Don’t Forget the Historical Context of Russo-Turkish Competition
Rarely do two countries’ leaders hold a joint press conference proclaiming their intention to “deepen relations” barely one week after a clash between their militaries left dozens dead. Yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, did just that on March 5 following more than six hours of talks at the Kremlin, where they agreed to a ceasefire to prevent the increasingly dangerous crisis over the Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib from escalating. The talks came after Russian planes bombed Turkish positions south of Idlib on February 27, killing dozens of Turkish soldiers. After the bombing, Turkish troops carried out drone and artillery strikes that, Ankara claimed, killed hundreds of Syrian soldiers and destroyed several Russian-supplied air defense systems. Turkish F-16s also shot down two Syrian Su-24 fighter jets.
These clashes were the most serious confrontation between the Russian and Turkish militaries in the Syrian civil war where, despite their competing ambitions, Ankara and Moscow have been at the forefront of efforts to reach a political settlement through the so-called Astana Process. Cooperation in the Syrian civil war provides the most striking manifestation of the new partnership between Russia and Turkey. However, it also exemplifies one of the most enduring challenges to that partnership, namely Ankara and Moscow’s incompatible regional ambitions — not just in the Middle East but throughout much of their shared periphery, which is much bigger than the Middle East. Their shared periphery also includes the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the eastern Mediterranean. Even as Russia and Turkey’s respective ambitions across these areas have grown, Ankara and Moscow have sought to manage the resulting tensions because both see a greater challenge emanating from the West.
Competing ambitions in their shared neighborhood nonetheless remain a stumbling block and source of mistrust. As Ankara and Moscow continue to disagree about the Syrian endgame, the ceasefire alone will not prevent future clashes. With Russia committed to consolidating a bloc of like-minded states to challenge the Western-led global order while Turkey seeks strategic autonomy and regional pre-eminence, the two countries have plenty of differences that could endanger their entente.
There Goes the Neighborhood
Combining geopolitics with a longing for past imperial grandeur, regional competition is a longstanding driver of Russo-Turkish rivalry. For centuries, the Russian and Ottoman empires were strategic rivals throughout their shared neighborhood. Russia’s largely successful efforts to displace the Ottomans from the Balkans, the northern Black Sea, and the Caucasus resulted in the massive displacement of populations and contributed to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I.
Ostracized by the Western powers in the 1920s, Ankara and Moscow managed to resolve territorial disputes, boost trade, and pursue military cooperation. Ankara also adopted a statist development model patterned in part on the Soviet experience — notwithstanding the virulent anti-Communism of the Kemalist elite. Some of these ties endured even after Turkey joined NATO in 1952 in response to Stalin’s demands for territorial concessions and the right to place Soviet forces in Turkey. Under Atatürk and especially his successor, İsmet İnönü, Turkey adopted a Western-focused orientation that entailed downplaying Ottoman-era links to neighboring regions like the Balkans and the now-Soviet-controlled Caucasus. Weakened by the political and economic turmoil of the Yeltsin years, Russia’s own regional ambitions remained modest into the mid-2000s. Post-Cold War Turkey, meanwhile, adopted a more independent strategic orientation, seeking what former Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu termed “strategic depth” and “zero problems with neighbors” that entailed efforts to position Turkey as a regional power and extend Turkish influence across much of its periphery, including in the Balkans and the former Soviet Union. Ankara positioned itself as a key economic and security partner for Georgia and Azerbaijan (even Turkish officials sometimes refer to Turks and Azeris as “one nation, two states”), allowing the two countries to reduce their dependence on Moscow.
Ankara and Moscow backed opposing sides in the Nagorno-Karabakh war of the early 1990s as well as during the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo. Erdoğan added a renewed focus on the Middle East, looking to Muslims there and, to a lesser degree, throughout the “post-Ottoman space” as a natural vehicle for expanding Turkish influence. Meanwhile, Putin traded an interest in Western integration for the pursuit of hegemony in Eurasia. While Turkey and Russia shared illiberal politics, aspirations for strategic autonomy, and territorial revisionism, they increasingly clashed in areas where both sought to create spheres of influence.
