Turkey versus Russia and the U.S.: decoding the conundrum
It is not easy to understand the unusual triangular relationship between Russia and the United States, on the one hand, and Turkey, on the other.
Until Nov. 25, 2015, the day Turkish army deliberately shut down a Russian reconnaissance jet over Syrian territory; Turkey was a classical NATO ally and reliable satellite of the post-WWII strategic architecture.
As of that day, things started to change dramatically, culminating in an association between Turkey and Russia that had no historical precedent.
Indeed the Ottoman and Tsarist empires were staunch enemies, the same is valid for modern day Turkey with the Soviet Union and Russia. But although Russia has extensive knowledge of the Turkic world, the same does not apply to Turkey, where neither its academia nor the foreign service possesses adequate institutional memory about the Russian world.
The downing of the aircraft, and a year later the public assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, has been exploited very skilfully by Moscow to make Ankara indirectly pay for its deadly deed by getting slowly but surely in its sphere of influence. To pull NATO member Turkey in, Moscow exploited the ruling elite’s deep anti-Atlanticism and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s fear of being overthrown, especially after the engineered coup d’état of July 15, 2016, for which Moscow possesses all critical intelligence.
Moscow’s essential design was clear: to harm NATO by severing one of its weakest allies, in terms of Atlanticism.
How have things evolved since then and what were the stakes before this triangular mess?
With Russia, Turkey obviously never had any previous military bond. Other relations, which could be considered as strategic, included natural gas imports starting in the late 1990s with the Blue Stream. Two more pipelines, the West Stream and the Turk Stream were inaugurated later.
On nuclear energy, an agreement was signed between Turkey and Russia in May 2010 for Akkuyu NPP, which will be built by Russia's Rosatom as Turkey’s first NPP.
In the post-crisis era that followed the downing of the army jet, Ankara decided to purchase the S-400 surface to air defence systems, which were delivered in 2019, pending activation. There was consensus among Turkey’s NATO partners that the weapons were intended to protect the palace of Turkey’s strongman. Indeed, they were stationed so to validate these predictions.
But the most strategic relationship remains the Syrian battlefield, where Russia and Turkey, although having absolutely opposite objectives, pretended to co-operate. As, at the end of the day, Turkey is openly supporting all sorts of jihadists whom Russia is fiercely fighting alongside Syria. In this fool's game though, the nasty end gets closer by the day.
Russia in the recent past has betrayed Syrian Kurds in Afrin to the benefit of Turkey. The territory was consequently occupied and devastated by Turkey and its proxy jihadist army. But this move is the only pro-Turkey initiative by Moscow, which otherwise never gave anything up on any issue of common concern in exchange of Turkey’s continuous concessions of all sorts.
Let’s go through these issues. In another hot front of Libya, Turkey and Russia are in overt opposition. In the Caucasus, Russia is at home and allows Turkey only to get into business deals, with Azerbaijan and Georgia. As for Armenia, its support and involvement seem solid, with a military base in Gyumri and border guard contingent facing Turkey. On the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, Russia is the main actor not necessarily close to the Turkish-Azeri standpoint. Moscow has for long duly recognised the Armenian genocide.
On Cyprus, Russia is not on Turkey’s side, neither regarding Turkey’s feud with Greece.
In the Balkans, both countries are at loggerheads regarding their sphere of influence, as Turkey pushes for an Islamist agenda that Russia combats.
On Ukraine and annexed Crimea, Ankara, very cautious in the beginning, has started to openly provoke Moscow, multiplying pro-Ukrainian and anti-annexation declarations as well as getting into arms sales.
In the final analysis, there is not a single common tactical or strategic common ground between Ankara and Moscow with the exception of trade and tourism.
Now let’s turn to the United States, which is desperately trying to keep Turkey within NATO despite profound anti-NATO stances of Ankara regime and countless abusive behaviour vis-à-vis the United States and its allies.
First and foremost, it is an open secret that Turkey, together with Qatar, today is the main state-sponsor of Salafist terror rings in the world. Ankara is openly shielding, arming, exporting and promoting jihadists everywhere it can, from the Middle East to North and sub-Saharan Africa.
The U.N. Security Council has detailed information on these illegal activities. Thus, Turkish activism is known not only to the United States, but to also to Russia, China, Europe and the rest of the world.
Next to this atypical behaviour, NATO ally Turkey has been involved in all sorts of illegal financial activities in open violation of U.S. and Western legislations. There are many cases against Turkish institutions in the United States, the most prominent being the Halkbank case. The indictment against Turkey’s second largest state-owned bank, alleges that it was engaged in fraud, money laundering, and Iran sanctions-related offences.
The S-400 air defence systems bought from Russia triggered U.S.’ ire and Turkey was excluded from F-35 fighter jet programme, as the two weaponry are considered fundamentally incompatible.
The other big discontent from the Turkish side is the strategic partnership between the Syrian Kurdish Army and the United States for anti-ISIS combat. The United States considers Kurds as indispensable for fighting ISIS terror while Turkey considers them as a threat to its security.
Nevertheless, Turkey managed to partially impose its point of view to seize bit more of Syrian northeastern territory. To get there, it boldly threatened the United States with the closure of the NATO’s nuclear Incirlik airbase.
On Turkey’s difficult relations with Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Saudi Arabia, a and UAE, the United States is not on Turkey’s side.
All in all, although U.S.-Turkey partnership is 75 years old, it doesn’t look sustainable in the long term due to too many odds and controversies in both ends. This is despite the recent barefaced opportunistic move by U.S.’ Syria Envoy James Jeffrey trying to exploit the Russo-Turkish feud in Idlib by encouraging Ankara to fight back together with jihadists, prolonging thereby the civil war in Syria. It’s noteworthy that the envoy, by doing so, indirectly supports terrorist groups who were behind 9/11 and that Ankara is now nurturing!
The only option to get back to the basics for the United States with Turkey seems a regime change in Ankara.
As for Russia, playing tactically with Turkey without having an inch of shared ground has a double price: the final objective of severing Turkey from NATO may not work as projected; secondly and worst, Moscow now needs to dislodge Turkey from Idlib and Afrin by force. Not necessarily a very good bet!
And regarding Turkey, Erdoğan’s brinkmanship is so bankrupted that if he yields to Americans, he will be finished by the Russians, and vice versa.
© Ahval English
The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.