Russian-Turkish Relations: History and Perspectives


In the last decade the considerable change of Russian role, the growth of activeness and the influence in the Middle East and lately the direct Russian military interventions in Syrian conflict are observed, which are followed by direct and indirect participation in the same conflict and by Russia vs. Turkey opposition in different questions. It gets very actual to analyze their relations and the regional, as well as global interests. 

The beginning of Russian-Turkish diplomatic relations is considered to be 1701, when the Russian Embassy was opened in Constantinople. Despite that there were bilateral relations of lower level till the 18th century. Historians consider the beginning of these relations Ivan III`s letter on maritime trade to Bayazid II. From the very beginning Russian-Turkish relations were tense: Ottoman Empire repeatedly supported Crimean Tatars in raids against Russia. And the first out of 13 Russian-Turkish wars was unleashed in 1568 (8 out of 13 ended up with Russia`s victory).

The tense relations between 2 countries are not unfamiliar even today. This year on 24th of November in Syria, near Turkey`s border, Russian Su-24 warplane was shot down by Turkish F16, after which Russian-Turkish relations got worse badly. Turkish side announces that the warplane violated the Turkish airspace, while Russians announce that the warplane was shot down in Syria. These events were followed by new tensions and problems in bilateral relations.

In order to understand the roots of the Russian and Turkish political cooperation as well as those of the political conflict of interests it would be appropriate to see at first what kind of political ambitions they have. The heads of both countries (Putin and Erdogan) have quite big ambitions. Putin realizes that Russia has to create buffer zones for itself in the South Caucasus, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. At the same time Erdogan realizes that Turkey must be a great influential country in the Middle East and the South Caucasus in order to get impact factors on Europe. Everything started at World War I, when the Ottoman Empire, Germany and Austria lost. The victorious allies divided Turkish areas and the impact zones among Greece, Armenia, Italy, Great Britain and France by the Treaty of Sevres, in response kemalism accrued. Conceding the country`s non-Anatolian areas, Mustafa Kemal tried to build instead of them new Turkey-monoethnic and mundane. Kemal tried to change the political course of Turkey to the West, but Turkey`s geographical position-being between the East and the West- was on their way. Turgut Ozal,who came to power, tried to amend this policy in 1983. He was able to reduce the influence of Kemals in international policy and to manage foreign policy according to his own vision. Ozal viewed Turkey as a future powerful country, which didn`t need to be pro-European and didn`t need to choose between the East and the West, it was to become the force uniting these 2 worlds. He also increased Islam`s role 20 years before Erdogan, viewing Turkey as the leader of moderate Islam in the Islamic world. Erdogan`s policy has many common features with Ozal`s policy. The main common feature of these 2 policies is the tendency of further removal of Kemalism. Erdogan attaches great importance to the development of economic relations and the creation of the Turkish impact zone from North Africa to the Iranian plateau due to the creation of the new polars of the Islamic world but the spreading of the Turkish influence in the Middle East is full of difficulties and the status quo impugns political and military power necessary for Turkey. Turkey does its best to increase the circulation of trade with the countries of the East but it hasn`t reached great volumes of product circulation even with EU yet, it has even decreased recently. Besides, Turkey has very serious internal problems such as the Kurdish issue. Syria`s collapse and Iran`s weakening gave the Kurds a chance to act more freely and may motivate them to unite with the radical Kurds of Anatolia in order to create the Kurdish Republic at the expense of Turkey`s territorial integrity. Turkey wants to have an impact on the Middle East but the problem is that it`s the part of the region and regional events have direct influence on Turkey. It was not accidental that after the latest developments one of the first responds of Russia was to provide weapon to Syrian Kurds.