The Road to Damascus
The resulting clashes became particularly dangerous in the Middle East following the outbreak of the 2011 Arab Spring. Turkish support for anti-regime protestors — many of them Islamists — in countries ranging from Libya to Egypt to Syria ran counter to Russia’s policy of propping up secular authoritarians, notably Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. While Moscow has been Assad’s principal foreign patron, Turkey demanded Assad leave power and provided military assistance to groups like the Syrian Turkmen Brigades and the hardline Islamist Jabhat al-Nusra. While Turkey further aimed to prevent the Kurds from consolidating power along the Syrian-Turkish border, Russia cultivated ties with the Kurds as part of its regional balancing approach.
These competing objectives have already brought Russia and Turkey to blows. In November 2015, Turkey’s air force downed a Russian jet that crossed into its airspace. In response, Russia imposed sanctions that caused Turkish exports to fall by more than half, forcing Erdoğan to issue an apology. Still, Turkey and Russia managed these incidents without sparking a fundamental break because both Ankara and Moscow prioritized the maintenance of strategic independence from the West over regional quarrels, whether in Syria or elsewhere. Today’s Russo-Turkish entente grows out of a shared alienation from the West and its institutions, resulting in an “axis of the excluded.” While Russia has long viewed itself as standing apart from the West, it adopted an increasingly aggressive posture following Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012. Under Erdoğan, Turkey has adopted a parallel — if less effective — pursuit of authoritarian rule and regional influence. Despite a history of rivalry and Turkey’s entrenched fear of Russian power, domestic factors as well as a shared opposition to aspects of U.S. policy in the Middle East have pushed Ankara and Moscow together.
An important catalyst in their rapprochement was the U.S. decision in late 2014 and early 2015 to partner with and eventually arm the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in the fight against ISIL. An offshoot of the banned Kurdistan Workers Party that has conducted a long-running insurgency for independence from Turkey, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units set up an autonomous statelet in northern Syria that Turkey believed could become the nucleus of an independent Kurdish state. With Washington committed to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units to carry the burden of combatting the self-proclaimed Islamic State, Ankara began openly pursuing a rapprochement with Moscow. Despite its tactical origins, this pivot towards Russia comes from a more fundamental divergence between Ankara and Washington’s visions of the Middle East.
The point of no return came with the fallout from the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan. The Turkish president blamed the United States for being slow to condemn the coup — in contrast to Putin, whose support for Erdoğan was immediate and unambiguous — and for refusing to extradite the Pennsylvania-based cleric, Fethullah Gülen, whose followers in the military appear to have organized the putsch.
The clearest signal of Erdoğan’s subsequent pivot towards Russia was the decision to purchase the Russian-built S-400 air defense system after failing for years to strike a deal to buy the U.S.-built Patriot instead. Washington’s subsequent decision to expel Turkey from the F-35 fighter program and threat of sanctions show how the deal has helped drive a wedge between Turkey and its traditional partners while giving Russia a valuable partner inside NATO.
Out of the Sandbox and Into the Fire?
Under the circumstances, both Ankara and Moscow have an incentive to manage their regional disputes, including those in Syria. Such disputes remain the most significant medium-term obstacle to maintaining the Russo-Turkish entente — nowhere more so than in Syria, where both sides have shown a willingness to use large-scale force and where the ceasefire did little to resolve the underlying conflict.
As long as Ankara holds the keys to Idlib, Moscow — as well as Damascus and Tehran — has little choice but to take Turkish concerns, especially those connected to the Kurdish issue, into consideration. The Turkish military’s ability — and willingness — to target both the Syrian government and Russian assets inside Syria shows that Moscow should carefully weigh the costs of any escalation. Though Russia has by far the more powerful military while Turkey’s NATO allies have shown little appetite to come to its aid on Syrian territory, the proximity of the Turkish border to the battlefield helps tilt the balance.
