Will the emerging strategic partnership fail the tests of Idlib, Tripoli and Crimea?

First published in February 2020.

The shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey in November 2015 resulted in tensions in ties between Moscow and Ankara. However, since that tragic moment, Presidents Putin and Erdogan did not only manage to put that incident behind them but went as far as taking their relations to a strategic level when Turkey ordered Russia’s S-400 Air-Defense Missile systems in 2017, despite the loud objections of the United States and other NATO allies.

Being at opposite sides regarding President Assad’s regime did not prevent the two countries from initiating talks aiming to find a peaceful end to the Syrian civil war and to prevent further escalation in the Syrian governorate of Idlib.

However, in the recent months, we have witnessed an increase in tensions between Russia and Turkey as Assad’s forces supported by the Russian Air Force scored significant victories in Idlib while confronting Pro-Turkey forces and Turkey sustained significant troops losses after Syrian troops targeted Turkish soldiers.

Turkey and Russia are also supporting opposing parties in Libya’s civil war, while Turkey does not recognize Crimea as part of Russia and continues to build up its relations with Ukraine and Crimean Tatar anti-Russian figures.

Are we currently witnessing an end to the Putin-Erdogan honeymoon? Will Idlib, Tripoli and Crimea shake the seemingly solid cooperation, or will the Russian-Turkish strategic economic and security interests prevail after all?

A robust economic cooperation

Since the 2016 reconciliation between Erdogan and Putin, economic cooperation has been on the rise between Moscow and Ankara, and according to official figures, bilateral trade volume reached $25.7 billion in 2018 while the two nations plan to reach the $100 billion mark in the near future. Mutual investments already hit the $20 billion figure.

The Akkuyu nuclear energy plant is the two countries’ most important joint project so far. Valued at $20 billion that is fully funded by Russia, it will be in service for 60 years and provide 10% of Turkey’s electricity needs.

In 2019, economic relations were boosted particularly in Tourism, as a record-breaking number of more than 7 million Russian visited Turkey (7 017 657). This is 17,65% more than in 2018.

Despite the mounting pressure of the U.S. administration, Turkey did not backtrack on the 2017 multibillion USD deal to acquire S-400 Air Defense Units and started receiving the Russian systems in 2019 which caused a rift in relations between Ankara and Washington.

Among other recent successful Russo-Turkish cooperation projects, comes the official inauguration of the TurkStream Pipelines on 8 January 2020 by presidents Putin and Erdogan. TurkStream pipelines will transport Russian gas through the Black Sea to Turkey. Together, the two 930-kilometre (578-mile) lines under the Black Sea, along with the Russian and Turkish onshore pipes, will have a 31.5 billion cubic meters capacity (1.1 trillion cubic feet) of natural gas annually.

Turkey and Russia are discussing other projects as well, such as Ankara ordering Russian made fighter jets (SU-35 or the more advanced 5th generation SU-57 instead of American F-35), and civilian airplanes. Military-industrial cooperation to jointly produce fighter jets and Air-Defense systems might be on the agenda as well.

The Akkuyu nuclear power plant, the ordering of Russian Air-Defense systems (irritating Washington and making Russia and Turkey closer in the security sphere) and Turkey playing an important role as an energy hub and transport base for Russian gas into Europe (as part of Russia’s plans to bypass Ukraine) are all considered to be of a strategic nature, however, the tensions regarding Syria, Libya and Ukraine are clearly causing considerable damage to mutual cooperation.

Presidents Erdogan and Putin in Germany, 19 Jan 2020. / Wikimedia - Kremlin

Three hotspots in three continents

No doubt, the riskiest of the conflicts on Russian-Turkish ties is their approach to solving the Syrian civil war and particularly the Idlib governorate and Syrian Kurdish forces considered by Turkey as terrorist organizations.

