Why Turkey can’t afford a confrontation with Russia

Peace talks in Moscow between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin bore the hallmarks of two great powers stepping back from the brink of war.

As in Libya, Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s civil war. In rebel-held Idlib, on Turkey’s border, Ankara backs a number of rebel groups and maintains observation posts. Moscow supports the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad, a continuation of an alliance that predates the fall of the Soviet Union.

Russia has committed to supporting Assad in his aim to retake “every inch” of Syrian soil. Erdogan is concerned about the potential of millions of refugees flooding across the Turkish border, as well as the risk of a hostile power establishing a stronghold on its frontier.

That the ferocity of the two country’s differences increased in recent weeks is beyond dispute. Following the death of 36 Turkish soldiers in an air strike February 28 in Idlib, an incident Ankara was at pains not to blame Moscow for, thousands of Turkish troops entered the province, with Turkish air attacks battering Syrian defences.

Underscoring the differences between Ankara and Moscow has been a growing economic bond, which has almost served as a brake on the march towards war and likely played a key role in steering Erdogan and Putin to the negotiating table in Moscow.

“Neither side here wants a serious conflict, both sides will ultimately want to settle things,” Anna Borshchevskaya, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, said before the Erdogan-Putin meeting March 5.

“The key issue here is that Putin has more leverage over Erdogan than the other way around. In the past, the two of them have made deals in Syria but ultimately they were more advantageous to the Russian position and I suspect a similar scenario will play out here.”

Economic relations between Turkey and Russia have been growing almost in tandem with their regional rivalry. Foremost among the relations was the sale of the Russia-made S-400 air defence system, which gives Turkey a powerful weapons system independent of NATO. Also in the mix are lucrative Russian contracts available to Turkey’s construction sector.

“They are very close,” Borshchevskaya said. “Russia is a key trading partner to Turkey. Bilateral trade is in the tens of billions, I’ve seen estimates of approximately $30 billion annually and, crucially, last year the two countries started trading in their national currencies but here, too, Putin has more leverage.”

Though Turkey may be a significant regional power, trade relations between Russia and Turkey remain firmly tilted in Moscow’s favour.

“Russian tourists are very important to the Turkish economy, as is the energy trade — Turkey is the third-largest buyer of Russian gas,” Borshchevskaya said, “and the construction of TurkStream (gas pipeline) carries wider strategic implications. These are all foreign policy tools Putin uses as a tap he can turn on and off.”

Perhaps the best example of how neither side can afford open conflict was provided by the downing of a Russian Su-24 warplane in November 2015. The circumstances of that incident remain disputed but shortly after the downing of the plane, Moscow halted all communications with Turkey and imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Ankara, including halting all charter flights to Turkey, essentially ending Turkey’s profitable tourist trade with Russia.

In June 2016, Erdogan wrote to Putin expressing sympathies, a communication seized on by Russian media as an apology.

“In the end Erdogan had to apologise to Putin,” Borshchevskaya said. “Thus, Erdogan has more to lose than Putin.”

While circumstances have changed dramatically over the last five years, the trade balance remains unaltered. While it is true that balance largely favours Russia, it is also true that Moscow cannot afford to directly confront Turkey regarding Syria.

However, as long as its alliance with Assad remains intact, it is likely that any agreement between Erdogan and Putin will mark a postponement of further confrontation over Idlib, rather than a guarantor.

“The main problem in Idlib is the desire of President Bashar Assad… to establish full control of the area and block the border with Turkey, while also having pushed 3 million of the Sunni population, unfriendly to Assad, out onto Turkish soil,” Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign affairs analyst, told the Guardian newspaper.

The article was first published in the Arab Weekly.