Ankara’s Look East: How Turkey’s Warming Ties with Russia Threaten Its Place in the Transatlantic Community

turkey russia

The strongmen of Turkey and Russia have met frequently this past year to discuss the Syrian civil war and bilateral relations. In parallel, Turkey’s relations with its Western allies have deteriorated amid disagreements about the rule of law in Turkey and Washington’s policies in Syria. Russia and Turkey have a strong economic relationship, underpinned by the Russian export of natural gas to Turkey, Russian tourism to Turkey, and Turkish construction firms active in the Russian market. Since the end of the Cold War, Ankara has sought to compartmentalize its relationships with NATO and Russia, separating Turkey’s obvious economic interests in Russia from Turkey’s security concerns about a renewed Russian military threat. In marked contrast to the European Union, with which Turkey has been in negotiations to join since 2005, Moscow could care less about Turkey’s poor human rights records and the deterioration of the country’ democratic institutions. Turkey’s traditional policy of compartmentalization is beginning to break down, however, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is turning to Russia to try and gain political leverage over the United States or to escape growing isolation from Turkey’s traditional Western allies.

Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow is real, albeit predicated on acquiescence to Russian terms. The Turkish-Russian relationship has improved considerably since a period of tensions and proxy-war in Syria, following Turkey’s downing of a Russian SU-24 bomber in November 2015. This rapprochement has prompted discussions about Turkey’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400, a long-range air and missile defense system, alongside talks on two infrastructure projects – the Turkstream pipeline and a Russian-built, owned, and operated nuclear reactor in southern Turkey.

Despite the frequency of high-level meetings, the S-400 and Syria sagas suggest Turkish weakness and a broken policymaking process rather than a calculated move away from NATO. The Turkish government’s main goal in negotiating with Russia appears to be obtaining an air defense system, primarily aimed at coup-proofing the security apparatus, specifically against any future rogue Air Force plot like the failed coup attempt in July 2016.

However, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s willingness to cast blame on the United States for the failed coup represents a serious departure from the norm and has undermined relations with Washington. The Turkish government, as a matter of policy, is whipping up anti-American sentiment to perpetuate its narrative of external attack. The victimhood narrative is then used to place blame for a variety of domestic incidents that have plagued Turkey since 2013. This policy jeopardizes Turkey’s standing within NATO, the backbone of Ankara’s defense policy and the guarantor of its protection from a superior foe like Russia. The willingness to test the outer boundaries of this alliance suggests that elements of the AKP elite actually believe in the grand conspiracy. They really believe Washington is working to undermine Turkey, perhaps going as far as to sponsor a coup to overthrow Erdogan.

Turkey’s warming ties with Russia, however, are beset with contradictions that cede diplomatic leverage to Moscow. The burgeoning Turkish-Russian relationship now threatens to damage Ankara’s relationship with Washington and Brussels, an outcome in Russia’s longer-term interests. Turkey’s decision-making appears ad-hoc and linked to a narrowly defined set of security interest linked to concerns about the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Finally, Erdogan’s rhetoric suggests that he fears another coup attempt, a fact that may be driving Turkish military procurement decisions. The danger is that narrow-minded and short-term thinking will become a self-fulfilling prophecy, resulting in Ankara’s isolation from its traditional allies and an accidental cementing of its status as a junior partner to Moscow.

Turkey’s Russia policy stems from radical changes in Turkish decision-making, linked to Ankara’s own position in the Syrian civil war and the steps it’s prepared to take to prevent the breakdown of centralized rule in a post-conflict peace settlement. Ankara’s focus on narrow and inward focused security threats has eroded the traditional firewall between Turkish security cooperation with NATO and economic outreach to Moscow. The roots of this breakdown start in Syria, where Russia defeated Turkish proxies on the battlefield, and have culminated in Moscow’s cultivation of Turkey as one component of its multi-pronged (and often contradictory) efforts to end the Syrian civil war. Ankara, in turn, appears intent on using the purchase of a Russian made air defense system to deepen economic ties — a policy decision that threatens Turkey’s standing in NATO and risks further tensions with the United States.