After the USSR`s collapse Russia`s president Yeltsin was so busy with domestic issues that didn`t pursue an active policy in the Middle East. The status changed drastically during Putin`s chairmanship especially during the second term of his chairmanship. After coming to power and solving domestic problems, Putin tried to enlarge the influence of the Russian Republic in the regions vital for it, the most important from which was probably the Middle East. Russia has a military base in Latokia which is the only way for the Russian Navy to stay afloat. Besides, Putin tries to introduce Russia as superpower, which can change the outcome of a conflict with only its participation (like Syrian airstrikes). Russia aims to prevent the establishment of entirely Western orientation in the Middle East and too much straightening of Turkey in the region. For a very long time Moscow has been refusing to accept Turkey as its equal state but now regional questions between Moscow and Ankara are settled and agreed as between equals. According to some estimates, Turkish and Russian authorities have similar approaches to many questions and besides both of them are in similar situations and need each other more than ever, but different approaches towards regional conflicts basically prevent the development of latters` relations. One of the discrepancies was visible on April 24 when Putin visited Yerevan to take part in the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Armenia has an important role for Russia just only because of the fact that Russian influence in the region is due to the presence of Russian military force in the Republic of Armenia and besides it can prevent the origination of unwanted consequences for Russia in case of Turkey`s further strengthening.

Another important country, where there is the contradiction of Russian-Turkish influence is Azerbaijan. When in 2009 the perspective of the opening of the Armenian-Turkish border was real, anti-Turkey protests began in Azerbaijan. Things got to the point when even Turkish flags started to be burnt in Turkey’s “little brother” Azerbaijan. Turkey made a move back in Armenian-Turkish relations, instead in Azerbaijan promises were made to stay in the circle of Turkish influence and not to join any integration organization. Any kind of Azerbaijan`s spontaneous action is not desirable for Turkey if it`s oriented to the joining any integration union. Turkey is the energy bridge between European countries and Azerbaijan from the West direction and has a great influence on Azerbaijan which is also reflected in Russian-Turkish relations. It seems that the cooperation sizes in the energy sphere must be huge but they are quite small. Turkey doesn`t want to concede to Russia its influence on Azerbaijan and is not inclined to develop Azerbaijan-Iranian relations, as Turkey views Iran as its main rival in becoming the regional superpower. So to some extent 2 pairs are formed in the South Caucasus-Armenia and Russia vs Turkey and Azerbaijan. This kind of juncture and also Nagorno-Karabakh conflict are favorable for Turkey in order to keep Azerbaijan unconditionally under its influence. In case of Armenian-Turkish closeness, Turkey`s presence in Nakhchivan can become a treat for Azerbaijan. Karabakh conflict is also a convenient opportunity for Russia to get concessions from Azerbaijan. In case of the existence of the conflict Turkey and Russia`s interests coincide but they use this conflict in order to implement diametrically opposite expectations from Azerbaijan.

Russia and Turkey have many common interests in many issues and before the rocketing of  the Russian warplane these 2 countries had partner relations. From 2011 there was no visa regime between them and in average 3-4 million Russian tourists visited Turkey every year, but after the latest events Russia started to impose sanctions including the introduction of visa regime for the Russian citizens, the ban of importing of some Turkish products and the activities of the companies under Turkey`s jurisdiction on the territory of the Russian Federation. According to the Ministry of Economy`s data in 2012 there was a product circulation of  $ 3.3 billion, out of which the import was $ 6,7 billion and the export was $ 26,6 billion. Energy resources and metals have the largest part among the products imported from Turkey to Russia, while foodstuffs, textile and equipment of mechanical engineering industry and cars` spare parts are among the products imported from Turkey to Russia. After the latest Erdogan-Putin meeting the president of Turkey announced that the trade circulation between the 2 countries is planned to reach $ 100 billion by 2023. On the list of countries exporting goods from Russia Turkey is number 5 with 5.2% index. Turkey is also number 5 in providing Russian market with food products but after the imposture of the sanctions from the West, Turkey`s role might grow. From January 2013 the trade circulation has increased between the 2 countries by 14%, but anyway after Russia`s sanctions the numbers will decrease. Even if not for the latest events it was not realistic to reach $ 100 billion. One of the reasons for that is that Russian-Turkish trade and economic relations are not balanced. The balance of trade circulation ( the difference between import and export) is nearly $ 20 billion. Turkey tries to compensate it somehow at the expense of the tourism`s income, transfers from Russia and Turkish construction companies in Russia (it is totally estimated about $ 5 billion annually). Now let`s refer to the problem of energy resources, which is at the center of Russian-Turkish relations. The energy Factor plays an important role in the formation of Russia`s socio-economic and Foreign policy, and due to its exclusive geographic location Turkey is an intercontinental bridge between the regions rich in energy resources and Europe, which is its biggest consumer. Turkey`s economy is ranked 15th in the world and shows stable growth. In connection with the increasing pace of industrial growth, the volume of energy resources and the demand increases in Turkey but the country is not rich in them. Geographic adjacency and convenient position with energy superpower Russia led to the fact that after Germany Turkey has become the second country to import Russian gas to Europe. Besides Turkey strives to become a transit country and has all the possibilities for that. It has serious infrastructure and works on its extension like Baku-Tbilisi- Ceyhan pipeline, oil refinery factory in Ceyhan, pipeline with Iran, pipeline built with Russia through the Black sea (the construction works of the latter have been frozen). Nuclear power station is being built in Turkey with the participation of Russia. The transfer of Russian gas to Europe through Turkey is profitable under the non-stable conditions in Ukraine and after that the role of Turkey will drastically increase as that of a geopolitical player.

