How will Russia-Turkey relations look like following Ankara’s abrupt foreign policy shift?


Erdoğan’s foreign policy has always been marked by extreme pragmatism. He shifts the country’s moves east and west based on the interest he could gain from such moves.

Turkey has all of a sudden nearly reversed its approach to Russia, announcing its support for Ukraine’s NATO bid as well as approving Sweden’s. The move has sent shockwaves throughout the European Union—which the Turkish president has long been criticizing for blocking Turkey’s accession bid—and Russia, which is locked in a cutthroat war with Ukraine, behind which the West is rallying in the face of Moscow. This Turkish shift raises questions about how the Turkish foreign policy—particularly with regard to Russia—will proceed in the coming period and what is the scope of Russia’s reaction—retaliation—following the Turkish move. 

The Turkish moves over the past week has been surprising—given the course in which the relations have been proceeding until very recently. Things have turned upside down—with Turkey abandoning Russia in favor of Europe and the West, with which it had a bitter rivalry and which it particularly accused of being the 2016 failed military coup. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has taken several steps—all unfavorable and disliked by Russia.

He (A) announced support for Ukraine’s NATO bid, (B) approved Sweden’s NATO membership—which until then appeared unlikely given Turkey’s strong protests and ferocious opposition to the move given what it calls Sweden’s permissions of attacks on Islam and Quran burnings as well as hosting members of the PKK organization, designated terrorist by Turkey, (C) President Erdoğan received Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky and—moreover—handed him over the Azov Brigade commanders held in Turkey under an agreement with Russia. 

All these actions signify a shift in Turkey’s position towards Russia concerning the latter’s war on Ukraine. Turkey has always adopted neutrality, called for a peaceful settlement of the dispute and brokered deals between Russia and Ukraine—foremost of which is the Black Sea Grain Initiative according to which grain exports via three Ukrainian ports are permitted. 

Yet, the newly adopted Turkish position raises questions, given the improved ties between Russia and Turkey over the past few years, coordination on Syria and some ‘realignment of positions’ in the face of the West and down the path of ‘forming a multipolar new order’. 

History of the Russo-Turkish relations has been filled with ups and downs, ebbs and flows. The two nations—empires—have engaged in fierce wars as well as alliances. 

Interestingly, Russia and Turkey sprung up as independent powers almost concurrently – in 1380 and 1389. There followed an impressive rise for the Ottoman Empire, which expanded rapidly and had become a superpower by the 16th century. Since this simultaneous rise, the two have vacillated between hostility and uneasy friendship. 

The two nations had engaged in three wars in the 18th century, resulting in Turkey—the Ottoman Empire—ceding territories to Russia, a small part of which was reclaimed at later stages. 

The first of these three wars (1735-9) arose from the War of Polish Succession (1733-8). France encouraged Turkey to support it in its fight against Russia and Austria. Russia declared war on Turkey in late 1735. The Treaty of Nissa, signed in October 1739, ended the war, with the Russians pleading for peace. The second war, the first Turkish war against Catherine the Great of Russia, was terminated in July 1774 by the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji. The Treaty of Jassy in January 1792 ended the third war, which was the second Turkish War against Catherine of Russia, with Russia relinquishing Moldavia and Bessarabia to Turkey but holding the lands east of the Dniester as well as Ochakov port.

In modern history—particularly after the Arab Spring uprisings which brought Russian military to the Turkish border as Moscow has been aiding Syria’s Bashar al-Assad crush the domestic uprisings—tensions between Ankara and Moscow soared, with Turkey protesting Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and shooting down a Russian SU-25 fighter jet in the following year. Strikingly, the economic relations between the two nations during this period continued to boom. 

Personal relations between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin strengthened economic relationships. In 2003, an undersea gas pipeline was constructed, and by 2014, Russia had become Turkey’s largest importer. Tourism has also developed as an important link between the two nations, with Russia sending the most tourists to Turkey in 2013-14. This shows how economics and politics have taken different paths in the Russo-Turkish relations, with the former growing steadily regardless of the status of the latter and the ups and downs it experiences. 

There are various explanations for the shift in Turkey’s policy towards Russia. The Russian president’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, blamed the return of Ukrainian Azovstal officers on Kiev’s “failure of the counterattack” launched in early June to retake Russian-controlled territory in eastern and southern Ukraine. He additionally referred to Ankara’s desire to show “solidarity” with Kiev ahead of the NATO summit in Lithuania.

Other analysts believe that Turkey’s shift away from Russia and toward Europe resulted from the Russian weakness exposed by Wagner’s rebellion. After Wagner’s rebellion late last June, Turkey, paradoxically, expressed solidarity with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Perhaps it’s the same rebellion that ‘encouraged’ Erdoğan to take such a bold stance in favor of Ukraine and Sweden’s NATO bid, which he has long rejected, citing Stockholm’s permission to burn the holy Islamic book the Quran and its support for the PKK, which the Turkish state considers a terrorist organization and with whom it has been locked in fierce battles in the country’s southeastern region.

In a nutshell, Erdoğan’s foreign policy has always been marked by extreme pragmatism. He shifts the country’s moves east and west based on the interest he could gain from such moves. He leans towards strong allies to form unshakable fronts. But when those enemies become weak and unable to weather domestic storms, Erdoğan shies away from them, joining the ranks of those more powerful and gaining the upper hand—the US and NATO. Still, the way how Erdoğan will fix relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin if any major breakthroughs on the part of Russia occur remains to be seen. But there’s a tough venture head for Erdoğan. 

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