Turkey and Russia; rivals with benefits – ICG report

Despite the recent rapprochement between Turkey and Russia, the two countries are still rivals in the Black Sea and South Caucasus, according to an International the Crisis Group report.

Relations between the two countries nearly collapsed after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian SU-24 warplane near the Syria-Turkey border in late 2015. But since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly apologised for the incident and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for Turkey during the July 2016 coup attempt, the two countries have worked on mending ties. The economic interests of the two countries created incentives to seek an end to Russian sanctions, while political interests of both paved the way for cooperation in Syria. 

The Turkish government’s policy of containing the Kurdish militia in Syria, which Turkey sees as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group which has been fighting inside Turkey since 1984, has strained its relations with the United States, which has backed Syrian Kurdish forces battling Islamic State. 

Along with Iran, Russia and Turkey launched the Astana process in 2017, a mechanism to find a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria, which they say is complementary to the United Nation’s Geneva peace talks. 

Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 missile defence system has also raised concerns among its NATO allies, which say this move could threaten the interoperability of the alliance’s integrated defence systems. Russia and Turkey also cooperate in energy policies and Turkey’s first nuclear plant is being constructed in a joint Russian-Turkish project with Russian energy company Rosatom the majority stakeholder.

"Russia-Turkey rapprochement has reached such peaks as to prompt Western concern about Turkey’s commitment to NATO and what some officials perceive as Ankara’s pivot east,” the International Crisis Group report said.

But, the report notes, though such concerns are not groundless, they overlook the continuing rivalry between Ankara and Moscow in the Black Sea and South Caucasus. 

In the Black Sea, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 shifted the strategic balance in the region in its favour and increased Turkey’s concerns about Crimean Tatars and in return forced Turkey to reverse its decades old policy of keeping NATO out of the region. In the South Caucasus, Russia and Turkey are on the opposite sides of the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. 

The report said the competition between Russia and Turkey in South Caucasus also adds to the region’s militarisation. “At the same time, Moscow’s expanded military footprint in Syria, Armenia, Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and on the Crimean peninsula fuels Turkish fears of encirclement,” it said. 

Though the two countries have conflicting objectives, their rapprochement might create an opportunity to prevent flare-ups in those two regions, the report said, with Ankara using its ties to both NATO and Russia to mitigate the risk of incidents in the Black Sea, two countries cooperating in maintaining peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Turkey using its ties with Moscow to protect the status and the rights of Crimean Tatars.