Is there a Russian precedent to the U.S.-Turkish crisis?

Turkey's current diplomatic crisis with the United States is the most serious low-point between the two NATO allies in six decades. But for Ankara, it is the second serious crisis with a major world power in just two years following a dispute with Moscow after Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane over the Syrian border in November 2015.

While both crises came as a result of different circumstances, there may nevertheless be precedents from the seven-month rift with Russia that may prove informative for anticipating how this current diplomatic crisis will play out.

Russia sought to reprimand and pressure Ankara for its action by placing tough sanctions on Turkey that Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Russian and Turkish affairs as well as Eurasian security and energy politics, said “affected virtually all areas of bilateral cooperation including restrictions on import of Turkish agricultural products, activities of Turkish business in Russia, and the tourism sector.”  

“Ankara suffered significant economic losses during the crisis,” Has said. “Both the economic losses of the country and, most importantly, huge political pressure from Russia on the Turkish leadership, with terrorism allegations in the international arena, compelled President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to make a 180-degree turn and make concessions to Russia after just seven months, which still shapes the general framework of recent Turkish-Russian relations.”

But, Has believes, this low-point in relations with Russia “and the current crisis in U.S.-Turkey relations have very different dynamics and will highly likely have divergent outcomes in the following period.”

Aaron Stein, a Senior Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council think-tank's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, argues that Russia's treatment of Turkey during that time “was much more severe, compared to the U.S. approach thus far.”

“Moscow used far harsher sticks then anything the U.S. has brought to the fight yet,” said Stein, pointing out that Turkey's capitulation to Moscow seven months after the warplane incident was driven by Turkey's need to militarily intervene in the Syrian conflict, which it did in late August 2016. “So there were exigent circumstances.”

putin erdogan trump

While the current crisis with the United States has seen the lira plummet to historic lows against the dollar, Stein said Turkey's own “mismanagement is to blame for the economic issues”. Nevertheless, “with the concurrent spat with Washington, Ankara can't fix its own mistakes before seriously making amends with America.”

“How long can Erdoğan hold out? I don’t know. It's up to him. But I do expect the U.S. to continue to escalate,” he said.

Timur Akhmetov, an Ankara-based researcher for the Russian International Affairs Council, believes the “major difference” in the current crisis in contrast to the prior Russian one “is the safety net factors in Turkey's relations to Russia and the United States.”

“During the jet crisis Turkey was more inclined to compromise with Russia because further escalation of the stand-off might easily have extended into political areas where the security of Turkey might be at risk,” Akhmetov said.

“Back then Russia could have posed a serious risk to Turkish interests in Syria and could also have further exploited the Kurdish issue in Turkey itself,” he said. “So basically nothing could stop the Russian side doing this if it really wanted to escalate relations. I think that was the reason why Turkey decided to approach Russia again.”

In contrast, the current crisis with the United States is “of a political nature while cooperation over military and security issues are set aside as a separate area of cooperation and spared from political ups-and-downs.”

“This is possible because of many ties between business, political and civil society circles, too many things hold bilateral relations from deteriorating to the extent where Turkish national security is threatened,” he said.

Akhmetov said any cancellation of Turkey's order of F-35 advanced fighter jets from the United States would amount to “a political issue” and would not affect Turkey's security since its “national security wouldn't be at risk if it doesn't get them”.

Furthermore, the United States military is currently training Turkish military forces to conduct joint patrols around the northern Syrian city of Manbij, where Washington and Ankara made a roadmap agreement to remove Turkey’s Syrian Kurdish adversaries from the mainly Arab city earlier this year.

Both sides have carried out a series of “coordinated but independent patrols” around the city and this training will enable the two militaries to work together side-by-side effectively, which is a testament to the demonstrable fact that military and security cooperation has not been affected by the crisis to date.

Has points out that even though a thaw in Russian-Turkish relations did transpire in the summer of 2016 “some of the Russian sanctions are still in force, even partially the issue of lifting the 'symbolic embargo' on Turkish tomato exports to Russia is still problematic” more than two years later.

“All of the Russian sanctions, which have been lifted during this two year-period, were actually used as a bargaining chip in relations with Turkey, and Moscow removed them step-by-step according to the cooperation with Ankara in Syria,” he said. “A return to the pre-crisis level of cooperation has not happened yet as Ankara had expected.”

Furthermore the “rapprochement” between Ankara and Moscow has not been “a product of a long-term strategic planning of both sides, but rather a result of a compulsory partnership based on the Syrian issue, which is at this moment under security risks coming from Idlib province.”

The current U.S.-Turkish crisis is the product of a series of divergent policies, from U.S. support of Syrian Kurds to Turkey's continued imprisonment of American pastor Andrew Brunson, the U.S. refusal to hand over Turkish cleric Fethullah Gülen, the man accused of being behind the 2016 failed coup attempt, Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles as well as the case against Halkbank for its part in a scheme to bypass U.S. sanctions on Iran.

Has anticipates that after the second round of U.S. sanctions are imposed on Iran in November that “the Iranian issue will trouble the relationship even more”.

“Also, it is argued now in the U.S. that a second trial as a continuation of Halkbank case on some of the Turkish state structures and authorities for supporting terrorism may soon take a start,” he said. “All of them show one thing to be clear, that the Turkey-U.S. crisis is gaining a structural character, the resolution of which would require many years even if Mr. Brunson is freed by Turkish authorities today.”

“Even though a U-turn in Mr. President Erdoğan’s policy regarding the Brunson crisis with the Trump administration is always possible, I don't think that it will smooth over relations with the U.S. in the long-run,” he said.

Other analogies Has drew between the two crises are “the attitudes of Ankara” on both occasions. During the crisis with Russia the “Turkish leadership blamed the Russian side for the jet incident and consolidated its power in domestic politics with rising nationalism and Islamist views in society. A relative slowdown in Turkey’s economy was attached to the crisis with Russia by Turkish authorities.”

Today the crisis with the United States “gives an opportunity to the Turkish leadership to lay the blame of a long-awaited crisis in the Turkish economy on the Trump administration.”

“The consolidation of power in one man's hands in Turkey is surely strengthening in parallel to the crisis with the U.S.,” Has said. “Almost all of the opposition parties have already sided with the Turkish leadership.”

Erdoğan has sought to attract investment from Europe and the Gulf states to try to alleviate the economic crisis. Has anticipates this will prove difficult for Ankara “since mutual trust is at its lowest level in history, except for Qatar.”

“In fact, the situation of rule of law and the justice system in Turkey will likely have critical impacts on these countries' decisions on investing in Turkey,” he said. “The de facto suspension of Turkey's EU membership process, which was the main driver of investing in Turkey for third parties during the early 2000s, is also a discouraging factor for many financial authorities abroad.”

Has said the fact that Turkey is in debt to European banks may lead some EU countries to “try and minimise the risk of a collapse of the Turkish economy and achieve a softening in the U.S.-Turkey rift. However, possibly, it will not go beyond a short-term solution and present a way out of the structural problems in that relationship.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.