Mr. Naqash Munir (Global/Regional Studies)
Institute for Strategic Studies, Research and Analysis
(ISSRA, National Defence University, Islamabad)
Transition of Russo-Turkey Relations over Time and Today
The crisis in the Middle Eastern region has brought in its wake a perceptible shift in Russo-Turkey relations in the contemporary arena. The downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber jet by Turkish F-16 fighter over the Syrian-Turkish border and the subsequent reaction provides an index of the deterioration. Russia was once considered to be a bitter enemy of Turks. Today, several ingredients have refreshed the erstwhile tensions as witnessed in the Tsarist and Ottoman eras. With the passage of time, the interaction between them has been fluctuating in keeping with the geographic and leadership transformation. By far, Syrian crisis is the latest point of contradiction between them, representing diverging interests. This is becoming a test case for the two for demonstrating their lost-power in the wake of contemporary transformations in the world order from unipolar to multi polar.
The policies of both the states towards Syria run counter to each other. Russia has shared a strong economic partnership with Syria, fact being that it has remained a major beneficiary of Russian weaponry while Turkish Prime Minister, in 2012 called on Bashar al Assad to step down as the President of Syria.
No doubt, there are convergences and divergences between Russia and Turkey to project their policies with each other as well as other stakeholders of the region. This paper is intended to analyse the Russo-Turkey relations in the backdrop of their interests in the Middle East, following the significance, convergences and divergences of their relations which have given rise to their contemporary role in the arena. After the discussion on the matter, this paper has extracted the role of Pakistan and has suggested guidelines for Pakistan’s foreign policy towards the subject matter.
Why Middle East matters the most to Russia and Turkey?
The critical interests of Russia and Turkey both lies in the Middle East. However they do not tend to be the same. Under the umbrella of NATO, Turkey is
exercising its policies as an independent state in the Middle East crisis. Syria, Iraq and Iran being border stitched to Turkey are perceived to be under strong observations of Turkish policy makers. While Russia, not a NATO member has a different framework for the region, particularly its need for the Mediterranean Sea, weaponry market and trading of oil and gas is apparent. Mediterranean Sea links Russia with Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and North Africa. So any situation of conflict, war or unease in these regions has impact on Russia’s political position.
There are number of factors that are driving the Turkish policy in which Saudi Arab is a part. Turkey has made it clear that it wants the overthrow of Assad. This is the first time in its history that Turkey adopts a regime-change strategy. When the United States decided to counter ISIS with the help of possible regional alliance, Turkey refused to get actively involved unless the coalition were to target both ‘Assad’ and ISIS at the same time. It is clear that Ankara favours a war to the end of weakening all parts: Assad, ISIS, the Kurds and Iran. Yet it always preferred to rely on proxies and calls on NATO and the international community to intervene in Syria. It was because of this very tactic that Ankara allowed the Peshmerga (Iraqi Kurdish forces) to enter the Syrian town of Kobane through Turkey to help the Syrian Kurds in the battle against ISIS and this is again the reason why it decided to support the jihadists in Syria.
While, Russia is seen more as to helping its friend Assad in the play. Syria is the only country in the region which has Russia’s base(s). Continuing its efforts to play a role and get hold of the oil, gas and other economic factors, Russia’s stance on Middle East policy is evident and strong in its intentions.
Perhaps involvement of military in Syria is fraught with serious risks for Russia. It has already strongly affected Russian relations with Turkey. It extended support to the radical opposition like Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, allowed Islamic fighters and volunteers to twist through its border into Syria, and preferred to bomb the Kurds, rather than ISIS. Turkish leaders believe that Russian military operation in Syria has been conflicting to the Turkish interests. This threatens to endanger bilateral relations and to put a concept of wide international coalition under question. The fact that Turkey is a NATO member makes the situation even worse. It's obvious that cool heads are needed, but it's not clear if President Erdogan would be interested in defusing the crisis.
