Turkey, Russia ramp up military cooperation with joint drills in Black Sea

Russian and Turkish warships held joint drills in the Black sea from the 6th to the 8th of March, RT News quoted a Russian Navy representative as saying on Friday. 

According to the Russian official, both nations deployed a corvette and a minesweeper to train ships on how to pass through a zone which could have mines, while the Turkish vessels were stationed at the Russian port of Novorossiysk during the drills.

Turkey’s military conducted last week the largest military exercise in the country’s history, carrying out drills in the Black Sea, Aegean and eastern Mediterranean with 103 navy ships.

Moscow and Ankara’s growing military cooperation across Europe and Asia showcases the United States' strained ties with the critical Eurasian region, Newsweek said on Friday, citing joint Turkish-Russian drills in the Black Sea. 

Relations between Ankara and Moscow nearly collapsed after Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian SU-24 warplane near the Syria-Turkey border in late 2015. But since the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan publicly apologised for the incident and the Russian President Vladimir Putin supported Erdoğan during a coup attempt in 2016, the two countries have worked on mending ties.

The Turkish government’s policy of containing the Kurdish militia in Syria, which Turkey sees as a branch of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), 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.

Turkey and Russia signed a deal in September over Idlib, the last major rebel held enclave in Syria to prevent a potential military assault by Bashar Assad’s government. The deal included the establishment of a demilitarised zone, with Turkey taking the responsibility for dissolving jihadi groups. On Friday, Turkish and Russian troops started joint military patrols in Idlib, in accordance with a deal reached by Turkey, Russia and Iran on Feb. 14 in the Russian resort of Sochi.

Turkey also signed a contract with Moscow worth a reported $2.5 billion in December 2017 for the purchase of the Russian S-400 missile systems despite objections from its NATO allies, who are concerned that the system could collect data on NATO jets and undermine their defences.

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday warned Ankara that purchasing S-400s might result in a reassessment of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 programme and risk other potential future arms transfers, as well as leading to potential sanctions.

Yet, Turkish officials have repeatedly said that Turkey would not renege on plans to purchase S-400 missile systems from Russia. 

"Our S-400 agreement is a necessity beyond preference. We have to protect our 82 million citizens," the Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Friday in an interview with state-run Anadolu news agency.

Viktor Kladov, a director at Russia's Rostec defence and technology company said on Friday that the process of delivering Russia's S-400 missile defence systems to Turkey was going very smoothly.  "This is a system that the Turkish government wants, and we want to give it. And so far it is going very smoothly," he said.

In the Black Sea, on the other hand, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 has shifted the strategic balance in the region in its favour and has increased Turkey’s concerns about Crimean Tatars. 

Turkey’s modest fleet in the Black Sea has never counterbalanced Russia’s overall power and Ankara has been overwhelmed by Russia’s buildup of its Black Sea fleet since 2014, the International the Crisis Group said last year in a detailed report on Turkish-Russian relations. 

The Turkish Foreign Ministry called for avoiding steps that could endanger stability and peace in the region, after the Russian coast guard in November seized three Ukrainian ships and their crew, reigniting frictions between Moscow and Washington.