Russian-Turkish relations also have quite a solid legal base like the 1992 Agreement on principles of cooperation, 2004 collaborative declaration, etc. On December 15, 1997 an Agreement was signed between Russian “Gasprom” and Turkish “Botas”, according to which 365 billion m3 gas was to reach Turkey through the “Blue Stream” gas pipeline in 25 years. In 1995 cooperation Agreement in tourism and in 1994 an intergovernmental Agreement on cooperation in military engineering and military industry were signed, the latter was the first document of that kind between the Russian Federation and NATO member state. It is possible that by that Turkey tried to get a relatively more independent position in NATO from its main alley USA. Unlike economic relations, everything is more complex in political sphere, for example in 2001 Ankara and Washington signed a Memorandum according to which Turkey agreed with the deployment of anti-missile systems but Russia expressed its dissatisfaction on this matter, in response to this it was announced that the anti-missile systems were not against Russia but against Iran. We believe that Turkey agreed to deploy the anti-missile systems first of all because of political matters like to limit the continually-increasing influence of Russia in the region. Turkey strives to become regional superpower, that`s why it tries to somehow balance the relations both with Russia and the USA by limiting the influence of both, but the strikes on Syria from the Russian Air Force and the Russian Caspian Flotilla show that Russia intends to increase its influence. This may be one of the reasons for rocketing the Russian warplane.

Russia and Turkey`s interests in Syrian conflict don`t coincide but in the connection with that the drastic deterioration of relations of the 2 countries wasn`t very predictable because they have common interests in various different issues like in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Aggravation of the conflict is beneficial for both countries because they both increase their influence on Armenia and Azerbaijan by that. One should not forget the Russian-Georgian war when Turkey didn`t choose Georgia`s side and even forbade its NATO alley US`s warships to pass by its straits. Russia always had a reserved approach towards Turkey because of its actions and attitude in the Middle East and the Balkans. Meanwhile in 2003 Turkey forbade American troops to reach Iraq through its territory. This issue and Turkish position in the above-mentioned Russian-Georgian war show that Turkey views its relations with Russia free from the NATO block alleys. Because of Ukrainian developments Russia was to change its political course to Turkey. Turkey refused to impose sanctions against Russia and tries to benefit from the situation. Russia tries to act by bypassing Kiev to sell energy resources to EU. Considering that the Ukraine`s Agreement with Russia on gas transit expires in 2019 instead of the failed “South Stream” Russia agreed with Turkey to build the “Turkish Stream” pipeline. All these create fertile ground for the warming of the relations provided that the conflict created by their different positions in Syrian issue won`t deteriorate.

As a conclusion, Russian-Turkish relations nearly don`t have the perspective of politically getting warmer but also none of the sides needs the deterioration of relations.



Author: Hmayak Baghramyan:  © All rights are reserved

Translated by Tatevik Tumanyan