Strategic Pragmatism in Russia’s Relations with Turkey

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Alireza Noori
Ph.D., Saint Petersburg State University & Expert on Russian Affairs

The speed of fluctuations in relations between Russia and Turkey during the past year has been one of the thought-provoking phenomena amid rapid developments of the Middle East, which has been unexpected for many people. Before the breakout of the ongoing crisis in Syria, Ankara was considered as a “regional ally” for Moscow and both countries pointed to the possibility of increasing their trade exchanges up to USD 100 billion per year, and in the meantime, talked about upgrading their relations to a strategic level. However, Russia’s military intervention in Syria and especially shooting down of a Russian bomber plane by Turkish jets, not only greatly lowered the level of relations between the two countries, but caused Turkey to be once again described as a “hidden enemy” in Russia’s political literature.

Under these tense conditions, various debates were underway in Russia about quality and future outlook of relations with Turkey and some circles even talked about the necessity of revising Moscow’s relations with Ankara. However, a later about-face in Turkey’s foreign policy and Ankara’s initiative to normalize relations with Moscow, on the one hand, and the welcome given to Turkey’s initiative by Russia, on the other hand, rapidly changed the stage and direction of subsequent analyses. As a function of this development, now Turkey once more, though with more caution compared to the past, is being described as a “regional ally” for Russia. In this optimistic approach, the advantages of improvement in relations have not been made limited to bilateral interactions and there is also the expectation that normalization of relations between the two countries will have positive effects on major regional trends, including the developments in Syria, as well.

Of course, Moscow is somehow slow-moving and does not easily become excited about proclaimed initiatives and diplomatic remarks, because its main criterion for decision-making is practical results, but it also considers the current course of developments as an opportunity to promote its interests and this is why it has welcomed Ankara’s initiative. This approach is an outcome of the “strategic pragmatism” which Moscow has constantly put on its agenda in relations with Turkey even at those junctures when there has been tension in those relations. Basically speaking, Russia considers Turkey as a combination of threats and opportunities and has, therefore, tried to reduce threats and make the most of opportunities through pragmatism.

Turkey’s game along the line of the West’s policies, its playing the role of an agent for implementation of the United States’ regional policies, Ankara’s membership at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Turkey’s role in bolstering military presence of the West in the Black Sea region, its “neo-Ottomanism” ambitions, Turkey’s effort to disturb the balance of regional powers through strengthening its own influence in the Middle East (including in Syria), Turkey’s role in South Caucasus and Central Asia, unsuitable use of the Turkish factor with regard to Syria’s Turkmens and Tatars in the Crimean Peninsula as well as Ankara’s annoying bargaining with regard to transit of Russia’s energy resources to Europe were among factors, which were considered as threat by Russia and led to dissatisfaction of Moscow in relations with Ankara.

Despite the fact that the list of threats posed to Russia by Turkey is a long list, Russia has understood this important issue through its realism that not having relations or having hostile relations with Turkey will not only cause it to fail in doing away with these threats, but also exacerbate them and provide the West with the opportunity to take advantage of this gap in relations in order to use Turkey against Russia. More importantly, Moscow believes that its main opposite party in all regional developments is the United States and having “second-level” tension with Turkey would be in fact playing within the puzzle set by the United States. Within this framework, the United States pitches its regional agents (in this case, Turkey) against its regional and international rivals (such as Russia) and in doing so, it reduces its own costs and promotes its own policies. In this game, Washington, prevents Russia from achieving its regional goals, on the one hand, while on the other hand, making Ankara’s dependence on its support in the face of Russia more profound.

According to this logic, Russia believes that through having good relations with Turkey (while sticking to its own basic considerations) it would be able to better manage threats emanating from this country and turn them into opportunity. The least advantage of this pragmatic approach is to have Turkey’s impartiality and decrease measures it may take to prevent achievement of Russia’s goals in the region. Kremlin is well aware of limitation of resources it is facing in the field of foreign policy and knows that confrontation with Turkey, which is supported by the West, will increase its costs and, at the same time, reduce its chances of achieving regional goals. On the contrary, it naturally follows that having cordial and pragmatist relations with Ankara will not only reduce the cost of Russia for achieving its goals, but will help it do that with less difficulty.

Regardless of the regional level, the importance and advantages of having bilateral relations with Turkey, including its economic benefits, especially in such fields as energy and transit of Russia’s oil and gas resources to the European market through Turkey, must not be ignored. This is especially true under present conditions taking into account that following the challenges it has faced in Ukraine Moscow does not have many viable options for transfer of its energy resources to Europe. More importantly, following recent efforts by Iran and Saudi Arabia to capture parts of the European oil market through signing new contracts with Poland, and in view of speculations about construction of a new gas pipeline from the Middle East to Europe, Russia has had serious concerns about losing its current position in the European energy market.

Of course, Russia’s approach to Turkey remains pragmatist and its expectations about the benefits of having relations with this country are “relative and limited,” and Moscow will not give up caution in the new period of relations with Ankara. Of course, in view of the special situation that currently governs Turkey, Moscow does not consider the possibility of more changes in Turkeys’ foreign policy unlikely, and knows that it will take some time until the country reaches a stable state in this regard. At the same time, Russia is also aware of profound and structural relations that Turkey has with the West and Western institutions, including the NATO, and although some analysts say that Ankara is leaning toward Russia due to tension in relations with the West, Moscow, however, knows that these relations are more structural than undergo any major harm in the short run.

Moscow does not even reject this assumption through reverse logic that the recent show of willingness by Ankara to improve its relations with Moscow may be, in fact, a signal to Western capitals in order to offer more support for and reduce their criticism of Turkey. Therefore, under current conditions Kremlin knows that it cannot be a substitute for the West in the eyes of Turkey, but it is also aware that Russia would still be a winner if it can take Ankara away from the West’s policies to any degree and prove to Ankara the advantages of cooperation with Moscow.

Key WordsRussia, Relations, Turkey, Middle East, Regional Ally, Hidden Enemy, Threats, Opportunities, Neo-Ottomanism, South Caucasus, Central Asia, Energy, Europe, West, US, Impartiality, Ukraine, NATO, Cooperation, Noori

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*Iran and the Principle of Balance and Containment in Russia's Middle East Policy:

*Photo Credit: Modern Diplomacy