Normalization of relations between Turkey and Russia: Conditions and possibilities

Recent remarks by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about political and economic costs of tensions in bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey and a subsequent letter sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin to congratulate him on the occasion of Russia’s national day were indicative of the Turkish side’s determination for normalization of relations with Russia.

Other measures which increase this possibility include Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim’s address to the first session of the ruling Justice and Development Party’s congress with regard to his government’s foreign policy plans and his emphasis on the need to normalize relations with Russia, sending a letter by Yildirim to his Russian counterpart to congratulate Dmitri Medvedev on the occasion of Russia’s national day, and diplomatic efforts launched by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu to normalize relations with Russia. On the other side, Russian officials have so far given no positive answer to the inclination of the Turkish side for normalization of relations and have made such normalization conditional on official and public apology of Turkey and payment of remuneration for the downed Russian fighter plane, in addition to punishment of those behind downing of the Russian jet on November 24, 2015.

Turkey is currently facing many challenges in its domestic and foreign policies which include stagnation of economic indexes, security instability inside the country, the refugee crisis, intensification of terrorist attacks by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeastern parts of the country, and threats posted to Turkey’s national security through northern borders of Syria as a result of advances made by Kurdish fighters of PYD and YPG groups toward the western banks of river Euphrates. Therefore, it seems that foreign policy decision-makers in Turkey are bent on normalizing relations not only with Russia, but with all their neighbors. However, continuation of the civil war in Syria, changes in the strategic environment of the Middle East and the conflict between security interests of Turkey and Russia practically dispel any outlook for normalization of the two countries’ relations, at least, in short term.

In view of domestic and foreign policy agendas of Turkey’s new government, it seems that normalization of relations with countries like Russia, Israel, Egypt and Iraq will be among top priorities of Turkey’s new government. Of course normalization of ties with Russia would need time and preconditions, but conflict or agreement in security interests of the two countries in Eurasia, especially in Syria, will be the most important determining factors. It should be noted that realization of Putin’s first condition for normalization of ties with Turkey, which is an official apology form Erdogan, seems almost impossible due to the domestic conditions in Turkey, the effort made by the ruling Justice and Development Party to change the country’s political system from a parliamentary one to a presidential system and their need to votes of nationalist figures, and also due to Erdogan’s cult of personality. Therefore, at least as long as changes in the country’s constitution have not been finalized, neither Erdogan, nor Yildirim will be ready to accept the high costs of such a political risk.

Perhaps some would believe that Yildirim’s pragmatism and his emphasis on economic factors can provide the ground for normalization of relations between Russia and Turkey. However, before seeing himself as the head of state, Yildirim considers himself as an agent to take the country through the period of transition and guarantee continuation of Erdogan’s presidential term within framework of a presidential system. Therefore, he will not possibly follow independent strategies and agendas and behaviors in foreign policy, and his performance and remarks must be interpreted in line with Erdogan’s demands.

The downturn in Russia’s relations with Turkey following revolutionary changes that started in the Middle East in 2011, and especially following downing of Russia’s Sukhoi 24 bomber plane over Syria, is mostly a result of changes in the two countries’ strategic interests rather than being a sign of change in their economic interests.

The recent tension in relations between Turkey and Russia has its roots in changes in regional power balance and also in security threats faced by Moscow and Ankara. In other words, revolutions in Arab countries of the Middle East and tensions around the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea regions have led to basic changes in the environment in which Russia and Turkey previously defined their parallel and common interests. The way in which tension was created, intensified and continued in relations between Russia and Turkey shows that parallel growth of “trade” and “cooperation” between the two countries in the past decade does not necessarily mean that the first variable has been a cause for the second variable. To analyze this issue, other alternative variables such as the strategic environment which governed cooperation between the two countries must be also taken into account.

As a result, normalization of ties between the two countries is basically conditional on convergence between security interests of Russia and Turkey in such regions as the Middle East, the Black Sea and Caucasus. The civil war in Syria was a turning point to show that Russia and Turkey have no more common concerns and interests in maintaining the status quo in the region.

Turkish leaders tied their country’s national interests and security to their highlighted role in Syria’s developments and were trying to change the status quo they had created along with Russia in the two countries’ common environment. On the other hand, Russia tied its security priorities to the status quo, and supported the incumbent political regime in Syria. Therefore, political developments on the ground in Syria constitute a basic and determining factor in normalization of the two countries’ relations. The new Turkish prime minister has described the Syria war as meaningless and Ankara has been trying during past months to come to grips with the reality that the Syrian President Bashar Assad will remain in his current position.

However, the dominant view in Turkey’s decision-making system is such that if Bashar Assad is not deposed from power, Turkey could not have any role and effect in future developments of Syria and this is why the country continues its military and logistic support for Syrian militants, at least in a minimal form.

The issue of advances made by Syrian Kurdish fighters affiliated with PYD and YPG groups along Syria’s northern borders through air support provided by the United States and Russia, terrorist operations blamed on the PKK inside Turkey, as well as the issue of terrorism and security instability in various parts of Turkey have affected foreign policy behavior of this country. During past weeks, YPG forces have reached the western banks of river Euphrates and crossed Aleppo-Azaz axis through air support given to them by American and Russian fighter jets. They have been so far able to conquer the city of Minbaj and areas around the city of Raqqah, as a result of which they will be able to put a horrendous scenario in gears in which Turkey will lose its lines of communication with militant groups in Syria.

All told, the conflict between the two countries’ security interests in Syria greatly reduces the possibility of normalization of relations between Turkey and Russia unless a major change takes place in the situation on the ground and during political talks on Syria. Alternatively, the two sides, especially Turkey, may have to modify their political and security demands in Syria, which seems to be a remote possibility in view of the strong link that exists between Turkey’s domestic stability and national security, on the one hand, and developments on the ground in Syria, on the other hand, and also due to Russia’s strategic approach to developments in Syria.

By Iran Review