Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia does not seem to be circumstantial. It is true that, as its relations with the West and particularly the US are going through tough times Ankara turns to Russia for more cooperation but it is also true that Ankara would remain on this mutually beneficial track more firmly at a time of multipolarity just as it always sought good relations with the Soviet Union in the inter-war period, particularly in the 1920s and 30s, writes Hasan Ünal, Professor at Maltepe University, Istanbul. This article was prepared for the 12th Middle East conference of the Valdai Discussion Club.
Turkey’s multi-dimensional foreign policy exercises of late have given rise to endless speculations and contradictions across the world and in particular in the West. It is epitomized by the Turkish President’s meetings with his Russian, Ukrainian and Iranian counterparts as well as his meetings with his Western partners, including Biden. Since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict Ankara has been pursuing a noticeably restrained and well-balanced policy without taking part in the western sanctions but at the same time keeping up its relations with its western partners closely. Having rid itself of almost all its Middle-Eastern entanglements, which have cost Ankara an arm and a leg over the last decade or so, Turkey now stands to benefit from the opportunities accruing from a multipolar world order, something that it has become an unstoppable reality, however much the US and the Collective West are still trying to prevent it, but to no avail.
The making of the multipolar world
Since the guns began firing in Ukraine we have been witnessing battles and struggles across the word: indeed, we have an actual ongoing battle between Russia and Ukraine backed by the West mostly on the latter’s soil with the former having the upper hand. Whether this conflict would spread out of Ukraine engulfing others or whether it would cause a nuclear disaster remains to be seen because it looks as though the US and the UK, two ardent supporters and suppliers of Kiev, are adamant to ensure that the conflict goes on for as long Kiev can carry on fighting against Moscow to the last Ukrainian. It is, therefore, quite difficult, if not impossible, to make substantial forecast on the duration of the conflict, just as it is not easy whether or not a nuclear calamity would befall the world.
The armed conflict in Ukraine has certainly unleashed forces that have been endeavoring to turn the world into multipolarity while the Collective West tries to keep the unipolar world order under Washington’s control. The struggle for multipolarity has certainly a long history with Russia under Putin challenging the US-dominated world order and craving for multipolarity for at least a decade and a half, and with China outperforming the US and the West in general scoring dazzling economic growth year after year and at the same time defying US policies across the Global South. And it was obvious that the US preponderance would come to an end at some stage but no-one was absolutely sure how fast the evolution into a multipolar world would occur. It seems that as Russia opened the stage, after months long diplomatic and military escalation, by initiating what it called the Special Military Operation the struggle for and against multipolarity has hastened. Today we can safely conclude that multipolarity has indeed dawned on.
It is safe to say that we will have a multipolar world order in the decades ahead. Multipolarity was always the prevailing world order until after the Second World War, when the world or at least a considerable part of it, rallied around two rival camps opposed to each other not only in terms of balance of power and influence but also on ideological grounds. And the ensuing unipolarity that followed the dissolution of the Soviet Union, ending the bipolar world was definitely an exception to the rule: there has hardly been a unipolar world order with one great power dictating its terms over almost all the others the world over.
In the newly changing circumstances, there is also going to be a number of middle powers like Turkey, Iran, and depending on whether or not the EU will survive the strong pressures from multipolarity major states like France, Germany, Italy, and Britain, outside the EU, will all fall within that category. Turkey is likely to play a major role, capable of projecting power in more than one region, all critically important given the balance of power struggle in Eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Middle East and the Caucasus. In this new world setting Turkey will probably display a very sui generis foreign policy because although it is a member of NATO with the second largest armed forces with enormous battle-experience within the Alliance, it has developed over the years special ties to Moscow, which now include cooperation and consultation over regional politics and defense industry in addition to flourishing economic and trade relations. No wonder, it has not adopted Western sanctions against Russia, if anything, it has kept up its relations with Moscow gaining the latter’s confidence. And with this policy options Ankara has become the main player in world diplomacy as a facilitator between Moscow and Kiev, brokering the Grain Agreement by which Ukraine and Russia have been exporting their wheat and other cereals to the world.
