A Friend in Need? Russia and Turkey after the Coup

One of the few beneficiaries of the failed July 15 coup in Turkey is likely to be Russia. The coup and the heavy handed crackdown president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is carrying out in response have strained relations with Turkey’s NATO allies, giving Ankara greater incentive to pursue cooperation with Russia. Erdoğan’s purge of the military, meanwhile, leaves it less capable of deterring aggressive Russian actions throughout the two countries’ shared neighborhood. Russian president Vladimir Putin will likely make use of the tensions between Turkey and its NATO partners to pull Turkey closer (on his terms), while taking advantage of the confusion within the Turkish military to continue pushing forward in the Black Sea, the eastern Mediterranean, and the South Caucasus.

Even before the coup attempt, Turkey’s mounting difficulties were working to Russia’s benefit. In late June, Erdoğan offered an expression of regret for the downing of a Russian fighter jet that had violated Turkish air space last November, paving the way for an end to the fairly damaging sanctions Moscow imposed in response and a full normalization of Russo-Turkish relations. The economic impact of sanctions, coupled with mounting Turkish setbacks in Syria, were already leading Ankara to pursue a détente with Russia—a process that the failed coup will only accelerate.

While the Russian and Turkish economies have become deeply enmeshed in recent years, Ankara remains much more dependent on Moscow than vice versa. In 2015, Russia was Turkey’s third largest trade partner, despite economic headwinds in both countries. The most important component of that trade is energy—while Turkey has succeeded in diversifying its sources of oil in recent years, it still buys more than half its natural gas from Russia. The Russian gas monopoly Gazprom has also recently looked for Turkey to become a major transit state for gas sales to Europe as it seeks to end its reliance on pipelines through Ukraine. The planned pipeline through Turkey, dubbed Turkish Stream, was one victim of the sanctions (though some energy analysts questioned whether Turkish Stream was financially viable to begin with).

More damaging were sanctions on Turkish agriculture, construction companies, and tourism. Collectively, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) estimated that Russian sanctions would shave as much as 0.7% off Turkish GDP this year—at a time when the Turkish economy faces numerous additional challenges.

Russia was also contributing to Turkey’s growing difficulties in Syria. The Syrian civil war was the proximate cause of worsening Russo-Turkish relations in the last few years, with Turkey backing a range of Sunni Islamist forces seeking to oust president Bashar al-Assad and Russia emerging as Assad’s most important foreign patron.

By mid-2016, Turkey’s policy in Syria was in tatters. Assad’s forces controlled more territory than they had a year earlier, as did the forces of the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (PYD), which Ankara regards as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The fighting had sent more than 3 million refugees into Turkey, straining Ankara’s ability to care for them even with international assistance. Support for hardline Islamists—including the blind eye Ankara long turned to ISIS’s use of Turkey to recruit and send fighters into Syria—backfired badly, as Turkey itself became a target for jihadist attacks, which in turn damaged the country’s crucial tourism industry. Turkish support for hardline Islamists and tensions over the Kurds were also increasingly serious sources of tension with the United States.

Russia’s military involvement in Syria made the Turkish predicament worse. Russian intervention helped turn the tide on the ground, ensuring Assad would not be overthrown and allowing his troops to retake large swathes of territory. It also made Turkey’s preferred approach of establishing a no-fly zone to protect rebel forces from bombardment by the Syrian air force impossible to implement. Indeed, among the targets hit by Russian airpower were rebel groups backed by Ankara. The Russian jet shot down after violating Turkish airspace in November had been carrying out attacks against a Turkmen militia receiving arms from Turkey. Russia also provided financial and military support to the PYD. Not only did this support help the Kurdish forces secure more territory along the Turkish border, Ankara charged that Russian arms were being smuggled to the PKK, fueling the renewed insurgency in Turkey’s southeast.

This cascade of problems contributed to Erdoğan’s decision to express regret for the downing of the Russian warplane, which laid the foundation for a rapprochement with Moscow even before the failed coup. Following the apology, the Russian and Turkish governments began trying to find a way forward on the Syrian conflict, while Russia was beginning to roll back sanctions. The ISIS bombing of Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport on June 28 accelerated this process, with Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov soon agreeing to resume security and intelligence cooperation, with a focus on countering ISIS. The foreign ministers’ meeting also laid the groundwork for a more far-reaching discussion about cooperation on Syria, with Turkey perhaps softening its demand for Assad’s immediate departure in exchange for Russia scaling back its support for the Syrian Kurds and direct coordination against ISIS. Çavuşoğlu at one point even suggested that Russia could have access to Turkey’s İncirlik airbase, which U.S. forces also use, before later walking back his statement.