Turkish decision-making has been reactive throughout this period of recent history, and devoid of a broader strategy for the region. There is no Turkish grand strategy. However, Ankara’s reactive policy-making process is worth digging deeper into, precisely because it is important to contextualize how Turkey’s defeat in northern Syria and concurrent changes in domestic Turkish politics now incentivize Ankara to work through Moscow and demonize the West. These two incentives are mutually reinforcing and now risk deepening Western frustration with Turkish authoritarianism and deepening tensions within NATO — both of which indirectly help advance Russian interests.

Syria: The Kurds, Sochi, and the Assad Question

The collapse of Turkey’s Syria policy, combined with the Russian intervention into the war and concurrent U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds, prompted a 180-degree change in Turkish policy. After years of hosting and arming opposition groups fighting the Syrian regime, Turkey quietly dropped its insistence that Bashar al Assad step-down as a precondition to any proposed peace agreement. Instead, Ankara has acquiesced to the Russian position, which leaves the Assad question to be answered in a potential election to be held in 2021. The issue, now, is disagreement about Russia’s proposed constitution, which could empower the Syrian Kurds with the establishment of a federal system — a goal at odds with Turkey’s stated interests.

Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and eventual cooperation with Moscow and Tehran — first on the Astana Process and its politically-focused follow-on in Sochi — are linked to a series of events in 2015 and 2016. Far from signaling Turkish strength, Ankara’s actions stem from the need to radically alter policy after Russia deepened its involvement in the conflict, culminating in Russian defeat of Turkish-allied groups in Northern Aleppo in December 2016. This development raised the specter of a territorially contiguous Kurdish entity along Turkey’s longest land border — seen by Ankara as a threat to its security interests — and necessitated a change in policy.

Turkey was not always a weak actor in northern Syria. For much of the war, Ankara was the principal backer of the northern Syrian opposition. This position placed Ankara directly at odds with Russia, Assad’s main ally, along with Iran. Arguably, Ankara’s success in spearheading a successful offensive, led by Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaeda affiliate, threatened the regime’s hold on power and prompted a joint Russian-Iranian effort to prop up the Assad regime — an intervention that eventually led to the Turkish defeat in the north.

In response to the offensive, Russia deployed fixed wing and rotary aircraft in October 2015, and then began to use these assets to support the Syrian regime. At this point in the war, Turkey was flying defensive-counter-air patrols along the border to deter regime airframe activity, and thereby give groups it backed along the border protection from regime bombing. Russia ignored Turkey’s patrols and, on numerous occasions, violated Turkish airspace while bombing rebel positions along the border. On November 24, Turkey retaliated and downed a Russian jet. The action ratcheted up Turkish-Russian tensions, and prompted Moscow to target Turkish convoys resupplying Aleppo. Russia’s bombing eventually cut Turkey off from the city in February 2016, an outcome that, in retrospect, signaled Turkish defeat in the irregular war it was fighting with the Syrian regime.

Turkey’s tensions with Russia moved in parallel to changes in U.S. policy. In May 2016, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began a push to capture Manbij, a city west of the Euphrates that was then under ISIL control, some 20 kilometers south of the Turkish border. The offensive directly violated a stated Turkish red line: an armed Kurdish presence west of the Euphrates. The American decision to back the offensive came after the failure of a joint Turkish-U.S. effort to train and equip new Arab-majority groups tasked with working with both the U.S. and Turkish militaries to clear ISIL from the border.

The Russian Air Force attacked the groups that the United States and Turkey intended to augment with trained forces to oust Islamic State from its last stronghold on the Turkish-Syrian border. This train and equip program was a compromise: In return for access to Turkish airbases, the United States sought to create a new, non-Kurdish majority force to fight Islamic State. The Russian intervention directly challenged this policy. However, it was the weakness of the groups that ultimately prompted Washington to change directions and rely on the SDF to take Manbij. Ankara had made clear that it viewed any SDF presence west of the Euphrates as a red line. Washington, eventually, made the decision to ignore Ankara’s concerns, and instead to prioritize the war effort over short-term problems with Turkey. The Manbij offensive began on May 29 and the city was besieged 11 days later, on June 9. That same month, Erdogan apologized to Putin and signaled his intent to normalize relations. In an unexpected twist, in mid-July, elements from within Turkey revolted against the elected government.