Significance of Russia-Turkey relations
Under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russia and Turkey signed mutual agreements and MoUs for increasing both countries’ relations in terms of trade and cooperation.Turkey has remained one of Russia’s main trading partners. Both share huge amount of business in the sectors of energy, tourism and trade. The statistics show a viable flow of synergy between both. There is a proposed construction of a gas pipeline as well as the Akkuyu power plant, which may be affected after downing of a Russian jet by Turkey as a disputed incident. According to a Turkish academic, any damage to the infrastructure deals could be significant, because Turkey imports 55 percent of its natural gas from Russia and 30 percent of its oil.
“Turkey has close strategic ties with Russia in terms of energy relationship with Russia, so it may be that the Turkish Stream project as well as the nuclear energy project – which is going to be constructed by the Russians -- could be affected," Professor Gurkan Kumbaroglu from Bogazici University's department of engineering, told CNBC.
So it is apparent if any sort of clash of ideas occur in Russo-Turkey relations, Russia has its hands on the switch to constrain Turkey politically without involving any armed conflict.
Similarly, Russia’s tourism department entertains much of Turkey’s tourism industry as 3.6 million Russians visited Turkey in the first nine months of 2013, according to the latest statistics of Russia’s Federal Tourism Agency. This definitely adds a lot to Turkish economy and proved Russia has the power to restrict its citizens to travel Turkey in the emergence of any dispute between the two countries.
On the other hand, trade is the most primary sector which both countries has shared since few decades with tremendous outcomes. Turkish vegetable exports account for some 20 percent of vegetable exports to Russia. In 2014, according to Turkish foreign trade statistics, exports to Russia were worth $5.9 billion while imports from Russia were worth $25.2 billion.
This scenario is more prone to absolute gains rather than relative gains because not only Turkey relies on Russian oil, gas and energy but Russia’s dependency on Turkish geostrategic location is a perfect example to say Turkey is also at gains.
Convergences of Russia-Turkey relations
Contemporary Russia did not take Turkey as an independent state and always restrained to be in connection with it until 2003 when surprisingly The Justice and Development Party of Turkey refused to allow American forces to use Turkish territory to invade Iraq. This proved to be a game changer for Russia’s perception towards Turkey. The relations furthered in a positive way leaving the footprints of Cold War era outside the door when Turkey, as a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was considered a frontline state in the divide between the communist bloc and the western bloc. Surprisingly, given the unrest in the North Caucasus and the Balkans on which issue the policies of Ankara and Moscow clashed, these relations changed. The tangible convergences between the duos can be elaborated as under:
Turkey’s need of oil and gas is one of the major convergence in the Russo-Turkey relations. The economic interests of both countries meet but there are points of divergence in various strategic plans to extend oil and gas pipelines between countries of the Central Asia, and the Middle East on the one hand and the European market on the other. So, they need to act rationally towards each other to organize their interests.
Russia’s dependency on Turkey is apparent because Turkey might remain Russia’s necessary gateway to the Mediterranean, just as the Ottoman Empire was in the past.
There has been efforts to institutionalize relations between the two countries which, in the form of Turkish-Russian Cooperation Council in April and May 2010 got established. Since then the two leaders of the country have met annually. It has put a lot of impact on the international image of bilateral relations of Russia and Turkey because leaders from both sides warmly welcomed each other since then.
Divergences, clashes and disputes
There have been large number of conflicts ever since the Tsarist Russia and Ottoman Empire since 1560s. The Russian side won more battles than Turkey which clearly indicates the significance of geographic disposition of Russia. However, Crimean War led Russia lose due to possible stronger alliance of Ottomans with British, French and Italian forces.
While in the contemporary world, Turkey’s neighbourhood has been in a turmoil, mainly Middle Eastern countries, which has directly influenced Turkey’s dealings with Europe and Russia.
Today, the changed relationship between Turkey and Russia has been affected by strategic considerations and political interests relating to the current reality in the Middle East. Especially the crisis in Syria has moved both Turkey and Russia oppositely in terms of national interests. The two countries are not on the same pitch regarding the crisis. Turkey has clearly taken steps to remove the regime of Assad whereas Russia regards Assad’s ongoing leadership as a necessary condition to cope with the turmoil in the collapsed state. Preservation of its own strategic interests in the Middle East, Russia is sensitive in providing support to Assad.
