According to Andrey Bystritskiy, Chairman of the Valdai Discussion Club, the current rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is far from coincidental. “A new world order is emerging; we cannot yet distinguish its features. In the vast Eurasian space, they create an axis of power, understanding and control.” What are the peculiarities of Russian-Turkish relations, both with respect to Syria and in other areas, and what are the problems Turkey faces today? Experts from the SETA Foundation, a Turkish public policy think tank, discussed these issues during an expert panel discussion that was organised on April 4 by the Valdai Discussion Club.
Ivan Timofeev, programme director of the Valdai Club and moderator of the meeting, said that today the cooperation between the two countries is developing in many areas: interaction in Syria as well as regarding security, the economy, defence, the nuclear sector and energy. Thus, the agenda of this alliance is very multilateral and overwhelmingly positive.
A similar assessment was given by the guests of the Club from the Turkish side. Hasan B. Yalçın, Director of Strategic Studies for SETA Foundation, outlined the main factors of rapprochement between Russia and Turkey in his speech, as well as the prospects for their cooperation. He reduced these factors to a number of examples.
The first concerns the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, after which Russian-Turkish relations began to thaw, and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow. During this meeting, the parties came to a mutual understanding, within a month and a half they turned to active cooperation, and shortly thereafter to a joint operation in Afrin. “Previously, Turkey relied only on the United States, but it never fulfilled its promises,” the expert said. “Mutual concessions are possible with Russia, although there are some controversial points.” Other issues concern successful negotiations regarding Idlib and cooperation in the defence sphere, which was expressed in the purchase by Turkey of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems.
According to the expert, it was the crisis in Syria that set a new stage in relations between Turkey and Russia. The main threat for all parties now is uncertainty, and in this situation it is impossible to act alone or depend on any other alliance. “For Turkey and Russia, it will be better if they start preparing for uncertainty together,” the expert concluded.
In general, according to Yalçın, the changes in Turkey’s foreign policy were associated with a change in the global situation and the process of transition from a unipolar world to a multipolar one. If earlier regional players hoped that US hegemony would allow them to establish “world peace,” then after the Gulf wars and the “Arab spring” it became obvious that this was not the case. Therefore, without renouncing NATO membership and negotiations with the United States, Turkey began to build an independent foreign policy in alliance with other players.
Supporting the opinion of his colleague regarding the alliance between Turkey and Russia, Enes Bayraklı, Director of European Studies for SETA Foundation, focused on the attitude of this alliance to the situation in the EU and the prospects for overcoming European crises. “If you look at history, Turkey always had several areas of foreign policy. During the Cold War era, it was part of NATO and conducted a multilateral policy. When the crisis in Syria began to threaten its neighbours — Iran, Jordan, Turkey, and also Europe — Turkey had to adapt its foreign policy.”
“Today, Europe is also experiencing a number of crises,” the expert said, “including political, economic and identity-related ones. When millions of refugees arrived in Germany, the extreme right and left parties strengthened. The deepening of integration has stopped: Brexit is going on in the UK, a crisis is growing between Italy and France, in Spain and in Austria the right-wing parties have joined government coalitions. Cooperation between Turkey and Russia can bring stability to Europe, as a new stream of refugees could pour into it. ”
Hüseyin Alptekin, strategic studies researcher for SETA Foundation, drew attention to what he called the only problem that is the main stumbling block in Turkey-US relations and a controversial point in the dialogue with other forces – namely, the activities of the Kurdish Democratic Union (PYD). He said that this situation is often not entirely understandable to an outside observer in connection with the volume of “fake news” stories being spread by the PYD. He outlined four points.
The first misunderstanding concerns the relations of the PYD with the militarised Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK): they are sometimes represented as different organizations, whereas, according to Alptekin, the PYD is just a wing of the PKK and also organises acts of terrorism. The second problem concerns the erroneous identification of this party with all Syrian Kurds; many Kurds, whom they consider traitors, are fighting against them, on the side of Turkey. Finally, the third and fourth problems concern the fact that the threat from these terrorist groups is local and that nothing can be done with them. However, as long as this threat exists, the achievement of regional stability or at least the integrity of Syria is impossible. The only reason the PYD can still hold its position is the support of the United States. That is why, to protect its own citizens, Turkey is now moving away from traditional alliances in favour of alternative options.
“However, there is a positive moment here,” the expert said. “Today, there is coordination between Turkey, Russia and Iran, and this is a very promising process. The preservation of a full-fledged state in Syria and its deliverance from threats is possible precisely because of this alliance. ”
All three speakers focused on the issue of relations between Turkey and NATO. They noted that the country remains a member of NATO, but what it gives to the alliance, and what gets from it, are incommensurable things. Therefore, Turkey intends to pursue an independent foreign policy and, as far as possible, to strengthen its security, even if it has to be at odds with the US. The best example of this is the alliance between Turkey and Russia, which is not only beneficial for both countries, but also necessary to ensure peace throughout the Middle East.