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Turkey and Russia: From friends to potential enemies over Syria

Russia’s move into Syria has brought relations with Turkey to their lowest level in 6 decades and threatens energy cooperation and economic ties

Russia’s intervention in Syria which began on the final days of September, may have overturned the chessboard in one of the most delicate but till now skillfully managed economic and political relationships in Europe.

Though Russia seems to have been planning its move for at least six months, the change came without warning. When President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a one-day visit to President Putin in Moscow on 23 September, the two countries seemed to have a good working relationship based mainly on energy cooperation and trade. Russia was Turkey’s sixth largest trading partner in 2013 and last year bilateral trade between the two countries reached $31bn. This year’s performance looked likely to be poorer, which was one of the motivations for Erdogan’s visit.

Gas dependence

More important than the statistics for the volume of Turkish-Russian trade, is Turkey’s dependence on energy imports from Russia. More than half of Turkey’s natural gas is imported from Russia (some estimates put it as high as 60 percent), reaching the country through several pipelines, the most important being Blue Stream which travels under the Black Sea and was due to be expanded. Turkey also hoped that a new Turkish Stream network would be agreed, though negotiations over it have been languishing this summer.

Turkey also signed an agreement in 2010 for Rosatom of Russia to construct a 4,800 MW nuclear power plant on the Mediterranean. Russia, which is putting up 93 percent of the finance for its construction, has so far spent around $3 billion on it.

Projects of this kind and the expansion of bilateral trade, rather than the situation in Syria, still dominated the agenda while President Erdogan was in Moscow. Though the two sides, as always, agreed to differ over Syria, the atmosphere was warm enough for Erdogan to suggest that Assad might be allowed to stay on for a “transitional period” in the event of a Syrian settlement. This was a major departure from Turkey’s unwavering stand against Assad, but on his return to Ankara, the President retreated back to insistence that Assad must go.

Russia's surprise move

Less than a week later, Russian intervention in Syria completely changed the picture. It would hardly be surprising if the Turkish president felt very angry about the way he was misled in Moscow about Russian intentions. Ten days after his Moscow visit, President Erdogan was accusing Russia of making a “grave mistake”. Two days after that he went as far as to say that Russia might “lose Turkey’s friendship”.

The Russian presence in Syria upsets Turkish foreign policy at several levels. First, Russia and Turkey are historical enemies who in the 20th century found a way to live and work together, despite their contrasting cultures and political systems. But Russia is still the country which tried to expand into Turkey many times over the centuries. In the early 1950s under Stalin, the USSR was still actually demanding territory from Turkey – a move which propelled Turkey into the Western alliance. For Russia now to have a significant military presence south of Turkey in Syria is a far-reaching and potentially alarming change in the geostrategic balance.

Vastly more frustrating for Ankara however was the impact of Russian intervention on Turkey’s drive to help overthrow Assad and replace him with a government formed from the Syrian opposition. Active Russian backing means Assad’s chances of survival in a rump Syrian state look much stronger. Ankara’s allies in the Syrian opposition have suffered repeated attacks from Russian jets and even missiles. Specifically the Russian intervention blocks Turkish direct support to the Army of Conquest  - a coalition of moderate and hardline opposition fighters in northern Syria.

Prospects of creating a safe zone along a stretch of Syria south of its frontier with Turkey and perhaps eventually turning this into a no-fly zone have now receded.

Clash in the skies

However, what has really strained links between Turkey and Russia is the regular buzzing or harassment of Turkish planes in their country’s airspace close to the Syrian border either by Russian jets or those of the Syrian air force. These do not seem to have been casual mistakes: despite declarations of solidarity with Turkey from NATO, incidents have continued with Western observers saying that the violations are deliberate. The most recent was the reported buzzing of Turkish jets by Syrian planes on 11 October. Even if these incidents are routine blustering and rudeness by members of the Russian armed forces and their allies and not a serious formal threat - the explanation believed to be given privately by Moscow - they have caused a serious flaring-up of tension and warnings from Turkey’s NATO allies.

This has led to talk of cutting off some of the country’s economic and investment links with the Russians, according to President Erdogan and some of his ministers, perhaps even the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.

“There are other places Turkey could get gas and other countries that could build its first nuclear plant,” the president said on 6 October.    

Yet on the Russian side, prospects of going ahead with Turkish Stream may be fading, while Russia dealt a blow to Turkey’s energy programme on 5 October by announcing that it might substantially reduce the enlargement of the Blue Stream pipeline which already supplies one third of Turkey’s natural gas. However, Daily Sabah, a pro-government paper, denies this claim.

A reduction in bilateral trade would badly hurt both countries. Though Turkey’s energy import needs probably make it more exposed, the Russian economy is vulnerable too. There seem to be voices on both sides arguing that business should go on as usual. On 10 October, Ali Riza Alaboyun, minister of energy in the pre-election government, dismissed suggestions that the Akkuyu deal could be cancelled. “There is not any problem between Turkey and Russia about the project,” Alaboyun said. From Russia too there have been calls not to allow energy and economic cooperation to falter.

Still relations between the two countries are at their worst in 60 years. If Russia supports not only Assad but Syria’s Kurds too, they will certainly worsen further. While Russia remains in Syria, full normalisation will be difficult if not impossible.

- David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant, and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics, and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Russian navy ship Novocherkassk passes through the Dardanelles strait on October 09, 2015 in Canakkale, Turkey. (AA) 

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