Turkish-Russian relations: A look at the bright side

Turkish-Russian relations: A look at the bright side

It is often said that great friendships start after a fight.

I do not think that there is a better expression that sums up the current diplomatic relations between Turkey and Russia.

Turkey and Russia have travelled together a road from the possibility of an open conflict to the cooperation in various strategic areas such as defense industry and nuclear energy, within only a couple years.

The path that starts with open conflict and ends with cooperation

The fight began on November 24th 2015, when the Russian Sukhoi SU-24 fighter jet was shot down by the Turkish Air Force.

Immediately after the incident the two countries engaged in proxy wars in different areas, especially in Syria.

(After the coup attempt of July 15th 2016 in Turkey, it was revealed that members of FETO, who had infiltrated the Turkish state, have played a major role in this incident.)

The process must have shown the decision-makers both in Ankara and in Moscow that this fighting would do no good, thus, statesmanship entered into force on both sides, which acted rationally and the cold winter between Ankara and Moscow was replaced by a fresh spring.

At the current situation, relations have passed the point of repairing ties and reached a level unimaginable in the past years.

This level of good relations however, does not mean that there are no problems and that everything is moving on in a perfect harmony.

The historical shackles of these two countries and their political baggage resulting from previous political decisions limit their political maneuver space in many areas and cause them to take contrary positions.

As President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s stance on Crimea and his counterpart Vladimir Putin’s insistence on the Idlib issue shows, the conflicts continue. The two leaders are expected to meet in Sochi on September 29th in order to get over these problems.

While its difficult to predict the outcome of the meeting, it seems likely that it will produce some sorts of short-term resolutions in order to buy some more time.

At this point, let us also remind that on the one side the insistence of the Turkish government on the balance of power politics between the United States and Russia, and on the other the Russian actions at some instances restricting the Turkish political maneuver space are the main obstacles on reaching permanent resolutions.

However, a new approach that will advance the current motivation of cooperation further will carry these two countries to a point beyond imaginations in many regions and especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

Areas of movement in the Middle East

As these two countries can develop an overall common approach in the Middle East, they can create specific solutions to crisis regions such as Syria, Libya, Northern Iraq and Palestine.

1. The overall approach

Turkey and Russia’s diplomatic relations with the Middle East rely on different historical, cultural and economic backgrounds channels.

Turkey has deep ties with the Arab nations due to its position in the Middle East, as an heir to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the region for nearly 400 years.

Turkish influence in the Middle East remained quite extensive even in the post-Ottoman era.

It is a well-known fact that the independence movements against British and French imperialism (such as Baathism) and the Arab nationalist leaders (such as Gamal Abdel Nasser, Habib Bourguiba or Michel Aflaq) were influenced by the Turkish revolution and by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

However, following Turkey’s membership in NATO, relations between Ankara and the Arab capitals were purposefully weakened and the nationalism-based ties reached a turning point.

And a new approach to the Middle East that relied on religious values was underway, in parallel with the rise of religious politics throughout the Islamic world, during the AKP period.

In that regard, the AKP government had offered an open support for the Muslim Brotherhood movement (Ikhwan), throughout the Arab countries.

That policy failed with the overthrow of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt in 2013.

And today we are in a process where Ikhwan is being removed from the political spectra of the Arab capitals one by one.

Ankara’s rapprochement steps towards Cairo indicate that the AKP has been gradually abandoning its political insistence on Ikhwan, and that it will pursue rather pragmatic policies that will work better in the current situation.

At the current situation, even if the diplomatic relations between Ankara and the Arab capitals are not at their best, the widespread positive approach among Arab peoples towards Turkey, the Turkish culture and the Turkish products is still prevailing.

Russia on the other hand, is trying to deepen its current relations with the Middle Eastern capitals based on heritage from Soviet times.

Of course, today we are way past the era of the Nasser, Bourguiba or Gaddafi.

Therefore, Russia is trying to be active again in the Arab world, with a pragmatic approach in parallel to the win-win principle, instead of an old-school ideological approach.

It is very clear that Moscow’s main goal is to fill the void left by the United States in some parts of the Middle East, and to broaden its area of movement in the rest of the region.

In an era when the United States is recessing and the European countries are losing their power, Ankara ad Moscow face several opportunities to develop common approaches in the Middle East.

The mutually agreed solutions to current conflicts will surely increase the influence of both countries throughout the entire Middle East.

