On one hand, Turkey-Russia relations matter not only in terms of the foreign policy practices of those states but also in terms of regional stability and even the future of some global developments. On the other hand, the recent character of bilateral relations has at least 20 years of history, which makes ups and downs inevitable. Moreover, specific external factors have had direct repercussions, either strengthening the existing cooperation or testing mutual trust between Turkey and Russia. The new administration in the United States might be addressed as one of those external dynamics that could have direct and/or indirect effects, especially in some specific regions. Even though Turkey is a NATO member and an EU candidate country, Ankara recently had to face both EU and the US sanctions due to different reasons. Diverging threat perceptions brought a certain split between Turkey and its Western partners, while Ankara and Moscow successfully managed to overcome their differences and find a way to cooperate. However, with the Biden Administration, Turkey and the US may find a common perspective to cooperate in specific areas, which may present another, relatively new, challenge for Turkey-Russia relations. The Black Sea region seems to be a potential area of cooperation for Turkey and the US despite the continuing deterioration in bilateral relations.
The current trend of Turkey-Russia relations, which can be summarized as focusing on cooperation rather than confrontation and rivalry, goes back to the early 2000s. Since then, Ankara and Moscow have achieved a considerably important rapprochement. Booming trade relations and energy cooperation has been the engine of multidimensional cooperation which lasted until the warplane incident in November 2015. However, the negative outcomes of the incident were to be overcome after an eight-month long break in good relations, with a letter that was send by President Erdogan. It is arguable whether ‘business is as usual’ has returned between the two leading regional powers but there has been significant cooperation, especially in Syria, after the so-called normalisation. However, there are also external factors that play positive and negative roles in bilateral relations. Their relations with the West, separately, might be argued as one of those factors. Indeed, it is worth discussing the possible outcomes of the Biden Administration for not only Turkey-US relations but also what it would mean for Ankara-Moscow ties. The Black Sea region comes to the forefront at that point.
The Role of the United States in Turkey-Russia Relations: Why does it matter?
Bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia deserve to be elaborated upon, regardless of the third countries’ involvement, since strong relations between two serve to benefit not only the economic and political interests of both but also are crucial in terms of regional stability and order. However, it is also true that the more their relations with the West deteriorate, the more Ankara and Moscow grow closer to each other. Still, it is hard to claim that Turkey’s relationship with the West (the US and the EU) can be replaced with the one it has with Russia: the structural framework of relations, historical legacies, and institutional background differs a lot.
Turkey-US relations have been deteriorating since the crisis in Syria deepened, as it had created different threat perceptions in each country. There has been a huge gap between Turkey’s interests and security priorities and those of the US. The coup attempt in Turkey and the US unwillingness to support the elected government further fuelled the confidence crisis. Even though many have suggested that the leaders of the US and Turkey (Trump and Erdogan) had similar personality characteristics and that therefore their communication was ultimately positive, the progress of bilateral relations has drawn different picture. For instance, after Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S400 missile defence systems, the Trump administration invoked the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) and excluded Turkey from the F-35 project. While Russian-made missiles cannot be integrated into NATO infrastructure, it also caused dissatisfaction because more states might become eager to buy the same missiles, such as India. Moreover, especially since the coup attempt in Turkey, Turkey’s confidence crisis with its Western allies played a positive role in motivating Ankara to pursue further cooperation with Moscow. Therefore, it can be suggested that after the warplane crisis which was followed by the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, the US and the EU played an important role in the accelerating bilateral relations between Ankara and Moscow. In other words, Turkey’s relations with the US and the EU increasingly effects Turkey’s perception towards the Russian Federation. The most striking turning point in that regard has been the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016.
While the level of mutual trust and shared security and foreign policy interests of the two countries had hit a low-point, the change of administration in the US brought the question of whether Turkey’s relations would deteriorate even further or Ankara and Washington find a better way to deal with the challenges they face. Even with the new Biden Administration, the higher-priority issues on the agenda are not easy to resolve, including: Turkey’s purchase of S400 missile defence systems and the sanctions the US has started to imply; US support for the Syrian Kurds; the court case against Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank; the Eastern Mediterranean; and Biden’s view on Turkey’s democratic regression.
On the other hand, even though there are significant ongoing disputes and disagreements, the Biden administration’s foreign policy agenda does have some overlapping interests with Ankara’s. NATO’s strengthening may pave the way for the reset with Turkey; re-engaging with Iran is another area that can open the channels for collaborating with Turkey; stability in Libya and preventing further encroachment by Russian military assets might be common objectives .