In fact, Turkey has three major goals in Syria:

To prevent the creation of an independent Kurdish state on the Syrian soil which in turn could encourage Turkish Kurds to fight for more rights (and perhaps a state of their own inside Turkey if they receive tangible support from their Syrian brothers);

To establish a lasting influence in Northern Syria through its proxies and for that, it needs to prevent their defeat on the hands of the Syrian army;

To avoid being flooded by new waves of Syrian refugees from Idlib.

So far and until the latest victories of Assad’s forces, the Russian-Turkish cooperation regarding these issues had been branded a success. Putin and Erdogan managed to find mutually acceptable agreements to preserve both sides’ (and their allies) interests. However, the targeting of Turkish troops by the Syrian military seems to be an indirect message by Russia to Turkey, as Russians are growing impatient to the unwillingness of Turkey to find a final solution to the Idlib problem which could be a huge step to end the Syrian war. Russia’s Khmeimim airbase is also constantly being targeted by Pro-Turkish forces from zones under Turkish control, and the Kremlin believes Turkey is sending its own messages to Russia through those drone attacks.

As for the second hotspot, that is the Libya civil war. Turkey is openly supporting Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA) by sending him military hardware as well as Turkish troops and military specialists, while Russia, despite openly not taking sides, has a clear preference to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his National army forces. Russian Private military contractors are fighting on the side of Haftar forces (no doubt with the approval and encouragement of the Kremlin).

Finally, the Russian-Ukrainian conflict for Crimea provided Erdogan with the ideal opportunity to “diplomatically” provoke Russia on several occasions. The latest of them, came during his visit to Ukraine, where he greeted the Ukrainian honor guard with the phrase “Glory to Ukraine!”, considered by Russia as offensive, as anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalists used it in the 1920s.

Wake-up calls that might break the deadlocks

Being at odds in Syria, Libya and Ukraine might indeed present Putin and Erdogan with an opportunity to break the deadlocks and prove once again the strategic nature of their relations.

President Putin has been smartly vying for solutions preserving the interests of every side in each conflict where Russia had stakes. Despite the shooting down of the Russian jet in 2015, he did not threaten Turkey militarily but patiently worked to find an issue for the unexpected incident. Sacrificing the energy cooperation between his country and Turkey (nuclear energy and TurkStream) was clearly not an option as the importance of TurkStream pipelines was strategic for the Russian leader especially after dropping the South Stream project.

Russia, as the decision-making player in the Syrian conflict, can provide security guarantees to Turkey and the arrival of a Russian delegation to Ankara to start negotiations regarding Idlib signals the intent of Russia to find an acceptable solution for both parties. The Russian military message has been delivered through the Syrian army; now, it is time to sit down and negotiate.

As for Libya, Putin and Erdogan’s meeting on the sidelines of Berlin peace conference proves the willingness of both sides to reach a solution preserving mutual interests.

Finally, as for Crimea, Vladimir Putin realizes that Erdogan uses it for election purposes as well, as there are many Turks that are descendants of Crimean Tatars or have ethnic and religious ties with them. Erdogan, also realizing that Russia already has the upper hand in Syria, wants to blackmail the Russian leadership when he strengthens his ties with Ukraine. In a diplomatic move that might ease tensions regarding Crimea, President Putin personally invited Erdogan to attend the opening of the Simferopol Central Mosque (expected in April 2020). If Erdogan accepts the invitation and makes the trip or at least send a delegation representing him, it will send a strong message of his willingness to find compromises with Putin.

Three conflicts have cast a shadow on the strength of Russian-Turkish ties. The two sides have much more to win from their cooperation than from being at odds. However, despite increasing tensions, nothing indicates so far that Putin and Erdogan will roll back on the successful cooperation they have built so far. Both countries are facing economic hardships and tensed relations with Washington; therefore, strong cooperation is clearly in their best interest.🔷

[This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com on 13 February 2020. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Kremlin. - Presidents Putin and Erdogan. | 19 Jan 2020. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)