Syria, Iraq, Libya and Palestine come out as the main areas of cooperation in this regard.

2. Syria

The Astana Trio, which was established to end the civil war in Syria, was successful at many points.

Although Ankara had been on the opposite side to both Moscow and Tehran on the negotiation table, the approach they came up with, – keeping diplomatic and military channels open continuously, introducing joint patrols, keeping controlled groups within certain borders, etc. – have drastically reduced the destruction of the war and even ended it in wider regions.

However, the disputes continue for Idlib and for Northern Syria in general, where the US-backed PKK/YPG/PYD terrorist groups are still active.

Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are refraining from developing a holistic approach to these problems, due to the past misconducts and lack of trust.

And unfortunately, though they remain at the same table, they are sitting on opposing sides.

However, a mutualist approach will not only ensure the territorial integrity of Syria, but will also prevent any non-regional actors from intervening in the regional issues through Syria.

Here, the Turkish insistence on Idlib and the Russian attempts to maintain ties with separatist groups in Northern Syria are the main obstacles in resolving these crises.

3. Iraq

The previous US invasion has led to the fracturing of Iraq on ethnic and sectarian basis. The disputes between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds are still creating instability not only in Iraq but throughout the entire region.

In this regard, we have witnessed the efforts of the Barzani family and their allied political groups to separate themselves from Iraq with a referendum in 2017.

Thanks to the solid stance of the regional powers, the US/Israeli-backed referendum effort was foiled.

But the fracturing in Iraq still persists.

However, there is a suitable ground for Turkey and Russia to develop a mutual policy for Iraq, while also including Iran into this initiative.

Unfortunately at this point, rivalries of the past are standing in the way for any resolution.

The current fractured situation and the instabilities in Iraq, continue to provide the Atlantic forces a suitable ground to intervene in the region, in the meanwhile.

4. Libya

Turkey and Russia have taken different sides at the beginning of the Second Libyan Civil War.

Ankara supported the legitimate Government of National Accord, recognized by the United Nations, while Russia supported the side of General Haftar.

At the current situation, the forces supported by Turkey have managed to take over the military dominance over forces of Haftar and other groups.

On the political perspective, a broad-based interim government was created as a temporary solution to protect the Libyan territorial integrity.

Turkey and Russia are known to be taking the initiative towards a common solution through different political actors in Libya.

Strengthening of this approach, will not only terminate the long-lasting civil war in Libya, but will also limit the Atlantic influence in both North Africa and in the Mediterranean.

5. Palestine

The decades-long ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine has been one of the largest causes of destabilization in the Middle East.

Turkey and Russia have given their support for the Palestinian independence movements on different time periods, and today they maintain their support at some levels. Let us also add here that both countries are also maintaining a political balance with Israel despite their oppositions.

The fragmented structure between Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad Movement and other groups is the largest problem for the resistance against in Palestine.

Ankara and Moscow have both held many meetings to bring these structures together at different time periods. But no permanent solution has been reached so far.

The need for mutual trust

It is sure that the tides would turn, if the two capitals take a joint initiative, rather than separate ones.

And the true way to realize these approaches we have discussed above, would primarily be through a deepening of the mutual trust between Ankara and Moscow.

And mutual trust can only be achieved through stronger dialogue channels and mutual transparency.

Otherwise, the times that the Atlantic uses the contradictions within Eurasia will continue quite for a while.

Onur Sinan Güzaltan
Onur Sinan Güzaltan was born in Istanbul in 1985. He had his Bachelors's degree in Law, from the Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne Universty /Paris XII and a Master's degree in International and European Law. He got his certificate of diploma equivalence at Galatasaray University. Later, he got a Master's degree in International Trade Law, at the Institut de Droit des Affaires Internationales, founded jointly by the Sorbonne Universty and the Cairo Universty. In this process, he had served as the Cairo representative for the Aydinlik Newspaper. He has several articles and television streams within the international press, in such as People's Daily, Al Yaum, Al Ahram, Russia Today FranceAl Youm Al Sabea. In addition to being the author of the Tanrı Bizi İster Mi?, a work that studies the 2011-2013 political period in Egypt, he had also contributed to the multi-author study titled Ortadoğu Çıkmazında Türkiye, with an article that focused on the Turkish-Egyptian relations. While currently working as a lawyer, he also writes a weekly column for Aydinlik Newspaper on the subject of international politics and geopolitics.

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April 2024