Turkey–Russia relations have been historically hostile, or at least not peaceful. The wars and battles fought over five centuries between the Russian and Ottoman Empires evoke bitter memories for both sides. But with the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the former Soviet Union, it became inevitable that the nature of Turkey–Russia relations would change. Bilateral relations between Moscow and Ankara gradually started to improve when Vladimir Putin became President of Russia in 2000, followed by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the Justice and Development Party, coming to power in Turkey in 2002. Both sides have adopted a flexible foreign policy towards one another that aims to reduce causes of tension and strengthen cooperation across the board. Erdoğan unexpectedly began courting Putin after surviving a failed coup attempt in 2016, at a time when Russia faced international isolation in the wake of its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
Nevertheless, a number of contentious issues between the two States have recently come to the surface. Moscow’s relations with Ankara seem to have lost the relative warmth of the last few years, becoming dominated instead by coldness and mutual suspicion, if not even polarization and confrontation.
Key contentious issues
Turkey and Russia have become engaged what can be described as “competitive cooperation” on many of regional and international issues:
1. Harboring and supporting terrorists in Idlib in Syria
Turkey’s obligations under the 2019 Sochi agreement on Idlib were centered on ensuring the withdrawal of terrorist groups and heavy weapons from the isolated region. However, two years later, Ankara has failed to uphold its obligations under its agreements with Russia, and any hope that Turkey would be able to “rehabilitate” or at least suppress Islamic fundamentalists in Idlib has quickly evaporated. If the terrorists, bolstered by the Turkish presence in Idlib, use the region as a base for mounting active operations against Assad’s government forces and the Russian military infrastructure in Syria, it will be only a matter of time until a new crisis breaks out between Russia and Turkey.
2. Turkish military operations against Syrian Kurds
It is unsurprising that Russia and Turkey have taken different stances on the Syrian Kurds and their envisioned role in Syria’s future. So far, Ankara and Moscow have agreed to disagree; however, if Turkey launches a new wide-ranging operation against the Kurds in northern Syria, the Kurds will inevitably form a coalition with the Syrian government, which Moscow will undoubtedly support (and perhaps encourage). This could lead to a direct confrontation between Damascus and Ankara in northern Syria, with all the potential negative consequences that this would have for Russia–Turkey relations.
3. Turkish intervention in Libya
Turkey has been one of the main foreign parties in the Libyan civil war since the beginning – it was Turkish intervention that prevented Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar from seizing Tripoli. However, if Ankara continues to internationalize the Libyan conflict by boosting its military presence in the country, and if it helps the forces of the Government of National Accord to achieve a decisive victory over their adversary in northern and southern Libya, Turkey risks creating ever greater trouble not only with Russia, but also with other States that are involved in the conflict in one way or another, such as France and Egypt.
4. Escalating confrontation with Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean
Despite their historical relations, ties between Moscow and Athens have recently become somewhat strained. It is unlikely, however, that Moscow will side with Ankara in the current regional conflict between Turkey and Greece regarding the demarcation of economic zones in the Mediterranean. Furthermore, recent developments clearly indicate that Turkey is rushing into a confrontation not only with Greece but also with nearly all Russia’s partners and allies in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek issue, which has recently deteriorated as a result of Turkish activity in Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean, could lead to a new crisis in Russia–Turkey relations.
5. Significant Turkish support for Azerbaijan in the conflict with Armenia
Although Russia has friendly relations with both Armenia and Azerbaijan, its partnership with Yerevan is stronger, which is clear from the fact that both countries are members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Unsurprisingly, Turkey, which does not maintain any relations with Armenia, has sided with Azerbaijan. All Russia’s efforts have been aimed at peacefully resolving the crisis through negotiations and at preventing violent escalation. In contrast, Turkey has been flexing its military muscles, having deployed military units to Nakhchivan in Azerbaijan. Erdoğan has also played on national sentiment by stating that the Azeris and Turks were one people in two States and that Turkey would stand by Azerbaijan until the end.
