Parallel to the Arab Spring in the Middle East, Russian foreign and security policy towards the countries of the region has changed. Moreover, Turkey had a major disagreement with the United States over the Syrian civil war, in particular issues such as YPG and PKK. This is while Turkey has been seeking more influence in the Middle East in recent years and at the same time becoming a stable energy hub by Russian support in the region. This symmetry has brought Turkey and Russia closer to each other. However, Russia and Turkey have some significant problems in Syria and compete with each other in the North Africa, especially in Libya. More importantly, discovery of new natural gas sources by Turkey in the Black Sea could have a significant impact on Turkey’s regional relations, especially with Russia. With all these interpretations, can we say that Turkish-Russian relation has entered a strategic phase or has such a potentiality? In this article, I will try to answer this question properly.
From Montreux Convention to post-Cold War
Russia-Turkey relations have fluctuated over the centuries. During the Ottoman and Russian Empire, the Russian-Turkish wars began, which dates back to the mid-1500s and continued until the end of the 1800s. In 1925, after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, the country reached one of its first bilateral agreements with Russia on neutrality and non-aggression.
Since the signing of the Montreux Convention (Regarding the Regime of the Straits) between Turkey and the world’s major powers (Bulgaria, France, Greece, Japan, Romania, Yugoslavia, UK and USSR) in 1936, allowing Turkey to control transit in the straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles, the Russians sought to amend this agreement. Therefore, relations between the two countries had been shaky. Afterwards, during the Cold War the relationship quality between the two countries received influence from the interactions between the Western Bloc and the USSR. It should also be noted that Turkey joined NATO in 1952 in order to confront the possible threats of the Soviet Union. This membership was considered a strategic decision in Turkey’s foreign policy. Considering all of these facts, it is clear that even in that period and before the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a changing relationship between the two major powers in the Black sea region. This unstable relationship lasted for a long time, and manifested itself more vividly during the Putin-Erdogan rule.
One step forward, one step backward: a gradual change in foreign policy
Recent developments in the region and shifts in the Russian and Turkey visons in their foreign policy after the Arab spring caused changes in relations between the two countries. Turkey is a Sunni but non-Arab power in west Asia, and has recently improved its relations with Russia. Moreover, Russia as an external power in the region pursues to compete with the United States and strengthen its economy by boosting the energy market and weapons sale. Relations between Russia and Turkey deteriorated after a Turkish F-16 overthrew a Russian-Su-24 in November 2015. However, after Erdogan’s reaction, relations recovered. Erdogan concluded that Turkey needed the Russia’s support in controlling the activities of the Kurdish army forces when entering northern Syria. On the other hand, he concluded that if Russia imposes sanctions on Turkey, it could in the short run at least, cause some significant economic problems.
Relations between Turkey and Russia have improved since mid-July 2016 since Russia supported Erdogan after the coup of July 15, 2016, contrary to the US’s little support. As a result, Turkey became closer to Russia, and almost all the projects that were paused due to the shooting down of the Russian warplane were resumed. On the other hand, Russia was aiming to turn Turkey away from NATO and the U.S., which posed a threat to it. On November 29, 2017, Turkey signed a contract for the purchase of the S-400 missile defense system. This purchase was in opposition to the United States and other NATO partners. Among the issues that made this purchase reasonable for Turkey one could think of the internal situation of Turkey and Erdogan, as well as different views on Russia by Turkey and the United States as well as the other NATO members. In Turkey’s opinion, the country signed a deal with Russia since the United States refused to sell the Patriot’s defense system. Nevertheless, from the US perspective, it is interpreted that Turkey should choose between F-35 and S-400. For this reason, training and the sale of F-35 to Turkey were suspended.
It should be noted that, in addition to the purchase of this system, Turkey has put in place a large TurkStream (natural gas pipeline) project for supplying its fuel as well as exporting Russian gas through the pipeline to some European countries. The energy-centered and macro-energy projects of the two countries will not end here, and Russia will develop Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant by the year 2023. This amount of economic exchanges is taking place, which should make it possible for Russia to use them as a leverage on various issues against Turkey. However, according to Galip dalay, IPC-Mercator Fellow at the Centre for Applied Turkey Studies at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), it is too early to assert that Turkey is joining the Russian orbit. The Turkish elites – both Ottoman and republican – have always been alert to Russian geopolitical ambitions.
In addition, after recent Turkey’s gas discoveries in the Black Sea it can be hard to say that Russia can use the energy sector as a powerful tool to make a remarkable effect against Turkey. Moreover, the killing of several Turkish soldiers by Russian-backed forces in Idlib, Syria, earlier this year caused significant damage to growing relations between the two countries. Subsequent agreements to take control of Idlib by the two countries alleviated some of the deterioration. On the other hand, the two countries have a significant problem in Libya. While Turkey supports Libya’s internationally recognized government (GNA), Russia supports the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar. Therefore, considering these contradictory and serious issues, it is hard to say that the two countries are moving towards a strategic alliance. In this regard, Mark Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University, claims that Russia has hoped that “its willingness to support opposing sides will encourage competition for Moscow’s favor through each side offering it favors and concessions.” Therefore, we can conclude that it is unlikely that Russia would want a strong strategic alliance in the Middle East, since it hurts Russia’s balancing policy in the region.
The last word
Given Russia’s foreign policy views, especially in the Middle East, and the pursuit of a medium-term partnership instead of a strategic partnership, and Russia’s significant differences with Turkey in areas such as Syria, Libya and the Black Sea, we cannot say the two countries have a good potential for a strategic partnership. On the other hand, the view of the Turkish elite, in spite of the view of the Turkish government, is more towards the Western bloc, and this has a significant effect on the country’s lack of trust in Russia for a strategic partnership. Turkey wants to be recognized by the West as the most powerful in the region. Therefore, it wants to play with all its cards. On the other hand, as long as Turkey is a member of NATO, and has shared interests with the West, the interpretation of the strategic relations between Russia and Turkey does not seem to be very correct. However, it can be said that Turkey has changes in its foreign policy in recent years because it does not consider Russia as a threat to its interests, and can benefit from relations with the country in various fields.
Saman Kamdar is an independent researcher in the fields of International Relations & Comparative Politics. While his research area includes a wide range of topics, currently he works on international and security politics with focus on the Middle East, foreign policy & government of Middle Eastern countries, conflict and terrorism.
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