By Dimitar Bechev, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Dimitar Bechev is a senior policy fellow and head of the Sofia office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. The views expressed are his own.
Are Turkey and Russia still friends? This is the question analysts are mulling as Russian President Vladimir Putin completes his visit to Ankara. Critics of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan are often heard fretting about “Putinization” in Turkey, but is the Russian leader a welcome guest in a country that is now the principal supporter of the Syrian opposition?
The answer, I would argue, is a cautious yes.
Putin and Erdoğan agreed to disagree on Syria, and at the joint press conference Putin phrased it diplomatically: we share the same goal but differ on how to get there. Yet the truth is that Ankara and Moscow are going through an extremely rough patch in their relationship – over Syria. On October 10, Turkey intercepted and force landed a Syrian jet flying from Moscow with 35 passengers, including Russian nationals. Erdoğan asserted that Russian munitions had been discovered onboard the plane. Soon afterwards, Putin postponed his trip to Ankara, prompting speculation of a freeze in bilateral ties.
But there’s more. The same day Turks intercepted the plane, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, who is certainly no friend of Ankara’s, met his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev in Moscow to announce arms deals worth $4.2 billion. If effected, this would be amongst the biggest shipment of Russian weapons over the past 30 years, with the exception of closely allied Venezuela and Algeria. It is looking increasingly questionable whether the deal, which was signed off on Iraq’s behalf by Maliki alone, will hold. The deal included radars and anti-aircraft missiles that if deployed in Northern Iraq would be a barrier to Turkey’s regular strikes against bases of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Russia, for its part, voiced its irritation over NATO’s plans to station Patriot missiles along the Turkish-Syrian border with Syria, in response to Ankara’s demands that allies should share at least some of its burden.
But yesterday, the two strongmen promised to keep a lid on tensions and announced the signing of 11 new sectoral agreements. That’s nothing new: over the years, Russia and Turkey have done precisely that in Cyprus, Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh. And one does not need to dig deep to understand such pragmatism. Since the early 1990s, Turkey and Russia have greatly expanded bilateral links in fields including trade, energy and tourism, despite historic antagonism and new fears that the Cold War’s end could spark geopolitical rivalries in the Caucasus or Central Asia.
Economic interdependence, meanwhile, has increased over time. In 2008, Russia overtook Germany as Turkey’s top trading partner, though $24 billion of a total $32 billion comes from Russian energy exports. (Putin and Erdoğan grandiloquently promised to raise the figure to $100 billion in the coming years).
Set to become Europe’s third biggest electricity consumer in a decade, fast-growing Turkey remains an attractive business proposition. Next year, Rosatom will start building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant using Russian technology and fuel at Akkuyu, off the Turkish Mediterranean coast. Now Russia is bidding for the projected second station at the Black Sea port of Sinop, once the site of numerous battles between the Ottoman and the Russian imperial navies. Last December, Turkey granted Russia permission to build South Stream, a gas pipeline bypassing the established route through Ukraine, through its economic zone in the Black Sea. The same year, Turkey was visited by some 3.5 million Russian tourists benefiting from a visa-free regime. There are even the thousands of mixed marriages: Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu once spoke of 18,000 women married in the resort town of Antalya alone.
But it is not just about economics – Turkey has been particularly careful not to antagonize Russia over security policy. For more than a decade, Ankara has been against bringing Black Sea Harmony, a naval initiative by the littoral states to jointly police the maritime space, under a NATO umbrella. That made it easier for Russia to join the operation in 2006. Also, Putin has surely not forgotten that during the 2008 Georgian war Turkey delayed letting in U.S. hospital ships trough the Straits. Indeed, the Western Balkans, Moscow and Ankara, in their different ways, have sought to fill in the gaps left behind by EU policy and find local allies based on religious and cultural affinities. Local diplomats quip that in places like Bosnia, Russia and Turkey come as a package deal. When one is around, you can be pretty sure the other will soon appear.
All this means that while Turkey and Russia may not be the best of friends, Putin’s visit is still a reminder that a shared pragmatism will keep the relationship strong, with each seeing the other as a valuable asset in its quest for autonomous foreign policy.