Best of Enemies: The Russia-Turkey Confrontation beyond Syria

The most striking moments from Vladimir Putin’s December 17 press conference came when the Russian president condemned Turkey in rather colorful terms—the English transcript cleaned it up from “lick the Americans in a certain place” to “brown nose the Americans”—over its downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter bomber on November 24, an act Putin had previously termed a “stab in the back.”

The downing of the Russian plane is just the most dramatic episode in the two countries’ long-running struggle in Syria. The Syrian crisis put a halt to what had been a historic rapprochement between two important powers with a long history of enmity and mistrust. Russia and Turkey have been rivals since the Middle Ages, fighting (depending on who’s counting) anywhere from a dozen to nearly 20 wars. The last of these, World War I, brought down both the Russian and Ottoman empires, but did not resolve the longstanding rivalry over territory and ideology that had characterized their previous history.

Only in the 21st century did Russo-Turkish relations enter a new phase characterized by deepening cooperation across a wide range of issues, including energy security, the Middle East, and the countries’ shared “neighborhood” in the Caucasus and Central Asia, as well as the pursuit of alternatives to liberal democracy and Euro-Atlantic architecture. This entente is now in peril, and its unraveling could thus have ramifications stretching far beyond the Syrian border area where the Russian plane went down.

Origins of the Rapprochement

The Soviet collapse left Russia and Turkey without a common border, creating a buffer zone between the two states, easing the security dilemma that had made them historic foes. Both, moreover, entered the new millennium as post-imperial, multinational states struggling to find their place in the post-Cold War international order.

Their rapprochement was also aided by the presence of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyıp Erdoğan at the head of their respective governments. Both Putin and Erdoğan have embraced populism and an appeal to “traditional values” that frequently put them at odds with the West, notwithstanding Turkey’s membership in NATO and candidacy to join the European Union.

Following a brief effort in the 1990s to establish itself as a patron for the newly independent Turkic peoples of the South Caucasus and Central Asia, Ankara gradually curtailed its ambitions in a region Russia increasingly regarded as vital to its security. In 2002, Putin and Erdoğan agreed to curtail support for one another’s rebels: Turkey eschewed support for Chechen and other North Caucasus militants while Russia ended its support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), three years after denying asylum to PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.

The resulting détente paved the way for growing economic cooperation. By 2008, Russia had become Turkey’s largest trading partner, with energy the most important component of the economic relationship. At its peak, Turkey was purchasing more than two-thirds of itsnatural gas from Russia, which offered favorable prices and flexibility in the face of fluctuating demand.

Despite its membership in NATO and aspiration to join the EU, Turkey also provided at least tacit support for Russian efforts at promoting multipolarity by creating a new non-Western dominated international architecture. Erdoğan threatened to apply for membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in response to delays to its EU membership application. Though stopping short of membership, Turkey became an SCO “dialogue partner” in 2013. It also proposed signing a free-trade agreement with the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, and Russian officials have suggested Turkey could even become a full-fledged member of the union. Some form of Turkish involvement would lend the Eurasian Economic Union both greater economic heft and political legitimacy as something more than just a Russian sphere of influence. Even though these approaches have been more show than substance, they are indicative of a growing convergence between Moscow and Ankara’s strategic perspectives.

Rivalry renewed

Much of this cooperation now appears at risk as a result of the conflict in Syria. Since the downing of the Su-24, Russia’s response has focused on punishing Turkey economically, but the harsh rhetoric and escalating confrontation in Syria hint at the potential unwinding of the complex interdependence that has characterized Russo-Turkish relations over the past decade and a half, with potentially significant economic and strategic consequences.

Already, Russia has frozen $500 million worth of investment, sanctioned Turkish textiles and agricultural products, cancelled the countries’visa-free regime, banned package tours to Turkey, and frozen the planned Turkish Stream gas pipeline that would bring Russian gas to Turkey across the Black Sea.

The Russian air force has also stepped up its bombing of Turkish-backed Turkmen rebels in Syria, despite President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Moscow was also providing support to the Free Syrian Army, which includes the Turkmen forces.

Cracks are visible in the relationship beyond Syria as well.

Take the South Caucasus. The principal exception to the scaling back of Ankara’s support for the Turkic peoples in the former Soviet Union was Azerbaijan, where Turkey has developed a critical energy and communications corridor that includes projects like the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline and a nearly completed railway from Baku to Kars in eastern Turkey. Ankara has also provided crucial diplomatic support to Azerbaijan it its two-decade long standoff with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Russia, conversely, had more than 5,000 soldiers stationed in Armenia before the crisis and recently promised to dispatch 2,000 more, along with attack helicopters .

While this presence ensures Yerevan’s security against an attack from Azerbaijan or Turkey, Russia has also long cultivated energy-rich Azerbaijan. With tensions along the line of contact in Nagorno-Karabakh worsening and Azerbaijan’s relations with the West fraying, diplomats and analysts are increasingly speculating that Russia could entice Baku to join the EEU, or at least redirect energy sales from Turkey to Russia in exchange for securing some concessions on the future of Nagorno-Karabakh. Such a step would reduce Turkish influence in Baku, undermine Turkey’s ambitions to become the principal hub for East-West energy transit, and confirm Russia’s role as the main power-broker in the South Caucasus.

Another worry is the Kurds. Turkey’s Kurdish conflict has roared back to life after the collapse of a ceasefire between the government and the PKK in July. In subsequent months, tensions were exacerbated by Erdoğan’s openly nationalist turn ahead of Turkey’s November 1 general election. Turkey is now facing an open insurgency in much of its southeast at the same time its forces are striking Kurdish encampments across the border in Syria at the expense, critics suggest, of the campaign against Islamic State forces. Turkish media has reported that Russia is now carrying out strikes in support of the PKK-affiliated Syrian Kurdish forces known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and supplied them with weapons including heavy armor. While still unconfirmed, renewed Russian support for PKK-affiliated groups could solidify an autonomous Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria. Direct Russian support for Kurdish militants in Turkey, as Moscow provided during the 1980s, would raise the stakes dramatically in Ankara’s struggle against the PKK, and curtail Ankara’s ability to project power beyond its borders. This more violent, introverted Turkey would be a less effective partner for the West in Syria and beyond.

Since the turn of the millennium, growing Russo-Turkish cooperation has turned decades, if not centuries of geopolitics on its head. Not only did closer relations facilitate trade, investment, and tourism between the two countries, but also established a regional condominium that promoted stability in areas ranging from the South Caucasus to the Middle East to Central Asia. Despite growing economic ties, the Russo-Turkish entente was something of a marriage of convenience. Drawn together by shared aversion to a U.S.-led global order that increasingly seemed to ignore their interests, the relationship remained light on substance or “ strategic depth .” Ankara and Moscow talked grandly and emptily of building up the SCO, even as they found themselves locked in an increasingly bitter struggle over the future of Syria. That lack of depth explains why the relationship has unraveled so quickly in response to the downing of a single Russian aircraft. But an unwinding of the entente threatens to exacerbate tensions across areas whose history is defined by the struggle for mastery between Russia and Turkey.

Jeffrey Mankoff is deputy director and senior fellow with the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

Jeffrey Mankoff
Senior Associate (Non-Resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program