The coup attempt was quickly quelled, but the event sidelined ongoing efforts to win Russian and Iranian support for action. These efforts were renewed in August, during Erdogan’s August 9 visit to Moscow, and then Foreign Minister Mevlet Cavusoglu’s visit to Tehran one week later. With Russian and Iranian support secured, Turkey sent forces across the border into Syria on August 24 in an operation dubbed Euphrates Shield. The intent was to block the westward expansion of the SDF and clear ISIL forces from the border. It appears that Moscow set tight parameters governing the goals of the operation, and when Ankara tested these, Russia would directly work with groups on the ground to create small pockets of opposition buffering the Turkish military’s area of operations. As a result, Moscow worked closely with the Kurdish YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK to prevent the expansion of Turkish control over Manbij, a city Ankara expressly intended to capture.

Following Turkey’s outreach to Russia and Iran before operation Euphrates Shield, Ankara and Moscow continued negotiations for a second agreement: the evacuation of the remaining Turkish-backed figures from Aleppo city in December 2016. The deal came after a brutal Russian-backed offensive allowed for the regime to encircle and besiege Aleppo’s opposition-held east, and then use the threat of starvation or mass bombardment to compel a settlement. Ankara helped broker an agreement that allowed for the evacuation of opposition fighters to Idlib. That Iran played spoiler suggests Tehran cannot be counted on to simply follow Russian dictates and that it will take steps to ensure that its own self-defined interests are taken into account. The evacuation took place over several days, resulting in the bottling-up of the Turkish backed-opposition in two disconnected enclaves: Idlib and the territory Turkey seized from ISIL in Operation Euphrates Shield. The triumvirate was formalized in January, when Iran, Russia, and Turkey agreed to act as guarantors for the so-called Astana process, named after the Kazakhstan capital where the talks have been held.

The Astana talks’ main outcome thus far is an agreement for a series of de-escalation zones designed to limit fighting, brokered by Russia and Iran on behalf of the regime, and Turkey as the opposition representative. The last of the four zones was established in September 2017 and covered Idlib province. Ankara later sent troops into the zone, purportedly to monitor the ceasefire. However, the deployments —totaling some 500 troops – appear to be aimed at establishing Turkish positions south of Kurdish-controlled Afrin, and quasi-independent from any actual “de-escalation monitoring”. The deployments are indicative of Turkey’s broader goals and reinforced the idea that Turkey’s policy in Syria has narrowed to mainly focus on the Kurdish threat. Turkey’s narrow goals are at odds with Russia’s efforts to broker an agreement to end the conflict. However, Russia has also pledged to work through Turkey to try and tame the Idlib-based opposition, which makes the two countries symbiotic actors in northwestern Syria.

In November 2017, Russia announced that it would hold a meeting in Sochi to “reinforce the positive developments from the Astana process by establishing a political track to help end the conflict.” In late October, Russia’s state-owned media outlet TASS wrote that the list of invitees to Sochi included the PKK-linked Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), prompting Turkish objections and the postponement of the congress. Instead, Erdogan met with Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Sochi, where the three sides agreed to hold a congress at a later date. The photo-op was useful for Erdogan domestically: His surrogates played up the meeting as a critical step towards the resolution of the conflict, and thus another example of his wise leadership. However, the underlying tensions over the future role of the Syrian Kurds is certain to remain an irritant in the Turkish-Russian relationship, even if Ankara can control whether the opposition shows up to the next scheduled round of talks in January. Turkey, therefore, does have leverage in the short term, but the Kurdish question will have to be addressed at some point in the future, and Russia is the stronger of the two actors, and more amenable to compromise with the Kurds.