Fundamentals of rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow
What has brought Turkey and Russia closer ever over the years? A cursory look at some of the major factors that have shaped Ankara’s approach to Moscow would suggest that since the Russian takeover of Crimea there has been considerable change in the sonority as well as substance of Ankara’s policy towards its powerful northern neighbour.
We can recall that back in 2014, Ankara was quick to condemn the Russian takeover of Crimea. It did not allow any direct civilian flights from Turkey to Crimea, nor did it permit Turkish educational institutions to cultivate ties with their counterparts there and engage in exchanges, joint programs, training, and the like. In addition, the Turkish Foreign Ministry had been quite consistent in seizing upon any opportunity to reiterate that Ankara regarded Crimea as part of Ukraine. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu even attended a meeting of something called the Crimea Platform, organized by Ukraine to raise awareness about the Russian takeover of that precious peninsula. At this meeting, he found himself quite unusually sitting together with the representative of the Southern Cyprus Greek Administration, together with other Western officials — something Turkish diplomats would normally avoid. More importantly, the Turkish Foreign Ministry even went so far as to declare the Duma elections in Crimea as being null and void as late as September 2021. Also, during the first round of the latest Russia-Ukraine standoff, which had occured in April 2021, Turkey’s attitude was certainly more pro-Ukraine than in the latest phase of the conflict.
Speaking theoretically, Turkey perhaps still opposes Russia’s takeover of Crimea but Ankara now offers mediation to the two capitals instead of opposing Russia head on diplomatically as other members of NATO have done. And the good thing is that after some initial hesitation, the Kremlin welcomed Ankara’s role of mediation, saying that Moscow would appreciate the use of Ankara’s clout with Kiev— although, of course, Turkey knows that there is not much that it can do in terms of real mediation. But Ankara’s new posture is more about making its position clear to Moscow rather than demonstrating a concrete ability to actually get anything done in terms of bringing an end to the conflict. Close scrutiny suggests that the turning point in Turkey’s attitude is traceable back to a tête à tête meeting between the two presidents in late September 2021 in Sochi, at which not even their closest aides were present. Since then there has been some noticeably concrete improvement in Ankara-Moscow relations.
While Ankara’s relations with Russia have been trending upwards, its relations with the West, and the US in particular, seem to be going through some tough times. It is safe to say that Turkey and Washington do not see eye to eye on any matter of importance to Ankara since the end of the Cold War. In fact, the smoldering tension between the two capitals has come into the open sharply under the Biden Administration, who is regarded, rightly, as an incorrigible Turkophobe.
The American policy of carving out a Kurdistan in the Middle East has been a constant irritant to Turkey since the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Washington’s overt military support for the PYD—a Syrian offshoot of the PKK — under the pretext of fighting the ISIS has taken anti-American feelings to new heights across Turkey, where anti-Americanism regularly polls between 80 to 95 percent. It has also brought relations between the two capitals almost to the brink of collapse on more than one occasion. Ankara perceives W a s h i n g t o n’s moves as nothing other than marks of hostility towards Turkey, for in a multipolar world order, an otherwise valuable ally like Turkey — with its large and effective armed forces, second only to the US in NATO that are equipped with sophisticated capabilities of its own production — could be cast aside by Washington in favor of a terrorist organization.
Another serious bone of contention between Ankara and Washington concerns the Cyprus question. Senior members of Team Biden began to express their opposition to a two-state solution in Cyprus way before they came to power, and since taking office, the incumbent president has made it clear that the US would not condone any such solution. But this flies in the face of facts and realities: it is now conveniently forgotten that Erdoğan came to power in 2002 with a vow to resolve the Cyprus conflict and that he even backed the 2004 pro-EU one-state solution known colloquially as the Annan Plan — a plan that was rejected by the island’s Greek community. The Greek side also rejected all the offers put forward by Turkey and Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus until 2017, and this persistent obstinacy caused Turkey to adopt a position that the only sensible proposal for the solution of the Cyprus question must involve the recognition of two Cypriot states — two states that have for all practical purposes existed on the divided Mediterranean island since the mid1960s, and officially existed there since 1974.
