Five years ago, Turkish-Russian relations seemed unrepairable. Turkey had shot down a Russian Su-24, Russia had imposed numerous economic sanctions in return (including banning visa-free travel) and strengthened their opposing positions in Syria, leading to a constant fear of a possible standoff between the two states. Fast forward to today, Russia and Turkey have strengthened economic ties, have partnered to end conflicts in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh, and have strengthened military relations, despite being on opposing sides in these conflicts. Meanwhile, Turkey’s relations with its NATO partners have fallen to an all-time low.
Turkish-NATO relations have fluctuated over the past few years, mainly due to Turkey’s desire to become a bigger player in the Middle East and the East Mediterranean. Turkey’s roles in supporting the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord in Libya, its support for Azerbaijan in the conflict of Nagorno-Karabakh, and its military activity in northern Syria have been a cause for concern. However, the main reason for the rift between Turkey and its NATO partners has been Turkey’s aggressive push in the Eastern Mediterranean, disputing maritime lines with Greece and Cyprus where rich gas fields sit, and Turkey’s military purchases of S-400s from Russia. These issues have sparked greater concern due to the U.S.’s increased retreat from its regional role since the Obama administration.
Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia can be understood in a twofold manner; economic gains and political ostracization. Russia is Turkey’s most important trade partner, trade reaching $26 billion in 2019, with $3.8 billion of Turkish exports to Russia and $22.4 billion of Russian goods imported. Russia is also one of the biggest energy producers in the world, and Turkey has begun to expand its energy sector with the discovery of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Tourism between the two countries is also essential, with Russians constituting the largest single nationality to visit Turkey. Although economic stakes are high between both countries, it seems that the political stakes are much higher.
On the political front, the relationship between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin has grown significantly closer in the past few years, with Turkey becoming highly dependent on Russia’s military industry and the two countries settling several conflicts in the region. Turkey has pursued an expansion of its missile defense system, with the equipment of Russian S-400s, whilst also seeking to acquire U.S. F-35s. This has created controversy between the U.S. and Turkey, as the equipment of Russian S-400s linked to the Turkish Air Force Network (HvBS) poses the operational threat that NATO data could be easily stolen by the Russians, especially damaging if Turkey acquired the F-35s. This led to NATO members and the U.S. military community calling for the F-35 sale to be stopped and for sanctions on Turkey under section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). Turkey has continued to buy Russian military equipment, with the purchase of Sukhoi Su-35s and Su-57 stealth fighter jets. This has generated much fear that Turkey is willing to pursue further military sales from Russia.
Geopolitically, Russia and Turkey have grown closer as they have settled major regional conflicts and worked in tandem to ensure each other’s interests are met. The Astana talks lead to a resolution of the Syria Peace Process, in which it was agreed that Russia could keep the
major economic and political gains made in Syria over the past 10 years. Turkey would hold onto its security zone in the north of Syria and be able to have leverage over what it sees as the Kurdish threat. In the recent dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkey ended the conflict by pressuring both countries, and in many ways played the conflict out to their maximum advantage. Both countries have condemned sanctions when placed on each other by the U.S., sanctions on Turkey during the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, and sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and interfering with the 2016 election. When it comes to Turkish-Russian relations, the region’s proxy wars have led to geostrategic outcomes that are satisfying for both parties and fortified Ankara’s and Moscow’s political faith in one another.
The State of US-Turkish Relations
As the Russian-Turkish détente has become a full-blown geo-strategic alliance, where does this leave the US-Turkish relationship moving forward?
The Trump Administration did not make major strides to repair the Turkish-American relationship. Turkey has found a hostile U.S. and EU on the issues concerning the Eastern Mediterranean, with the EU close to imposing sanctions on Turkey. In 2019, the U.S. nded Turkish participation in the F-35 joint program, although the program is based on funding from 35 nations including Turkey. Former Trump administration National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was associated with Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan accuses of instigating the 2016 coup. Furthermore, Turkey’s relations with major U.S. allies have soured, with Turkey pushing against Saudi and Emirati foreign policy objectives across the region, and Turkey has also hosted several Hamas leaders and condemned Israeli actions toward the Palestinians.
There are three key steps that the Biden administration can take to repair the increasingly fraught relationship with Turkey:
- Recognize Turkey’s role in the region and aim to create bilateral talks.
Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia is not necessarily due to Moscow’s diplomatic strength, but rather its increasingly active role in the region. The U.S. needs to actively be a part of the issues that shape Turkish foreign policy. If the U.S. involves itself in the Eastern Mediterranean, the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, and Libya’s political outcomes, it can make Turkish dependence on American diplomacy greater and divert it from Russia. Turkey seeks a broker in the region that will also protect its interests, and the U.S. needs to understand that Turkey will reach out to Russia, not in principle, but based on the priorities of its domestic and foreign policy.
- Focus on military cooperation with Turkey moving forward. Turkey has sought out Russian military sales because Moscow simply will sell to any buyer. However, Turkey’s interest in military assistance is greatly focused on the security of its borders and less to do with preparation for an all-out war with any nation. The U.S. needs to consider Turkey’s military desires and realize that, similar to any other NATO ally, Turkey seeks military security. The U.S. already invests greatly in Turkey’s military but responding to some of Turkey’s desires would bring Turkey further back from its dependence on military assistance from Russia.
- Create multilateral talks with nations that have had a difficult relationship with Turkey over the past few years. Throughout the past few years, many Arab and European countries have found themselves allying against Turkey, as Turkey’s actions in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean have upset much of the Gulf, Egypt, and Greece. Since few nations could calm the tensions, they have continued and Turkey has begun to accept that these states are becoming its adversaries. Also, Turkey allows Russia to gain greater footholds in disputes around the region being that Moscow does not oppose Turkish presence in much of the region. This threatens U.S. interests, and should the U.S. take a greater role in creating stronger relationships between Turkey and other countries in the region, it could chip away at Russian leverage and influence and provide a sense of security for Ankara moving forward.
If the Biden Administration continues the approach of the past few years, it could bring two major developments to the region that will challenge U.S. interests and embolden Russia:
- Turkey could all but leave NATO. If members of NATO respond to Turkey’s actions with punitive measures, via sanctions and public shaming, this will undoubtedly lead Turkey down the path of being a NATO member in name only. This would further lead Turkey to seek Russia out as a more secure and trusting ally than NATO, making NATO fears about Russia stealing vital data and intelligence even more realistic.
- Russia only gains from the downturn of US-Turkish relations. Russia will not retreat from the region anytime soon, with Moscow enmeshed in Syria and Libya, and likely to soon be brokering deals across the region. If the U.S. does not do more to repair the NATO-Turkish relationship, Turkey may find itself including Russia in all of its foreign policy and military decisions to the U.S.’s detriment. Russian foreign policy is about finding footholds, and if U.S.-Turkish strife increases, Russia will see an opportunity.