These dynamics portend a longer-term problem for Turkey, wherein Moscow will push for its own proposals to end the war and, eventually, Ankara will have to succumb to an outcome against its own self-interest. In this case, the trend is towards some sort of agreement between the various parties that allows for some sort of federal, or decentralized, system for certain areas inside Syria. Turkey may try to prevent this through an alliance with the regime to fight the SDF, but this would require the Assad government making a decision to drop its Russian ally for Turkey, or Ankara winning Russian support for a joint offensive against the Syrian Kurds. Neither scenario seems likely. Moscow continues to flirt with the SDF, while the regime remains extremely hostile to Turkey for its half-decade long support for groups still fighting to overthrow it.

For Turkey, the fundamental antagonism with its insistence on the post-conflict Syrian state remaining unified, while at the same time, building up independent institutions in the Euphrates Shield territory. These two efforts are in contradiction with one another. Turkey is actively seeking to empower a post-Assad central government, while at the same time creating independent governing institutions in the part of Syria the Turkish military controls. At some point, as part of Turkey’s participation in the Russian-led effort to negotiate an end to the conflict, Ankara will have to grapple with how to re-integrate its own proto-state building project back into a central government in Damascus, and then have to grapple with why its push for decentralization in one part of the country should also be replicated in the Kurdish controlled areas. This inevitably cedes leverage to Russia (and the United States) and undercuts a key component of Turkey’s current Syria policy.

Palace Defense: Air Defense and Turkish Decision-Making

Beyond Syria, Turkey’s potential purchase of a Russian made missile system risks Turkish defense cooperation with NATO. Ankara’s interest in the missile stems from the broader, Turkish-Russian rapprochement that began in late June 2016. Amid the flurry of meetings, Erdogan and Putin have pushed talks forward on the Russian-made S-400. Ankara’s interest in long-range air defense is not new. However, Ankara has signaled that it is prepared to make key compromises with Moscow over technology sharing and co-production arrangements. Turkey’s traditional military procurement policy prioritizes technology transfer and direct offsets from foreign suppliers, as part of a broader effort to use these transfers of technology and experiences to build up an indigenous defense sector.

In the past, the Turkish government has not hesitated to delay multibillion dollar agreements if it’s determined that Western suppliers aren’t giving enough to Turkish firms. The S-400 saga is an outlier, and therefore worthy of closer examination. Erdogan’s willingness to overlook technology transfer in this instance suggests that politics are involved — and is therefore linked to the broader rapprochement. The stakes are high: If Turkey and Russia finalize an agreement, the United States could impose sanctions on its NATO ally, an outcome that would seriously undermine bilateral relations. The Turkish government knows the stakes and the likely U.S. response, and will therefore send an important signal if it still chooses to deepen cooperation with Moscow.

Ankara’s most recent open tender for a missile defense system began in June 2006, and made strategic sense. Turkey’s neighbors have fielded short and intermediate range ballistic missiles and have a demonstrated track record of using these systems in combat. Ankara, therefore, can easily make the case that it needs some protection from regional missile proliferation. Dubbed T-LORAMIDs, Turkey’s initial intent was to procure up to 12 batteries in a direct, off-the-shelf purchase to defend against missile attack. The proposal was later updated with technology transfer demands, and eventually culminated with the decision to begin negotiations with China for the HQ-9, the Chinese version of the Russian S-300. The Turkish decision sparked considerable controversy in the United States and within NATO. The alliance was wary of integrating the system into Turkey’s air defense network, which is linked to NATO’s early warning and command and control network. NATO feared that China could glean useful information about its air defense network, or use the system to collect information about the F-35, the U.S.-built fighter that will form the backbone of the alliance’s air superiority fighters starting in the 2020s.

