Bittersweet Rivalry

Bittersweet Rivalry

Middle East Between the Czar and the Sultan

As Russian-backed Assad forces and Turkish-backed opposition forces clash in the northwestern Idlib province of Syria, many question how far this proxy war can go. Some secon-rate politicians started to recall a history of the past two and more centuries dotted with incessant Russian-Turkish wars. 
Yet many deliberate that with all the possibility of this clash escalating into a serious souring of relations, there is a lot which will keep those two partners together.

Text : Tigran Zakaryan


The famous quote spoken by a British Prime Minster Lord Palmerstone of 1848 “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual” couldn’t be better suited for describing the current state of the complicated Russian-Turkish relations. 
The recent escalation in the Eastern Mediterranean, which has entangled – apart from the usual suspects, Greece and Turkey – an unusual number of actors, showed how far the neo-Ottoman ambitions of Turkey have advanced. Erdogan was bold enough to confront nuclear power France, while another nuclear power Israel expressed support to Greece and Cyprus. Albeit the US involvement and a limited support to Greece and Cyprus forced Ankara to back down to a certain line, still it continues to rattle sabers pledging to defend “every swath of 462,000 square kilometers of Blue Homeland with great determination”. 
This picture of an overly defiant Turkey who is acting as a bully in its neighborhood needs to be complemented by a reminder that as recently as in February-early March this year Ankara and Moscow were on the brink of an armed conflict, at least in Syria. 
Meanwhile it would be deeply erroneous to think that Turkey is hurling itself into reckless confrontations and conflicts on all fronts, without gaining allies and clients and that everything is done in foreign policy is simply the whim of Erdogan and his supporters. 
The focus of our interest here is the relations between Moscow and Ankara and looking at the rich history of those relations, there is much to unearth and compare to the modern state of affairs. 

 

Old enemies, new friends? 
In the recent history of Russia’s wars over the last 3 centuries one traditional rival stands out prominently – the Ottoman Empire. While Russia’s strategic aim in those wars was to gain access to “warm waters” via the Straits, it inevitably antagonized the Ottoman Empire. The European Powers in their turn were poised to support the ailing empire – dubbed by Czar Nicolas I (1825-1856) as “the Sick Man of Europe” – to prevent Russia from achieving its goals. 
Unearthing the history of the Russian-Turkish relations will also reveal that the recurrent hostilities between the two empires regularly culminating in a war fought once every several decades came to an end with the end of those very empires. 
The new, revolutionary governments of Russia and Turkey, which came into being in the aftermath of the World War I and both being isolated and fighting their desperate wars, forged unusually friendly ties. 
Yet a more detailed view would suggest that this was not that unusual. Both Bolshevik and Turkish nationalist ideologies, regardless of their significant differences, believed that the West was the source of their problems. Among their victims, inter alia, was the first Armenian Republic, which was considered by the both as an “agent of the Entente”. 
As soon as both regimes emerged victorious in their wars the relations cooled again and even became somewhat tense during the Cold War, but the Soviet Union never crossed the red line, while Turkey as a NATO member was performing its role as a bulwark against the Soviet expansion. 

“Battle of Sinop,” a painting by a prominent Russian-Armenian painter Ivan Aivazovsky, 1853

 

Two neo-empires in one environment Empires re-launched 
The breakup of the USSR and the ensuing deep economic and social crisis in Russia in 1990’s brought new opportunities for Ankara. 
Based on the fast growing Turkish economy Ankara started to lead a more ambitious policy, involving enhancing its presence in the former post-Soviet republic of Central Asia and South Caucasus. 
The Turkish state entered the 21st century in as a growing regional power, which embraced under Prime Minster and later President Erdogan a ideological bizarre mix of Kemalist nationalism and pre-republican ideology of Islamic solidarity, coined under the term Neo-Ottomanism. 
Meanwhile Russia under Vladimir Putin was able to overcome the internal turmoil and return to the traditional track of an assertive foreign policy, challenging the western dominance. 
Both Turkey and Russia on the fringe of Europe have a lot in common. Both claim to have a “glorious past” which is projected into the future and both have a historical resentment towards Europe for whom they are too “wild”, big and foreign to be absorbed and yet too important to be neglected. It is only normal that they pragmatically chose to cooperate in a number of spheres, including military and political. 