The conflict of interests between Turkey and Syria includes border issues, questions pertaining to water and riparian rights, religious outlook, political-military orientation, drug-trafficking, smuggling, terrorism (Kurdish insurgency), and espionage etc.
Syrian crisis and all the history of Russo-Turkey relations aside, today, it is thought that Turkey has created a trust deficit in relation to its bilateral relations with Russia. On the other hand Russia is also thought to have taken Turkish early warnings serious. However, there was not a serious threat to Turkey from Russia. Perhaps, Turkey could have considered many points of conflict before downing a Russian jet which was merely on its airspace (according to Russian narrative of the incident) at Turkey Syria border. Russia in no time retaliated and adopted a political approach launching serious sanctions against Turkey.
The trauma was not much concerning the policies of Turkey or Russia towards Syrian crisis but shooting down a Russian jet paved a way of thinking for the Russians to analyse Turkey’s intentions and goals for the coming days. Subsequently Russia accused Turkey of being in business with the Islamic State of Syria. Similar reactions are observed from Turkish side as well. The war of words between the leaders of both countries have definitely evoked state of unease and unrest to their bilateral relations. The conflict however is not seen as beneficial for any side at all. Russia, despite of its potential projects in Turkey, has unilaterally signed sanctions against it. However there are no signs of waging a war by any of them against each other.
In recent decades, Russia and Turkey have shared friendly and cooperative relations sharing economic, trade, military and projects related to energy sector. Both have respected each other’s view in the international decision-making process.
The issue is not only limited to the interests of both the countries, but then again there are risk factors which are giving shape to their policies. Turkey is not land locked, but still it’s a jigsaw which connects whole Asia with the Europe. This puts a lot of responsibility for any leader of the Turkey to stand head to head against any turmoil which may disrupt country’s repute in the international arena. While Russia, despite being connected with many states, has to depend on the market of Middle East, European countries and specifically Turkey to constitute its trade, military, economic and foreign policy for survival as a state.
It is clear that international relations are uncertain and unpredictable, both are crucially unparalleled to each other and the lack of trust between them is now a bone of contention. However, with the passage of time, relations may grip instead of losing its charm because Russia may digest what happened, or Turkey, which is not apparent at all, might apologize for its act of downing a Russian jet. Because, in an emerging world order into multi polarity, the interests of others may urge Russia and Turkey to rethink of their relations in a positive manner.
Foreign policy guidelines for Pakistan in case of Russia-Turkey conflict
The conflict of ideas between Russian and Turkish relations hasn’t directly influenced Pakistan to take any action of concern. However Pakistan does share points of convergences with both in terms of trade, educational exchange programs and tourist activities. In a nutshell, Pakistan and Turkey define each other as ‘sister countries’, and the friendly relations of both as a Muslim state is the apex of their strong bonds. On the other hand, while not overriding its relations with India, Russia has shown great interest to re-establish its bilateral relations with Pakistan. This can succeed the idea for Pakistan to maintain a balanced foreign policy towards Turkey and Russia in this matter. Yet again the ill-timed row between Russia and Turkey has subjugating power to keep Pakistan a neutral observer.
At this point in time, Pakistan as a member of global community, having its national interests in Turkey, Russia and other Middle Eastern countries, has a shared responsibility to play positive role for the betterment of relations between them. In a limited context, Pakistan may adopt a policy of deescalating the tensions between both and suggest measures of cooperation and coordination to tackle the situation. Not to forget, Yemen crisis affected thousands of Pakistani citizens and resulted in their departure from Yemen. This puts Pakistan in a situation to tactfully regulate its obligation to work for the betterment of its own citizens while maintaining sustainable relations with other countries. Pakistan can beget neutralizing role to the hard lined tensions between Turkey and Russia and may need to facilitate both for the emergence of pleasant and reputed ties.
Naqash Munir, currently working as Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Assistant at Muslim Hands International, is a former member of National Youth Assembly (session 2015-2016), Master of Science in International Relations and has apprenticed at Institute for Strategic Studies, Research and Analysis (ISSRA) and National Assembly Secretariat (Parliament of Pakistan).
You never seem worried, asked thee. I am a traveler, worries are just dull sceneries, said me.