6. Turkish support for Georgia
In December 2019, following significant growth in the transfer of Turkish defense capacities to Georgia, Turkey announced that it had allocated 100 million Turkish lira (around $12 million) to the Georgian Defense Ministry to fund its military logistics reform. Ankara and Tbilisi engage in military cooperation as part of tripartite cooperation between Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan. In May 2012, the three States made commitments to expand their military counterterrorism education and cooperation, including the protection of energy pipelines and railways, and to conduct joint military exercises.
7. Expanding military technical cooperation with Ukraine
Russia and Turkey have always held fundamentally different viewpoints on Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula, especially since the outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis in March 2014. Ankara does not recognize Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and, as the “defender” of the Crimean Tatars, will not abandon its demands to Russia in that regard. When Erdoğan visited Ukraine in February 2020, he unveiled a $36 million military aid package for the country (to supply advanced Turkish drones). Turkey and Ukraine have also signed a framework agreement on technical cooperation in the defense sector.
8. Promoting unity among Turkish speakers in Russia
It is no secret that the Russian leadership fears Turkey’s potential “infiltration” into Turkish‑speaking Muslim‑majority areas in the North Caucasus and Volga region. These fears have worsened following the noticeable increase in the role of political Islam in Erdoğan’s domestic policies (for example, the recent redesignation of the Hagia Sophia museum in Istanbul as a mosque). Many in Russia believe that Turkey is moving further and further away from Kemal Ataturk’s secular principles, meaning that Ankara’s promotion of Turkish unity will become increasingly intertwined with the promotion of political Islam, directly challenging Russia’s national security and even its territorial integrity.
Risks and repercussions
There are many possible repercussions to the rivalry and attraction between Russia and Turkey, most importantly:
1. Possible military confrontations between the two countries
Turkey–Russia relations are very complicated. While the two parties have managed, at least so far, to overcome disagreement over Syria and Libya, major Turkish intervention in Azerbaijan could prove a step too far. Just as Putin sees the turbulent Caucasus region as part of Russia’s “near abroad”, Erdoğan views Azerbaijan as “a sister State”; similarly, Turkey considers Syria part of its “back yard”, in which Russia is meddling. Although Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan is nothing new, if Russia feels threatened, it could retaliate in Libya and most likely also in Syria. In early 2020, for example, Ankara accused Moscow of being directly involved in the killing of more than 30 Turkish soldiers in Idlib province.
2. Sharpened polarization on many regional issues
It is one thing to provide political and diplomatic support to an ally in a conflict; it is something else entirely to provide wide‑ranging military aid at the height of armed hostilities. This type of support significantly alters the balance of power among the warring parties, gives them false hope in the possibility of quickly resolving the conflict through military means, and makes the signing of any peace agreement more difficult. For instance, recently tensions in Libya have worsened significantly as a result of Turkish support for Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord and Russia’s provision of Wagner Group fighters to Haftar. Furthermore, since late August 2020, Russian forces in Syria have stopped the running joint patrols with Turkish forces provided for in the Idlib ceasefire agreement signed between Turkey and Russia in Moscow on March 5, 2020, because the patrols were coming under attack from Turkish-backed armed groups.
3. Improved Turkish relations with the West
Turkey’s strategy in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, especially its investment in strengthening the defenses of Ukraine and Georgia, is consistent with Western strategies towards Russia, since Turkey is actually attempting to expand the NATO presence in the anti-Moscow regions of the Caucasus. In his speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in Switzerland at the beginning of the year, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said, “I don’t understand why we have not invited Georgia to become a [NATO] member… we need enlargement and Georgia should be made a member.” This indicates a marked shift in Turkey’s approach, as Ankara had previously not shown any interest in NATO expansion in the South Caucasus.
It seems unlikely that the close relationship between Erdoğan and Putin will continue indefinitely. Signs of mutual distrust in Moscow’s relationship with Ankara have become apparent over time, despite the two parties continued attempts to compensate for that by further strengthening ties on other issues (for example, Russia has supplied Turkey with an advanced S-400 missile defense system). In reality, the risks of the two‑State game appear quite significant, not only for Russia and Turkey but also for a number of neighboring regions where Moscow and Ankara frequently promote their competing interests, especially in Central Asia, the Caucasus, and North Africa.
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