Are Turkey and Russia on the Road to Rapprochement?

Business and political interests may thrive.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Russia has sparked all sorts of speculation. To some, it marks a supposed transformation of Turkish–Russian relations, a pivot by President Erdoğan toward Vladimir Putin that somehow signals a turn away from the West that the Turkish leader found uninterested in, if not perhaps supportive of, the attempt to overthrow him and his government in July. Turkish public disappointment with a tepid Western media and public reaction to the assault on their elected government is a fact, but nothing about Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow is unwelcome or obviously threatening to U.S. interests.

Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow was a final step in fixing the problem of relations with Russia created by military’s shooting down of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015. That event ruptured ties between the two countries that were very important in economic and commercial terms and politically gave both Ankara and Moscow options in handling regional issues and their respective relations with the West. The economic losses in Turkey were quite significant, especially for the tourism industry, construction, investment and agricultural exports. These losses particularly affected constituencies important to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party.

In the wake of Ahmet Davutoğlu’s dismissal as prime minister in May 2016 and replacement by Binali Yıldırım, the Turkish government moved to step away from some of the recent confrontations that had complicated and limited Turkey’s ability to pursue its interests in foreign affairs. This was partly Erdoğan cutting his losses, but it also reflected Yıldırım’s personal pragmatism and the opportunity his taking over the government to turn a new leaf. Yıldırım’s government similarly took halting steps toward restoring relations with Egypt that were broken after Abdel Fattah el-Sissi overthrew the government of Mohamed Morsi 2013. It moved to complete the restoration of ties with Israel. There was talk of a new approach on Syria and perhaps even a new push to take up the normalization of relations with Armenia that was abandoned in 2010.

Outreach to Russia was another new pragmatic line that included both an exchange of letters and an apology from Erdoğan for the shoot down. The effort to fix relations with Moscow found a welcome response in Russia, which also suffered economic losses because of sanctions it imposed on Ankara and, in any case, wanted to restore reasonably normal ties with Turkey as a way to nibble at the isolation imposed upon it after its forces invaded eastern Ukraine and threatened Western interests elsewhere in Europe. For both countries, rapprochement is normal and, in general, an unthreatening thing for the United States.

This seems particularly true given that the problems in Turkish–Russian relations remain quite serious.

The two continue sharply to disagree on Syria. While each would like to see an end to the civil war there and recognizes that their lack of cooperation makes such an end less likely, they also remain committed to their clients in Syria and aware that nothing they do will, in any case, bring about a resolution or even a lessening of the problems emanating from Syria.

Energy superficially looks like an area where the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey could have more import. Erdoğan’s re-embrace of the so-called Turkish Stream gas pipeline, whose main function is to bypass Ukraine as a transit country for Russian gas exports en route to Europe, fits with this picture.

But do not expect that the Turkish Stream will materialize soon. Erdoğan chose a pragmatic, if not cynical path, as he has before. Rather than fail to agree to the Turkish Stream when European decision making, or Russia’s lack of capital to investment in a new pipeline may well kill or at least slow the project anyway, he assented. It cost him nothing. In fact, at least rhetorically embracing Turkish Stream helped win at least a rhetorical move to restart a Russian-led nuclear power development that, if realized, would help diversify Turkey away from its present high reliance on imported oil and gas (and may well include sidebar commercial arrangements of interest to Erdoğan or at least of constituencies important to him). Expect the nuclear project to advance haltingly if at all, too.

That Turkish Stream could somehow disadvantage Turkish-Azeri cooperation on gas exports via Turkey to central Europe, as some have suggested, is laughable. That project is well advanced, well-funded, supported by Europe, commercially sensible, and well-tied in with Turkish commercial interests, too.

Turkey and Russia remain competitors in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia disdains the idea of larger Turkish roles there or anywhere else in the world not one bit less than before Erdoğan visited Moscow. Turks resent Russian bullying and their dependence on Russian energy no less either.

A normal relationship is being restored, businesses (and political constituencies) on both sides will make money, both countries’ relative isolation in world affairs will ease somewhat, and little will change in the foreign or domestic policies of either as a result. Including because Yıldırım’s pragmatic turn of Turkish foreign policy that Erdoğan seems to embrace is more likely to continue and include the United States and Europe than not, despite whatever noises may seem contrary in Ankara or in Turkish public opinion.

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