August 12, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: A New Chapter for Turkey and Russia

• In a highly symbolic visit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to St. Petersburg to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 9.

• The trip was Erdogan’s first since the failed July coup that has increased anti-Western sentiment in Turkey, a NATO member.

• The normalization of relations between Russia and Turkey is primarily economic, with Syria remaining a point of disagreement.

• As it has with Iran, Turkey will not let disagreement over Syria dictate its relations with Russia more broadly.


For all the international concern over Turkey shifting closer to Russia, the immediate impact of the August 9 meeting between Turkish President Erdogan and Russian President Putin was no more than the normalization of long-standing economic ties. While the choice of Russia for Erdogan’s first post-coup foreign visit was certainly symbolic and deliberate, it does not yet indicate a concrete step away from NATO, of which Turkey is a member. Though relations between Turkey, the EU and the U.S. have been strained, they will likely stabilize once the rhetoric and posturing subside. However, the long-term prospects for relations between Turkey and the West are less clear should current trends continue.

Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015 along the Turkish-Syrian border created multiple diplomatic and economic issues for Turkey. Ever since, Ankara has tried to discretely mend relations with Moscow, culminating in a written apology from Erdogan to Putin in June. During their August 9 meeting, both presidents made clear that the countries were moving on from the recent troubles and were strategic partners.

The immediate result of the meeting is the lifting of several Russian economic sanctions imposed after the downing of the jet; Russian tourism will resume, and Turkish fruit and vegetables will once again be sold in Russia. A large-scale natural gas pipeline project, long desired by Russia, known as the ‘Turkish Stream’ will resume, as will Russian construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. Russia is one of Turkey’s largest trading partners, and the recent diplomatic and economic freeze had decreased trade by 43%—an enormous blow to the Turkish economy.

Serious disagreements still remain between Turkey and Russia over the Syrian civil war, though Erdogan has said there can be no solution without Russia. Ankara has pushed hard for the ouster of the Assad regime, supporting rebel groups on both sides of the border. Direct Russian military support has changed the equation and stabilized the regime, forcing Turkey to acknowledge that a rebel military victory is unlikely, and likely not worth the geopolitical costs.

It remains to be seen how close Turkey and Russia are on the Syrian issue. There will be subsequent meetings with the respective foreign ministers and intelligence chiefs specifically focused on the conflict. Even if disagreements persist on Syria, it is likely that overall relations will continue to improve. Turkey has very similar disagreements over Syria with Iran, which also directly supports the Assad regime, but does not allow that one issue to dictate the larger framework of relations.

The aftermath of the failed coup will continue to stress relations between Turkey and the EU and the U.S., which Putin will happily exploit. Erdogan, in his public statements, appears to place high value on personal touches in relations with other leaders. He has stressed how pleased he was that Putin was the first leader to call him after the attempted coup and offer unconditional support, while criticizing the U.S. and EU for what he perceived as a delayed and tepid response. Turkey’s massive post-coup government crackdown—and the possibility of reinstating the death penalty—has put Turkey and the EU on delicate footing. Fethullah Gulen’s presence in the U.S. and the questions that remain as to whether the Obama administration will agree to Turkish demands for his extradition is another issue that will not easily disappear. Turkey needs good relations with the EU, particularly Germany, as much as it does with Russia, making a more serious rupture of relations unlikely, yet still worrisome.


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