Turkey counterbalance Greek and Armenian positions within the U.S. government.
Three key factors - security issues, the future of energy cooperation within the framework of Israel’s gas fields, and the fiasco in Turkey’s Middle East policy - have predetermined the restoration of relations between Tel Aviv and Ankara. Israel has agreed to pay compensation to the relatives of the victims of the Israeli Special Forces, and decided to restore full diplomatic relations.
Russia-Turkey rift was not good for Ankara
There is a big difference in the crisis between Turkey and Russia and the one between Turkey and Israel. By challenging Israel, Turkey earned international points in the region, and actively spread its influence among the various political parties in the Middle East and countries of the Arab Maghreb. Islamist parties like the Ennahda in Tunisia, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, were looking at Turkey as a model for future development.
In contrast, by worsening relations with Russia, Ankara suffered great financial losses and worsened Turkey’s position in the Black Sea area. The unexpected actions of Ankara alarmed other NATO members, who feared being drawn into a war with Russia, defending a too ambitious and unpredictable partner.
Proof of this is the failure of the project that sought to station a permanent NATO fleet in the Black Sea. According to Maxim Samorukov at the Carnegie Moscow Center, the main factor for the failure of this project was the Montreux Convention of 1936, an agreement that gives Turkey control over the Bosphorus Straits and the Dardanelles and regulates the transit of naval warships.
As a result, a permanent NATO fleet could only be composed of ships from the three Black Sea NATO countries – Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey. With its huge fleet, obviously Turkey would become the leader of this project. This situation did not please Bulgaria, whose policy is based on anti-Turkish rhetoric.
An important reason behind the restoration of full-fledged bilateral relations has become the economic factor. Turkey, as a result of the sanctions imposed against it by Russia, suffered huge losses in the agricultural, construction and tourism sectors. Turkish small and medium-size businesses lost money and markets for their goods, to which they had become accustomed to, and for which it was hard to find replacements.
Given these facts, President Erdogan simply could not lose this section of his electorate in favor of his foreign policy ambitions, which were becoming strictly criticized domestically. Ibrahim Kalin, spokesperson for the Turkish president, said that Turkish business leaders played a role in normalizing relations between Russia and Turkey.
The future prospects of good Russian-Turkish relations will depend on how much the parties are willing to restore lasting confidence in their bilateral relations. This means development of specific projects of close cooperation in strategic areas, especially the fight against terrorism and restoration of the infrastructure in Syria.
Turkey is gradually beginning to realize that in its Middle East policy, it seriously overestimated its capabilities. Davutoglu’s policy of “zero problems with neighbors” led to problems with all of Turkey’s neighbors in the region. Now Ankara is restoring relations with Israel and Russia, which are important partners in the security sphere.
In the future, it is important for Russia to have a stable and friendly partner in Turkey, especially in light of the fact that NATO’s eastward expansion has not been fully removed from the agenda yet. Turkey’s position on this issue may be important.
The future state of bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey will depend on how much both partners are willing to work together so that there are not any surprises in their relationship. That means, too, that Ankara and Moscow cannot present the other with a fait accompli and expect it to go unchallenged. The second important point is how the partners will be able to find areas for dialogue on contentious situations, all while avoiding confrontation.
It is expected that Turkey is now ready to play by these new emerging rules. It should be noted that Ankara’s policy towards Russia is not an attempt to blackmail the United States or the EU, but rather an effort to prove that Turkey is a country ready and flexible when it comes to making changes (and even retreat where it becomes necessary), if this is in its national interests.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.