In addition to the fact that the Greeks in Cyprus have consistently rejected all the peace plans proposed by the international community throughout the duration of the conflict, there is also the charge of double standards: in all other similar postcolonial disputes, the West has generally agreed, in principle, to a tw-ostate solution. The primary example is, of course, Palestine. Given the reality of a multipolar world order, such a one-sided American position is totally unacceptable for Turkey. This is the context in which the Biden Administration’s efforts to prop up Greece — ostensibly against Russia in the Black Sea — is viewed with extreme suspicion across Turkey. The bottom line is that this has given further cause for concern in Ankara that the United States is, in actual fact, bolstering Greece to the detriment of Turkey.
Biden’s irresponsible use of the term “genocide” to describe the events that took place in a crumbling wartime Ottoman Empire in 1915 has also contributed to anti-Americanism across Turkey. Why Biden rushed to include this incendiary taboo word in the annual presidential statement about the Armenian question remains an enigma: this statement came in the wake of both Azerbaijan’s historic victory in the Second Karabakh War and the subsequent proposals to Yerevan by Erdoğan and his Azerbaijani colleague, Aliyev, to establish a regional cooperation platform that would put an end to Armenia’s self-imposed isolation. The use of this term simply served no constructive geopolitical purpose other than reveal Biden’s and American elites’ anti-Turkey approach to all things in the region.
Turkey and the United States are also sharply divided over the interpretation of the Montreux Convention of 1936. In policy terms, what the US wants Turkey to do boils down on to either dump the Montreux Convention altogether or to turn a blind eye to blatant American violations of the same treaty. Either way, it would effectually amount to a nullification of the historic agreement. Turkey, on the other hand, having a diametrically opposite position, expects its ally to recognize that Turkey views the Montreux Convention dearly and will not allow it to be simply dismissed or discarded. Indeed, from Ankara’s perspective, the strict application of the provisions of the Montreux Convention has been a main pillar of ensuring peace and security from the Cold War onwards.
It seems unlikely that all the outstanding issues keeping Ankara and Washington apart will be resolved once Team Biden gives way to the next US administration — whether in January 2025 or January 2029. We have the experience of the Trump period as a reference point, when tensions between the two countries eased somewhat because Trump in many ways defied the US security establishment’s policies concerning the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean. Still, the US Deep State managed to get around Trump often enough, so bilateral tension did not disappear; this in turn made it easier for Team Biden to ratchet everything back up when it took over the reins of power in January 2021. It would, therefore, be an uphill task to try predicting whether a post-Biden America would be capable of resetting relations with Turkey, notwithstanding the realities of a multipolar world order. But the odds appear to be overwhelming.
On the other hand, we have witnessed an unprecedented improvement in bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey. Erdoğan and Putin have managed to figure out a way to work together well enough (and Turkey has managed to do so while remaining a reliable NATO member). Almost forgotten are the days when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian fighter jet because it violated Turkish airspace for some 10 to 20 seconds. Historically speaking, Turkish-Russian friendship has as long a track record as Turkish-Russian enmity. It is true that Tsarist Russia was a constant threat to the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire. Paradoxically, however, it was the Bolshevik Russia that offered enormous military, political, and diplomatic support to the Turkish War of Independence from 1919 to 1922 and beyond. Ankara and Moscow placed their bilateral relations on solid ground with the signing of the Friendship and Cooperation Agreement (1925). This remained the status quo until Stalin made notorious demands on Turkey at the end of World War II — an untoward action that pushed Turkey to search for security in a US-led Western alliance.