After an eight-month-long break, President Erdogan sent a letter of apology to his Russian counterpart which paved the way for ‘normalisation’. Once a Turkish-Russian dialogue had restarted, Ankara changed its priorities in Syria from toppling Assad’s government to attacking the People’s Protection Unit (YPD) controlled area in the northern Syria. That aim was to be achieved after the normalisation, and with the Russia’s support for Turkey’s military operations that were carried out in the region. However, while noting the high level of trust and a strong political will for a partnership between Turkey and Russia, the bilateral relationship still has certain areas where many handicaps exist. Some of those handicaps due overlap with the common interests of Turkey and the US with its new administration. The new test for Ankara-Moscow relations is likely to come from the Black Sea region.
Changing Military Balance in the Black Sea: What to Expect
In line with the overlapping threat perception, Ankara and Washington indeed may cooperate on certain areas. One of the most important regions where this cooperation may take place is the Black Sea. Actually, Turkey and Russia had shared a common vision towards that region for a very long time. Limiting the role and the influence of the foreign actors (especially the US and NATO) in that region has been a shared approach. Black Sea Harmony and the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Group (Blackseafor) have been important regional initiatives. However, since 2014, after the annexation of Crimea, even the joint exercises with the participation of all states have not been held because Ukraine refused to participate.
The annexation of Crimea has been a crucial turning point in this regard. The common perspective towards the Black Sea region has been challenged due to the increasing military posture of the Russia. Moscow increased it naval infrastructure, it strengthened its air forces in Crimea and the peninsula was equipped with various missile and coastal defence systems. Moscow also deployed S400 missile defence system in Crimea which is known as one of the most advanced anti-aircraft and missile defence systems in the World. Even though Turkey has been traditionally considered the largest actor in the Black Sea, the balance of power has been invariably shifting in favour of Russia since the late 2000s. To preserve its status, Turkey not only needs the support of NATO states, but also mobility to redeploy some of its navy from its eastern and southern borders in the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean Sea. In line with this President Erdoğan raised that concern in May 2016, only a few weeks before NATO’s Warsaw Summit, by saying that “with the invisibility of NATO, the Black Sea turns it into a Russian lake”. President Erdogan stressed the need to transform the Black Sea “into a basin of stability again, on the basis of cooperation among riparian countries around the Black Sea.”
Even though NATO’s policy towards the Black Sea has been traditionally focused on transnational terrorism and smuggling, it mostly changed with the annexation of Crimea. NATO member states agreed to initiate “tailored measures to increase the NATO presence in the southeast of the Alliance on land, at sea and in the air, with more multinational land training, combined joint enhanced training, more maritime activity and increased coordination.” However, it’s worth mentioning that Ankara underlines the clauses of the Montreux Convention and warns all NATO members to avoid actions that could trigger new tensions with Russia. The Montreux Convention puts certain limits on both tonnage and time limits for non-littoral states regarding the Black Sea. Specifically, the convention does not allow for the deployment of aircraft carriers and warships in the Black Sea with a tonnage of over 30,000 for a term exceeding 21 days. This may undermine US efforts to maintain a permanent presence in the basin. Violation of the Convention and/or the need to revise the status of the straits is like Pandora’s box. Moreover, violation of the Convention would not only cause high tension between Ankara and Moscow but also bring additional risks and increase conflict potential in the Black Sea region. On the one hand, a consideration of the high risks pushes the countries with the first and second largest fleets in the Black Sea (Turkey and Russia, respectively) to neutralise them and to maintain a proper level of cooperation.
Turkey’s relations with Moscow have never been problem-free. The two regional players have inevitably had overlapping interests. However, through the political will of President Erdogan and President Putin, the historical rivalry has been left behind and a new and more cooperative attitude preferred. Having said that, Ankara and Moscow may face a relatively new area of conflicting interests: The Black Sea. The Black Sea region has not become a point of major tensions in Russia–Turkey relations. However, with the annexation of Crimea, Turkey has lost its naval superiority as a result of Russia’s military build-up. While there is on-going cooperation and dialogue in many areas from Syria to Libya, differences also exist which are hard to ignore. With the new administration in the US, Ankara and Washington may try to turn over a new page in bilateral relations. A changing military balance in favour of Russia in the Black Sea may be a shared concern for both Turkey and the US. Indeed, with the annexation of Crimea, the balance of power between Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea has changed significantly in favour of Russia. Therefore, Turkey and the US may find it useful to cooperate in the Black Sea region in order to re-balance Russia’s influence. Even though Turkey and Russia have certain security ties, the threat perception posed by Russia (even only in terms of the increasing military posture in Black Sea) remains high. It seems like there is going to be a fine line for Turkey to find a way to balance Russian dominance in the region without risking all the gains that has been achieved over the past 20 years.