The two countries realised early on that in the era of the de-Westernisation of the international system, Russia could become a resource for strengthening Turkey’s own strategic sovereignty, while Turkey could lend Russia the authority of a great power amid the erosion of the monolithic position of the West, write Valdai Club experts Maxim Suchkov and Andrey Sushentsov.
Relations between Russia and Turkey are an exception to the rule, and at the same time, an example of complex interaction between partners which have faced their own set of difficulties navigating contemporary international diplomacy. The two ambitious powers, led by powerful leaders, are historic rivals and are cited in the Guinness Book of Records as having fought more wars with each other than any other two countries. These relations have enough detractors, but they themselves are developing in a physical and information context that is not without its own perils: propaganda campaigns, information countermeasures, provocations, the use of private military companies, military-technological competition — there is a whole set of the latest forms of confrontation. However, having overcome the stress test of the military-political crisis of 2015, when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian bomber in the skies over Syria, the two countries have managed to develop an effective modus operandi, which to this day contributes to the mutually beneficial advancement of their interests. This became possible thanks to the art of diplomacy and the personal trust of the leaders of the two countries.
Moscow has no expectations that Ankara will behave as an ally — it is actually this attitude that helps maintain a balance of mutual interests. At the current stage, the personal dimension of this relationship plays, perhaps, a key role. Over the past year, of all foreign leaders, the Russian president held the most personal meetings with his Turkish counterpart. Both leaders came to power in the early 2000s and led their respective countries through a series of political experiments that did not always find approval in the West, but which returned Russia and Turkey to the front of the world political stage. Both countries embody the post-Cold War changes in the international order that have been unpleasant for the West, but both realised early on that in the era of the de-Westernisation of the international system, Russia could become a resource for strengthening Turkey’s own strategic sovereignty, while Turkey could lend Russia the authority of a great power amid the erosion of the monolithic position of the West.
Despite mutual disappointments, Putin and Erdogan do pretty well with each other to preserve relations between the two countries. Nevertheless, the historical fragility of bilateral relations is especially acute during periods of regional crises. During such periods, the journey from “strategic partner” to “historical enemy”, especially in the public consciousness and the media, can be made in a matter of hours. On the other hand, it keeps the relationship rather flexible.
In Syria, this strategic framework for bilateral relations is reflected in the three principles of interaction between Moscow and Ankara. The first one is to treat with understanding the issues of fundamental importance for the security of the parties. The second is to clearly, and in a timely manner, indicate where the red lines are, and discuss in advance a corridor of opportunities for cooperation around problematic topics. The third is to take advantage of the mistakes of other partners, especially the United States, by contrasting with them. The S-400 sale to Turkey solidified these principles: Russia acted as the provider of Turkish sovereignty, allowing Erdogan to detach from American security guarantees. Ultimately, Russia managed to “unhook” Turkey from the Western coalition which wanted to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Moscow simultaneously received legitimisation of its goals in Syria and a channel of influence on numerous groups of the Syrian opposition in the framework of the “Astana process”.
Russian-Turkish cooperation on the Karabakh conflict has become another, but one of the most difficult tests for the skill of strategy and decision-making in complex situations.
Russia faced several tasks at one time: to strengthen its own authority in the region and not to get involved in another “hot conflict” near its borders, to support an ally and avoid the expulsion of the Armenian community from Karabakh, not to push Azerbaijan away so as to prevent it from repeating the “Georgian scenario” of 2008, but also prevent an unconditional victory for Baku, like the one that Armenia won in 1994; to prevent an increase in the influence of the West and to prevent the strengthening of Turkey, but also not to spoil relations with Ankara. Finally, Russia had to retain its strategic initiative in regional affairs and strengthen its presence.
There were not many specific options for combining these objectives into a practical solution. And nevertheless, a nearly-optimal solution was found — Russian peacekeepers in Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow is a key guarantor of the peace process with an eye to reach peace and unblock regional transport links, implying the inclusion of Armenia in the international land transit of goods. As a result, the adoption of a new status quo between Armenia and Azerbaijan with the participation of Turkey as an observer, but with the leading role of Russia through the military presence in Karabakh, became an indicator that in the modern world success in resolving complex crises is still possible if it is predicated upon a high-quality strategy for balancing interests.