The first ten years of Turkey’s NATO membership marked increased tension in Ankara-Moscow relations although Stalin, who had wrecked the historic rapprochement, died only a year after Turkey’s admission to the Western alliance. But the infamous letter US President Lyndon B. Johnson wrote to Turkish Prime Minister Ismet Inönü in June 1964, which gave a stark warning to Turkey against military action in Cyprus to protect the Cypriot Turks from slaughter at the hands of the Greek Cypriot forces, caused an upheaval in Ankara. The American epistle turned almost everything upside down between the two NATO allies, and Turkey immediately began to revise its policy towards the Soviet Union. Moscow too judged that warmer relations were in its interest. Thus, the two countries forged a qualitatively stronger relationship by which Turkey, albeit remaining in NATO, managed to receive quite a considerable amount of commercial, economic, and financial assistance and support from the Soviet Union for its industrialization drive — something the US always somehow chose not to provide.
The end of the Cold War saw an intensification of these trade and economic relations. This soon expanded into cooperation on political and even military matters. For instance, Moscow was helpful during the 2016 attempted military coup organized by members of Fethullah Gülen’s terrorist group, suspected of having close ties with US security and intelligence services. Russia apparently notified the Turkish government of what might be going on just prior to its onset; Moscow also condemned the coup attempt and the plotters immediately after they got into action, whereas it took the Obama Administration quite a few hours to make a statement expressing its support for the elected government of Turkey. It was not, therefore, for nothing that Ankara-Moscow relations flourished in an unprecedented manner after this attempted coup, assuming a military-strategic dimension too.
The two countries, together with Iran, set up what they called the Astana Platform to bring peace to Syria, while Ankara purchased the sophisticated S400 air defense systems from Moscow. It has perhaps taken some time but Erdoğan and Putin learned to smoothly iron out, in one way or the other, almost all the remaining disagreements between the two countries.
Whereas a change in Russia’s Cyprus policy in favor of a two-state solution would incur no serious risk for Moscow, it would cement Turkey-Russia friendship, and perhaps even lead to a deal on Syria between the two countries. Indeed, just as Russia’s Cyprus policy need revising, so did Turkey’s adventurous Syrian policy: truth be told, the latter did not serve any genuinely attainable Turkish purpose. Three examples can be provided. First, Turkish forces got totally bogged down on the ground in the neighboring country in the past few years. Second, the PYD has consolidated its position in northeast Syria in the same period, thanks to American wherewithal. Lastly, Turkey’s persistent and failed effort to unseat Bashar Al-Assad also indirectly helped the PYD as well as its main sponsor.
Should Turkey normalize its relations with Damascus through Russian mediation, as Erdogan has consistently advocated over the last few months, it would likely make important gains: it could sign a memorandum with Syria over the return of Syrian refugees — which apparently number around four millions — whose continued presence in Turkey at a time when the country is grappling with a deteriorating financial crisis has become totally untenable in the eyes of the Turkish people.
There is no reason why Turkey could not renew the 1998 Adana Memorandum with Syria, which at the time brought tensions between Ankara and Damascus to an abrupt end, normalized relations, and even stipulated joint action against the PKK. As part of a new deal with Syria, Turkey could also get Damascus to recognize the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC); in exchange, Turkey could transfer all the Syrian territory currently under its control back to the Assad government. Russia, in turn, could allow direct flights to TRNC and open a trade office there, which would function as many foreign legations do in, say, Taiwan (this is not to imply that Taiwan and TRNC are similar in other respects). In return, Turkey would allow direct flights to Crimea and permit various Turkish institutions, including universities, to reestablish ties with their counterparts there directly, of course, all after the current war comes to an end.
From the Turkish perspective, Moscow would play a valuable part in all such arrangements: the deal the two countries could strike would be a clear win-win situation. There is also more to such a deal than meets the eye. Ankara’s close ties with Moscow do seem to also contribute positively to the foreign policy postures of Central Asia’s Turkic states as well as to Azerbaijan’s relations with Russia. In broader terms, closer ties between Turkey and Russia always impact positively on members of the Organization of Turkish States (OTS).