 

Friends in energy, friends in arms
The Russian-Turkish cooperation agenda is rather long with energy and arms sector being leading in the list. 
Russia since 2003 sells natural gas to Turkey via the Blue Stream pipeline added recently by a second one – TurkStream – which can transit the Russian natural gas to the Balkans and Central Europe. 
Yet not everything is fine in this cooperation. Due to the lower prices for liquefied gas and the alternative of the Azerbaijani gas, Ankara has much more room for maneuvers and more solid ground to demand discounts on Russian gas. Reuters reported in July that the Blue Stream was staying idle for over a month and this is a tendency rather than an isolated case. In view of the recent Turkish ambitions in the Mediterranean, and more realistic plans of exploiting gas deposits in the western part of the Black Sea as well as buying oil and gas from Libya’s Tripoli government, Russia will face increased problems in the Turkish gas market. 
Meanwhile the bilateral cooperation is more productive in nuclear energy. The construction of a major nuclear power station at Akkuyu on the southern coast of Turkey financed by Rosatom is about to be finalized with the Russian state-owned company holding the controlling stake in the enterprise. 
Yet another important segment of the Russian-Turkish cooperation is in the arms trade. Turkey expressed interest in purchasing Russian S-400 air defense systems and despite US threats and pressure the deal was implemented in July 2019. Currently another agreement is signed between the two countries on delivering a second batch of the system elements. While it was previously known that Turkey aimed at technology transfer and establishing a joint production of the missile system, it is unclear whether the objective was reached. 
This interaction definitely does and will create frictions with the NATO partners and the USA for Turkey, which were amply manifested in the recent spike in tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

 

Turkey and the West 
French President Emmanuel Macron was among the first of global leaders who voiced concern at Turkey’s increased role in the Mediterranean region noting that Ankara was “no more a partner” in the region. 
In fact Turkey’s expansionist projects does not give much opportunity for gaining new partners. Erdogan’s Turkey with its nationalist and pan-Islamist mindset, which is quite in tune with the “Muslim Brotherhood” ideology, has a very limited pool of allies among the Middle East governments (the only examples being Qatar, otherwise isolated by its Arab neighbors, and Libya’s Tripoli government, controlling only part of the country and effectively being a client state). On the other hand, Erdogan’s pan-Islamic and anti-Western discourse sounds appealing to millions of people across the region and here Turkey enjoys a considerable amount of soft power. On the other hand Erdogan’s ambition to turn Turkey into a leader of the Sunni world naturally puts it in bitter rivalry with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Anti-Turkey protest in Moscow, 2015


On yet another direction Turkey seems actively involving into a new “Scramble for Africa” projecting its influence over the north of the continent where it would inevitably rub shoulders with US, France and China. 
All this makes Russia a more valuable partner for Ankara, in dealing with which Turkey has to think twice before rattling sabers, while Moscow in its turn can profit from the anti-Western moves by Ankara. 
It can hardly be coincidence that the second deal on S-400 was struck in August as tensions were quite high on the Eastern Mediterranean maritime borders and gas drilling. Turkey also expressed interest in buying Russian Su-35 modern fighters instead of the F-35, a deal which was scrapped by the US after the purchase of the Russian missile systems by Ankara. 
In spite of all this the Russian-Turkish relations are far from being an alliance. Both Moscow and increasingly so Ankara view themselves as independent “poles” in a multipolar world, who have no constant allies to rely on, but only short-lived situational alliances on certain issues, which are both volatile and limited in their depth. 

