Room for Thaw in Russo-Turkish Relations

Russia and Turkey are at each other’s throats but a trade war can only hurt them both.

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia pose for pictures at the Kremlin in Moscow, September 23, 2015
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia pose for pictures at the Kremlin in Moscow, September 23, 2015 (Presidential Press and Information Office)

Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet for violating its airspace in November has left an indelible mark on Russo-Turkish relations. However brief the incursion — which Russia contests — it could have far-reaching consequences for Turkey’s ties with the West and a resolution to the crisis in Syria.

Neither side is likely to climb down from its position, with Turkey refusing to apologize and Russia punishing it economically. Yet neither do the two have an interest in escalating what has so far mostly been a diplomatic standoff.

Russian retaliation

The first attack since 1952 by a NATO ally against a Russian warplane resulted in swift action by Russia and a volley of accusations.

Russia canceled an agreement with Turkey on nuclear power, banned certain agricultural imports (20 percent of Moscow’s vegetable imports), stopped charter flights and package holidays, restricted Turkish employment in Russia and ended visa-free arrangements. This was an economic strike across the bows of Russia’s new public enemy number one and it played well to the domestic galleries.

Further actions are to be expected in the form of cyberattacks and restrictions on energy imports. It would not be out of character for allies of the Turkish government in Syria to be targeted from Russia’s Syrian air base at Latakia and for their Kurdish foes to receive Russian support. At a time when a broad international coalition against the self-declared Islamic State in Syria is called for, Russia has looked to isolate Turkey from its NATO partners and sought wide condemnation of Turkey’s provocative action.

Yet however much the tension between these influential regional actors rises, escalation should not result in military engagement.

Russian constraints

Overall, sanctions are likely to be restricted due to the vulnerable state of Russia’s finances. The Russian economy shrunk 4 percent in the last year, suffering from low oil prices, sanctions from the West and an ever-weakening currency. President Vladimir Putin would therefore be ill advised to indulge in excessive economic punishment of his erstwhile ally, given that for every blow dealt to the Turkish economy there will be a squeeze on already diminished coffers in Moscow.

It should be recognized that, despite the suspension of the Black Sea natural gas pipeline project, prior to the November incident, relations between the two countries had been improving, with trade reaching a value of $33 billion. Turkey received a 6 percent discount from Russia on the sale of natural gas and the two projected bilateral trade to reach $100 billion by 2020.

Damage to both sides

The Russian state nuclear energy provider, Rosatom, had agreed to build, own and operate Turkey’s first four nuclear reactors under an agreement worth $22 billion. Having already spent $3.5 billion, the company has halted construction, taking away around 10,000 Turkish jobs and 17 percent of Turkey’s projected energy provision.

Should Russia write off the Turkish nuclear agreement altogether, it could lose credibility in a field where it hopes to establish itself as a leading provider.

As for Turkey, it has not — as of yet — imposed sanctions of its own. Without apologizing, it has attempted to deescalate the situation.

At the same, being Russia’s second buyer of natural gas, Turkey is seeking alternative providers.

Despite the recent election victory of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party party and the leverage gained by Turkey as Europe’s new Syrian refugee border guard, the country would suffer a considerable blow if relations with Russia collapse. Whether this is only temporary or not, the costly delays and insecurity involved in finding alternative energy sources can only have a negative impact on investment and an economy ravaged by 20 percent inflation. A deficit of $45 billion and consistently diminishing growth prospects have been further exacerbated by renewed internal conflict with Kurdish militants and attacks by Islamic State sympathizers.

Turkish opportunism

Erdoğan’s foreign and security policies have done much to divert attention from domestic discontent directed at his thirteen-year government. An emphasis on external threats has stoked fear and thus gained support for the apparent stability offered by Erdoğan’s in his bid to expand presidential power.

European concern at increasing refugee arrivals (2.2 million in Turkey) has given the Turks a new bargaining chip. This position of strength has been used to extract €3 billion from Brussels and fresh commitments of progress toward EU membership.

Membership, first applied for in 1987, remains a remote prospect, but the loss of visa-free access to Russia could be counterbalanced by visa-free access to the European Union. The Copenhagen criteria for new member states on human rights and media freedoms seem to have been sidelined with geopolitical considerations — as ever — taking precedence.

Broad coalition

France and the United States have led calls for deescalation Russia and Turkey. Putin and Erdoğan remain poles part and their estrangement is unwelcome as the international community urgently seeks to resolve the Syrian crisis in the wake of continuing terrorist attacks. A timetable for conflict resolution in Syria has tentatively been drawn up and collaboration and cohesion will be the watchwords if such an ambitious plan is to be successfully executed and a unified stand against the Islamic State is to be established.

Finding themselves on opposing sides of a proxy war in Syria, neither Erdoğan nor Putin — whose regimes depend on them being perceived as strong leaders — can countenance a loss of face. Displays of weakness abroad would detract from their credibility at home and so, while the Syrian war grinds on, nationalist rhetoric and clashing foreign policies are likely to continue. This could be detrimental to the fledgling talks seeking to end the five-year civil war. Russo-Turkish ties therefore are experiencing an indefinite freeze with room for thaw rather than a complete severance.