In addition, Ankara and Moscow remain at odds over future political arrangements in Syria. Apart from the Idlib demilitarized zone, Turkish forces have carried out repeated cross-border incursions to push the Kurdish People’s Protection Units back from the frontier. In the process, Ankara has established de facto control over pockets of northern Syria on both sides of the Euphrates River. Although Moscow appears prepared to tolerate this Turkish presence for the time being, it remains an obstacle to Assad’s campaign to restore control over the entirety of the country and an impediment to a permanent resolution of the conflict.
Problems in other regions appear manageable on their own but remain potential flashpoints considering, for instance, if the situation in Syria further deteriorates. In Libya, Turkey is providing military assistance, including troops, to support the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, while Russia has dispatched weapons and mercenaries to the warlord Khalifa Haftar.
Ukraine is another potential source of tension. With the Russian-backed separatist conflict in the East grinding on, Turkey is seeking greater cooperation with Kyiv, including on defense and security issues — not to mention the fate of the Turkic Crimean Tatars who have faced systematic oppression since Russia’s annexation of their homeland (shortly after the bombing of Turkish positions near Idlib, Erdoğan pointedly shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” during a state visit to Kyiv). Increasing volatility in the Balkans — particularly in divided Bosnia-Herzegovina — and the South Caucasus also presents opportunities for Russo-Turkish tensions to spill over.
Dances of Wolves and Bears
Despite their incompatible objectives across these regions, both Ankara and Moscow want to manage their disagreements rather than risk a larger conflict. Both the Turkish attacks on Syrian government forces and the Russian bombardment of Turkish positions are best understood as part of a complex bargaining process instead of a prelude to a larger conflict. Though all indications suggest that Russian planes knowingly bombed the Turkish positions near Idlib, the Russian Ministry of Defense suggested that Turkish casualties were collateral damage from strikes targeting “terrorist forces.” Meanwhile, Ankara went out of its way to blame the attack on Syrian government forces rather than on Russia.
Such dodges indicate the importance that Erdoğan and Putin assign to keeping their competition in Syria manageable while they focus on their more fundamental quarrels with the West. Both the United States and Europe are deeply frustrated with Erdoğan’s courting of Moscow — not to mention his recent decision to open Turkey’s border with Greece to refugees. Turkey’s appeals for military assistance from the United States are likely to go unheeded as long as Ankara insists on operating the S-400. Eventually, Turkey will need to take steps to repair relations with its NATO partners yet, in the meantime, has little choice but to avoid a direct clash with Moscow. At the same time, facing sanctions and a confrontation with the West that shows no signs of abating, Russia has every incentive to continue trying to peel Turkey away from its Westward orientation — even at the cost of accommodating some Turkish interests in Syria.
The pursuit of regional primacy and post-imperial spheres of influence is one of the main reasons for the alienation of both Turkey and Russia from the West. Yet, those same ambitions represent an enduring source of competition between Russia and Turkey. Despite a couple of close calls in Syria, Russia and Turkey have thus far succeeded in keeping that competition manageable.
The Syrian endgame will be the first important test of the two leaders’ ability to manage this competition. Assad still aims to restore his control over all of Syria. Control of Idlib is Turkey’s bargaining chip while the ability to unleash another flood of refugees toward the border is that of Russia. In late February, Moscow agreed to let Assad take a beating rather than press the issue, sending a message to Damascus about the limits of Russian support in the process. Still, as long as Idlib remains outside Syrian government control, at least some in Damascus may be tempted to try again in the hope of forcing Moscow’s hand. Thus far, Russia has skillfully balanced its Syrian ally and Turkish partner. Absent a fundamental shift such as Turkey pulling out of the S-400 deal, Moscow will try to maintain that balancing act as long as possible. However, miscalculations are possible. Russia and Turkey’s continued ability to manage their respective regional ambitions — in Syria and beyond — will be a crucial determinant of whether their entente endures.
Jeffrey Mankoff is a senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the Ceanter for Strategic and International Studies and the author of the forthcoming Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security.
Image: Russian Kremlin