The Turkish government’s focus on the air-to-air/ground threats suggests that Ankara has prioritized that target set, alongside the lessons learned from operating a high-end long-range surface-to-air missile system. The problem, of course, is that Turkey doesn’t face a high-end air-to-air threat, except from Russia, the country that produces the air defense system it intends to buy. The sale of S-400 also poses potential issues for Russia. Despite the tension, Turkey is a NATO member and the sale of Russia’s highest-end system may allow for the United States to collect information on the system and then use the data to exploit vulnerabilities. Russia knows that this is a potential problem and should be expected to take steps to mitigate the threat. In the past, Russia has sought to protect technical secrets through the export of lower-end systems for third parties. Moscow also has incentive to withhold design information from Turkey, lest it be shared within the NATO alliance. This could explain why Russian officials openly state that there will be no technology transfer for the S-400 and that the arrangement is for direct military sales.

For NATO and the United States, there is a set of conflicting incentives and disincentives that shape policy choices. On the one hand, the potential gain of access to a Russian S-400 may represent an opportunity for exploitation. And yet, that same system can also be used to collect on U.S. or NATO assets, like the F-35 or an ally’s air defense network. For Turkey, the potential benefits remain questionable. The system isn’t ideally suited for ballistic missile defense, the historical driver of Turkish interest in missile defense systems. The system could be used to “coup-proof” and defend against internal threats. A battery in or near Ankara could be used to defend airspace around key government installations from high-performance aircraft, like the F-16. This narrow, inward focus for the S-400 could also explain why Turkey is also engaged with MBDA Missile Systems for a study about missile defense, presumably with the Aster 30 SAMP/T surface-to-air missile system.

For Russia, the only real concern is that the United States and NATO will collect data from the system. To date, this has not stopped Moscow from deploying the system in Syria and Crimea, both of which allow for U.S. and allied aircrews to gather information about the system. Greece also operates an S-300 on the island of Crete, but that system was initially intended for non-NATO member Cyprus to defend against Turkish aircraft. It was only after Turkish diplomatic intervention and the threat of conflict that the system ended up on Crete. It is unclear how the system works today, although U.S., Greek, and Israeli aircraft do train against it. Ankara often holds up the Greek deal as a precedent, even though the S-300 was never intended for deployment inside a NATO country and only ended up there to appease Turkey. Greece also purchased the U.S.-manufactured Patriot for its air-defense needs.

Turkey and Russia reportedly agreed to a 2019 delivery date for the first S-400 battery. The Turkish government has also made a down payment for the system, although no information exists about where and to whom this payment was made. The structure of the deal, however, may include a penalty if Turkey cancels negotiations. Moscow, therefore, has an incentive to expedite the production and delivery of batteries for Turkey. If the deal falls through, Moscow can send them elsewhere and recoup some of the expenses from the Turkish penalty payment. The S-400 also does not pose a threat to Russian aircraft. In the event of NATO-Russia conflict, the reality is that Moscow has a myriad of missile systems with the range to target Turkey and would overwhelm its own air defense system. And, of course, if the deal goes through, Russia will have exported a missile system to a NATO country and further upset intra-NATO relations.

Policy Options: Grappling with the New Turkey and Coming to Consensus on Air Defense

 The domestic political environment in Turkey poses a unique problem for the United States. The Turkish government is using allied media outlets and propagandists in the public space to advance falsehoods about U.S. involvement in the failed July coup attempt. This policy is anathema to the U.S. approach, which places a premium on alliance management, and working with Ankara on areas of mutual interest. This incentivizes unilateral U.S. offerings to Turkey, with the hopes that increased cooperation will help assuage Turkish concerns about U.S. policy, particularly in Syria, and to maintain a common set of interests to work together on. The U.S. government, however, is ill-equipped to deal with an allied government with a leadership cadre that has internalized conspiracy theories and believes that elements of the U.S. government were involved in a failed coup plot. The anti-U.S./Western rhetoric is also politically beneficial to the AKP and reflects its current political coalition.