 

Today’s foe yesterday’s friend and tomorrow’s partner 
With all of this cooperation curing western influence in the Middle East and cooperation in energy and weapon trade, the national interest of those two assertive states clash rather often. 
Downing of a Russian Su-24 jet in 2015 by Turkish air force caused a major souring of relations, entailing sanctions, freezing of energy projects and a dramatic drop in tourism and trade. 
The relations were soon restored, yet there can hardly by found a steady course of Russian-Turkish rapprochement to speak of. A proof of this point was yet another Russian-Turkish crisis in late February this year when Russian air force based in Syria hit Turkish military targets in the northwestern Idlib province causing major human loss. Yet Erdogan unexpectedly refrained from retaliating, instead targeting heavily the Assad regime. In the diplomatic field he had to turn to EU leaders Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel for support in its tough negotiations with Russia. Although Russia foiled the EU involvement, still Putin and Erdogan reached an understanding on 5 March and agreed to a “safe corridor” through the Idlib de-escalation zone, which was to be patrolled jointly by Russian and Turkish forces. Although this deal is far from being thoroughly implemented, still it performs its main function – keeping the western influence on the Syrian conflict at a lowest level. 

Russian and Syrian militaries in Idlib


Turkey came at odds with Russia in Libya as well, where Moscow and Ankara are supporting different factions and it seems that the latter’s influence over Libya is similar to that exerted by Russia over Syria. Yet Turkey’s interests in Libya are more fundamental, including energy resources, which combined with the prospects of gas extraction from the Black Sea and possibly from the Mediterranean (where an ultimate understanding on sharing the resources with Greece and Cyprus is not to be excluded) will make Ankara much less dependent from Russia in energy sector.
Another important instance of clashing interests between the two empires is the South Caucasus, particularly the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. 
Turkey traditionally and increasingly posed itself as a broker of Baku’s interests, however Ankara’s reaction to the conflagration in July on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border this year was somewhat outstanding in harshness and hawkish language. The recent anti-Russian developments in Azerbaijan, including the dismissal of foreign minster Elmar Mammadyarov and other diplomats considered as “serving the interests of a foreign country” (i.e. Russia), was a boost of Ankara’s positions in that country as opposed to Moscow’s interests. 
This was not missed in Moscow who sent critical, yet not harsh remarks at Ankara and is trying its best to woo Baku. 

Syria’s Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin

 

What Yerevan should and shouldn’t be wary of 
The surge of Turkish involvement in the South Caucasus, unquestionably, poses a threat to Armenia’s vital interests. Yet Armenia also can discourage Turkey from going too far in that direction through its proactive actions in diplomacy and beefing up its military potential. 
Currently we witness Armenian proactivity in the Middle East; ties are being forged with not only the traditional allies Greece and Cyprus, but also with Egypt and the Israel, until recently a problematic country for Yerevan. Interestingly enough some Arab countries, for whom Turkish plans in the Middle East are detrimental, show signs of benevolent attitude towards Armenia and among them is a most influential regional player Saudi Arabia. Albeit the monarchy in the past had stubbornly refused to establish diplomatic ties with Armenia on grounds of “occupation” of Nagorno-Karabakh, it congratulated Yerevan on Independence Day on 21 September this year while having done that in 2018 as well, which could lay a foundation of normalization of relations with that country. 
Of course, joining such broad and ad-hoc coalitions does not mean at all that Russia’s role in providing security will be neglected or compromised. However this would add more to Armenia’s security particularly in shielding it against Turkish threats. 

Turkish troops in Syria


Armenia has its strategic interests in the Middle East and it would be impossible to avoid entanglement in regional matters. Armenia’s involvement in the broader region is detrimental to Turkey and it is no coincidence that when Yerevan expressed its full support to Greece and Cyprus in their conflict with Turkey, Ankara’s reaction was very harsh and nervous. 
Of course, unnecessary provocations are to be avoided, however in the meantime Ankara should be reminded that embracing unequivocally the Azerbaijani stance in the Karabakh conflict would come at a cost of added problems on its other fronts.
With all of this said, it is clear that Turkish advancements in the South Caucasus deepen Armenian-Russian interdependence. Yerevan needs to highlight this point and all other players regional or global actors should take this into consideration when dealing with Yerevan in particular. 
Armenia internally would need a firmer consolidation against any foreign threats both by military and other means. Armenian army needs to be given further attention in order to create an even firmer bond between the society and the armed forces.