On December 16th 2016, there was an unusual – even by the post-coup attempt standards – police presence near the Cagdas art centre in Ankara. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was going on. On that evening, Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, was shot by an off-duty Turkish police officer at a vernissage right there at the Cagdas centre. Even if there had been street protests over Russian involvement in the Syrian conflict in Ankara during the previous days, nobody could have ever anticipated such a tragic accident would occur. Considering that the peace that Turkey and Russia had managed to make after the crisis over Turkey’s shooting of the Russian SU-24 fighter jet was still fragile and disagreements in Syria were growing, experts in Turkey and Russia alike were expecting things to turn sour.
What happened instead is that the two countries carried on with the process of normalization of their relations, which had commenced in the summer of 2016 following Turkey’s formal apology for the downing of the Russian jet. Shortly after Karlov’s assassination, in January 2017, there was the kick-off meeting of the Astana talks, the Turkey-Iran-Russia-championed Syria peace process that, de facto, eclipsed the UN-backed Geneva negotiations. It almost seemed like the major source of problems between Turkey and Russia had turned into the main reason for the two countries to stick together.
To date, the Moscow-Ankara cooperation continues in a number of fields, diverging interests and ad hoc frictions notwithstanding. What is this cooperation based on? Trade, especially in the energy field, is of paramount importance. Russia is the largest provider of oil and especially natural gas to Turkey, and this explains why it has become one of Turkey’s main trading partners. At the same time, this relationship is not completely balanced: despite Moscow being the second largest exporter to Turkey, Ankara is not even among the top ten exporters to Russia.
The energy cooperation goes beyond oil and gas. In April 2018, a ceremony marked the beginning of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant’s construction led by Rosatom, Russia’s state nuclear energy corporation. Russian President Vladimir Putin described Akkuyu, together with TurkStream – a gas pipeline stretching from Russia to Turkey across the Black Sea – as symbols "of the progressive development of the Russian-Turkish diverse partnership and a pledge of friendship between our nations."
Russian weapons usually were not an item included in Turkey’s shopping cart; Ankara’s major arms imports are from the US and some European countries (mainly Spain and Italy). However, Turkey’s recent plans to buy the Russian S-400 missile defence system sparked outrage in Washington, who staunchly opposed the move both because it claims it involves potentially sensitive technology and because it is negotiating with Ankara the sale of US-made Patriot system.
Turkey’s plans to purchase the S-400 system could simply be part of its negotiating strategy vis-à-vis the US, but they also speak to the increasing importance of two elements shaping Russia-Turkey relations: security cooperation and worsening ties with the west, especially the US. Russia-Turkey security cooperation is evident especially in the context of the Syrian war. Both countries keep meeting regularly – with Iran in the framework of the Astana talks or bilaterally – to discuss their actions in Syria. Ankara, in a weaker negotiating position vis-à-vis Moscow due to their unbalanced relation, came to adopt more accommodating views in Syria. Ankara’s shift in rhetoric against Syrian President Bashar al Assad may be the result of altered priorities as well as Russian pressure. The stabilization of Idlib, one of the buffer zones established by Putin and Erdogan last September, is another point of contention. While Russia pushes for a military operation that would put Idlib under the control of the Syrian regime, Turkey fears that such a move would threaten its interests, especially the relations that it has formed with Syria’s opposition groups. So far, Turkey and Russia have managed to avoid overt clashes. But the preservation of the balance of power in Syria seems essential to the future of Russian-Turkish relations.
Anti-Western sentiments springing from the deterioration of relations with both the EU (mainly due to the Ukraine sanctions for Russia and frustration over the stalled EU membership process for Turkey) and the US (Moscow’s arch-enemy for decades and Ankara’s increasingly problematic ally) contribute to the increased cooperation between Turkey and Russia. Frictions have always been a mark of Turkish-Russian relations, since the time of the Russian and Ottoman empires, but so has both countries’ ambivalent relationship with Europe and the US. While it is not possible to summarise centuries of history of relations here, it is worth noticing that the role of Europe has always been a constant in the definition of both countries’ identity and foreign policy. The analyst Dimitar Bechev describes these dynamics well: both polities regarded Europe as “both an ideal to be emulated and followed [...] and a formidable challenge and even a threat to the state’s very survival.”
Adding to this, there is the political, maybe even value, convergence between the two governments in an illiberal fashion. Much ink has been spilt on how Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey “illiberal democracies” increasingly resemble each other. Especially since the 2010s, a growing number of academic and press publications have made direct comparisons between the Turkish and the Russian leaders, whether in terms of their “similar logics of power accrual and maintenance”, their strict control over the Internet, the widespread anti-American sentiments among both populations, or because in both countries “forms of democracy have been suborned by majoritarian nationalism, bolstered to varying degrees by the security state.”
Finally, it is worth mentioning both countries’ soft power and numerous people-to-people contacts. The crisis over the downed jet led to Russian sanctions on Turkey causing a dramatic increase in the price of fruit and vegetables in Russian shops, the prohibition for Russians on travelling to the warm and cheap Turkish seaside, and even the reported departure of 2,000 out of the 40,000 Russian women that are married to Turkish men. With the normalization of ties, Russian wives and tourists went back to Turkey, and 2019 was declared the Year of Culture and Tourism between the two countries. As shown by opinion polls conducted in both countries, Russians and Turks hold positive views of each other and endorse increasing political ties. A November 2018 poll by the US Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) found that 51 percent of Turks view Russia favorably, a significant rise from June 2018 when the number was 39 percent. At the same time, half of Russians approve of stronger cooperation with Turkey, according to a survey conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VCIOM).
Whether motivated by strategic considerations in Syria, energy interests or plain anti-Western oppositions, Turkey and Russia will plausibly continue going down the “cooperation despite frictions” path. Syria remains the main source of conflict, but a possible escalation also depends on the various regional and international actors involved in the crisis (mainly Iran, Israel and the US). It is likely that both Turkey and Russia will make efforts to overcome tensions, or the very least maintain the current status quo. Meanwhile, the street where the Russian embassy is located in Ankara has been renamed after the deceased Ambassador Andrei Karlov, a symbolic gesture by the Turkish authorities.