The United States should also accept that the Turkish leadership is paranoid, inward-looking, and is not executing a linear or coherent policy vis-à-vis Russia. However, Ankara becoming a junior partner to Moscow is also not in America’s interests either. The policy challenge stems from how the Turkish government will turn any U.S. effort to compel a change in policy around with claims of U.S. interference with Turkish sovereignty. The natural policy approach, therefore, is for the United States and its Western allies to remain quiet – particularly about the S-400 purchase and the disagreements about Syria – or risk Erdogan using Western rhetoric for his political advantage. And, as a result, the political pressure to finalize the S-400 deal increases. However, staying silent risks sending a signal that the West will watch passively, as Ankara negotiates itself into a corner and lets parochial interests upend NATO solidarity against a common enemy. The policy challenge involves balancing a “carrots and sticks” approach that signals consequences if Turkey goes forward with Russia, while also offering a face saving exit that allows for Ankara to realize some of its policy goals in Syria and for air defense.

A main pillar of U.S. outreach to Turkey is linked to the Kurdish issue. While the United States gives support to the SDF, the United States has also sought to increase support for the Turkish government’s fight against the PKK. The linkage between Turkey’s domestic PKK-led insurgency has implications for the future of the U.S. military presence in Syria, including the prospects for a regime-SDF arrangement to reach an agreement to help end the conflict. The risk is that an isolated Ankara fails in its outreach to Moscow and Washington, resulting in the prospect for a Turkish invasion of SDF-held territory, or even a side deal with the regime. To address this potentiality, one avenue would be to press Ankara on its PYD-PKK policies, including its preference for a non-SDF held buffer zone along the border.

To do this, the United States would have to work out a sequence, the first step of which President Trump signaled is already in the works: the ending of direct lethal support for the YPG. In parallel, the US should consider pressing Turkey on its longer-term plans for a return to political dialogue with PKK, and how U.S. targeting assistance fits into the Turkish strategy. The U.S. government should also try and leverage concerns about the S-400 to its advantage. Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 could complicate Turkish cooperation with U.S. and European defense firms, both of which are involved in a myriad of projects in Turkey. Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned that the S-400 deal would violate the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, passed in July to sanction Russia (and Iran and North Korea). In October 2017, the Trump administration sent Congress a list of Russian companies that will be used to determine new sanctions, which includes the S-400 manufacturer, Almaz-Antey Air, and Space Defense Corporation JSC.

The sanctions do have a presidential waiver, however, the president must first submit justification to a congressional committee that doing so would be in the vital interests of the United States. Turkey’s standing in Congress has soured since May 2017, following a brawl between Erdogan’s security detail and peaceful protesters during an official visit to Washington. Congress, therefore, should be expected to push to sanction Turkey should it move forward with the S-400 purchase, and could take legislative steps to govern U.S. defense cooperation with Turkish firms. The administration could use this potentiality as a point of leverage, particularly over weapons exports/licensing agreements that the Turkish defense industry and military relies on for the fight against the PKK. Thus, while the S-400 and the PKK are not directly linked, the potential upending of U.S.-Turkish defense cooperation risks weakening Turkey’s war against the PKK.

Coming to Grips with the AKP and Keeping Russia Outside the Tent

The policy options I offer in this article are ambitious in scope and will require a series of steps to ease tension before being elevated for discussion. For the United States, the immediate expectation is for Turkey to cease the harassment of U.S. diplomatic personnel and to tamp down anti-Americanism in public speeches. This will be difficult. An enduring challenge for the U.S.-Turkish relationship is the elite’s embrace of conspiracy theories and internalization of the idea that elements of the U.S. government are working to topple the AKP.

This new constant in U.S.-Turkish relationship should change how the United States thinks about how to deal with the AKP. Washington’s emphasis on alliance management and a policy of unilateral concession to Turkey do not prompt changes in Turkish policymaking. Instead, unilateral concessions are pocketed, while elites continue to bash Western capitals for domestic political gain. The United States must accept that members of the Turkish elite believe that the U.S. government is secretly trying to topple it. This is not an easy challenge to overcome. This warped point of view is also driving elements of Ankara’s Russia policy. The benefits of Turkey’s outreach to Moscow remain minimal. The risk, of course, is a further downturn in Turkish-transatlantic relations and the cementing of Ankara as a junior partner to Moscow in Syria, a policy outcome that is at odds with U.S. interests no matter how difficult the U.S.-Turkish relationship has become.


Aaron Stein is resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Anadolu Agency