It would be useful to recapitulate the main threads of this essay. What we have maintained throughout is that Turkey’s attitude towards the conflict between Moscow and Kiev over Crimea and other parts of Ukraine has undergone some important changes over the years. Whereas Ankara had been more vociferous in its opposition to Russia’s 2014 political and military moves in Ukraine, there is a discernable change in its posture lately, manifested by various forms of reticence. When Russia took over Crimea, Turkey strongly denounced Moscow’s actions and persisted in its attitude until recently: at the time, Ankara was sparing no efforts in its bid to unseat the Assad government while Moscow backed it in all respects. Turkey was then still trying to coordinate its Syria policy with Washington, though there soon emerged some differences between the two NATO allies in their respective approaches to the crisis, and Moscow’s strong backing of Damascus was a constant source of concern and frustration to Ankara.
Leaving aside the debate over whether its involvement in the war in Syria on such a large scale actually served Turkish national interests — after all, Ankara tried to overthrow a government in Damascus that had been on the best possible terms with Turkey for more than a decade — Ankara had every reason to oppose Russia in both Syria and Ukraine. Indeed, the two countries were on a rapid collision course: the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by the Turkish Air Force really did almost bring the two countries to the brink of war. Fortunately, such a war was avoided, perhaps thanks more to the extreme caution and prudence exercised by the Kremlin. The ensuing crisis persisted for about seven months and gradually both sides became convinced they should bury the proverbial hatchet and come to their senses. And so they did.
No sooner had the two capitals initiated serious efforts to mend their bilateral relations, an attempted coup occurred in Turkey, which gave further impetus to the genuine rapprochement already taking place between Ankara and Moscow. Still, this did not result in immediate and sweeping changes to Turkey’s policy in areas of importance to Russia — neither on Syria nor particularly over Crimea, because the Ankara-Washington axis was still being managed properly enough under Trump, despite outstanding disagreements. Hence, Turkey’s tightrope acrobatics went on for some years: keeping Russia on board on a range of issues from Syria and Karabakh through to the purchase of S400 air defense systems while at the same time cultivating ties to the US.
But all this gradually reached a point whereby Turkey had to make some changes in its foreign policy. Some dormant wedge issues between Ankara and Washington came into the open with the arrival of Team Biden (e.g., the Armenian question), but the glass simply could not take any more drops of water on other critical issues like the US project for the establishment of some sort of Kurdistan that threatens the territorial integrity of Middle Eastern countries, including Turkey, and serious disagreement over the Cyprus question.
Meanwhile, Ankara and Moscow came closer to each other. The Erdoğan-Putin tête-à-tête in late September 2021 reduced tensions between the two countries over Syria. Speculation is growing that two leaders may have struck a deal covering all outstanding issues: Cyprus, Syria, cooperation in the South Caucasus and even Central Asia, and closer military cooperation.
In a multipolar world order Turkey is likely to set its own agenda: remaining in NATO but cultivating closer ties to Russia and even China perhaps seeking join BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and playing a major role in several regions that surround it. Unlike the Cold War era and the unipolar world order it would act more independently of its Western partners.
Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia does not seem to be circumstantial. It is true that, as its relations with the West and particularly the US are going through tough times Ankara turns to Russia for more cooperation but it is also true that Ankara would remain on this mutually beneficial track more firmly at a time of multipolarity just as it always sought good relations with the Soviet Union in the inter-war period, particularly in the 1920s and 30s.
As opposed to the long decades of the Cold War, Turkish perception of Russia and the Russians in the eyes of the people have changed considerably. Today there is hardly a sizeable anti-Russia constituency in the country with clout enough to influence the policymaking. And being relatively stronger and more populous than in the Cold War years, Turkey appears better able to set its own Russia agenda than join in the Collective West against Russia.