Russia’s full-throated support for Erdoğan during and after the coup look set to further deepen Russo-Turkish cooperation, even as Turkey’s difficulties give Moscow an opportunity to continue advancing its interests at Ankara’s expense.

In response to the coup attempt, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on July 16 calling on the people and government of Turkey to “resolve their problems without force and with respect for the constitutional order” and pledging cooperation with Turkey’s “legally elected leadership.” In a telephone call with Erdoğan the following day, Russian president Vladimir Putin emphasized the “categorical impermissibility of anti-constitutional actions and violence in the life of a state,” and confirmed his intention of holding a personal meeting with the Turkish president in the near future. A large Turkish delegation headed by deputy prime minister Mehmet Şimşek visited the Kremlin on July 25 to discuss renewing cooperation and to lay the groundwork for Erdoğan to visit St. Petersburg in August. Gazprom chairman Aleksey Miller then suggested that an agreement to re-start Turkish Stream—about which Ankara was always ambivalent—could be signed when Putin and Erdoğan meet.

The Russian response stood in stark contrast to those of Turkey’s Western allies, who condemned the coup (if sometimes slowly), but also have criticized Erdoğan’s wholesale sacking of military officers, judges, and academics and the imposition of a state of emergency in the wake of the coup attempt. Tensions with Washington are also high because of Turkey’s demand for the extradition of the U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom Ankara charges with masterminding the coup. As Çavuşoğlu noted on July 25, “we have received unconditional support from Russia, unlike other countries.”

In the months ahead, the tension between an increasingly paranoid Turkish government and its traditional Western partners creates a prime opportunity for Moscow to pull Ankara closer. Renewed cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, however, is likely to be very much on Russia’s terms, as Turkey’s post-coup turmoil, coupled with estrangement from the West and continued problems with both ISIS and the Kurds leave it with little leverage with Moscow.

As the Russian press has pointed out with some satisfaction, the coup plot—and Erdoğan’s reprisals—centered on the Turkish air force. It was the air force, of course, that was responsible for downing the Russian jet last November, and had in general advocated a hard line against Russia’s repeated violations of Turkish airspace. Erdoğan’s purge of the air force in particular, and the Turkish military more generally, is decimating one of the remaining bastions of Turkey’s old Kemalist elite that, while often suspicious of the United States, was committed to the NATO alliance and tended to view Russia as a threat to Turkish interests. A purged Turkish military stocked with Erdoğan loyalists is unlikely to have the same visceral commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance, or hostility to Russia.

This weakening of the military, along with the more general political crisis in Turkey, also reduces Ankara’s capacity to push back against the expansion of Russian power in the two countries’ shared neighborhood.

Even if Ankara and Moscow can achieve some degree of coordination over Syria, that conflict as well as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have already created significant geopolitical challenges for Turkey. The seizure of Crimea and intervention in Syria have allowed Russia to significantly upgrade its naval presence in the Black Sea and eastern Mediterranean. Russia’s development of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities in these areas threatens to bottle up the Turkish navy and limit the ability of NATO forces to come to Turkey’s aid—a problem exacerbated by post-coup turmoil in the Turkish navy, even if reports of mass defections are false.

Russia has also moved to shore up its presence in the South Caucasus, creating a joint air defense system with Armenia and promising to bolster its 5,000-strong troop presence on the Turkish-Armenian border. Following a surprise Azerbaijani offensive in April, Moscow is also playing a more active role in mediating the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. Among other goals, Russian diplomacy seeks to peel Baku away from its longstanding alignment with Turkey, re-establishing Russia as the critical power broker throughout the South Caucasus at Turkish (and Western) expense, while limiting prospects for Azerbaijani gas to reach Europe through Turkey.

Russia’s strategic advance in the Black Sea, eastern Mediterranean, and South Caucasus, not to mention the mounting cost of the Russian sanctions, was already driving Ankara to seek an accommodation with Moscow before the Turkish military’s abortive effort to oust Erdoğan. Now, facing uncertainty at home and difficulties with its NATO allies, Turkey finds itself increasingly desperate for friends. Russia, never much troubled by strongmen and locked in its own intractable confrontation with the West, seems happy to oblige. Ankara is likely to find that the price of Russian friendship is high—the question is how much it is willing to pay.

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

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