After the USA, Turkey with its 775,000 strong armed forces is militarily the most important member of NATO. It is also the NATO member most strategically located sharing extended land borders with Syria, with hostile Kurdish militias, notably the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and with Iran all the way from Azerbaijan to Iraq, as well as having sea borders in common with Russia and Ukraine. Sales of natural gas, oil, grain and arms mean Russia has a moderate but significant dependency on export revenue from Turkey. Not surprisingly Putin has been wooing Erdoğan for many years.
Following its annexation of Crimea in early 2014, Russia’s military intervention in Syria from September 2015 added to the complexity of Turkey’s foreign relations. On the one hand, the USA was supporting Kurdish anti-Assad militias seen by Obama as the most effective force against ISIS in the region, but by Erdogan as a major threat as the PKK conducted separatist attacks in south-east Turkey with heavy casualties. On the other, the Crimea for Turks evoked the glory days of the Ottoman Empire. The local remnant of its indigenous Turkic ethnic group, the Tatars, persecuted and deported by Stalin, opposed the annexation and were suffering as a result. Erdoğan felt obliged to speak out against Russia’s annexation but avoided denouncing Putin, refused to join sanctions being imposed by most of NATO’s members and supported Turkish government officials whose shady deals with Iran had been breaking US sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
But if Russia and Turkey are in a marriage of convenience today, the failed 16 July 2016 military coup - which caught Erdoğan on holiday in the resort of Marmaris - should count as the moment Putin slipped on the engagement ring. Erdoğan narrowly missed being seized and overthrown but emerged from the crisis stronger than ever. He took advantage of enhanced public support to brand Hizmet, the Gülen movement, an extraordinarily successful and moderate Muslim organisation, as coup planners and terrorists, the perfect opportunity to destroy a powerful internal Islamic competitor with whom Erdoğan had once been allied (See ‘Erdogan’s Victory: The Decline of Democracy’ 30/05/2023). Hizmet is generally seen as pro-American and anti-Iranian. Fetullah Gülen, founder and inspiration of the movement, lived, and still lives, in exile in the Pocono Mountains near Saylorburg in Pennsylvania. The US refused Turkish requests to extradite him. The USA was also a little slow to forthrightly condemn the coup. Russia wasn’t. Erdoğan’s first foreign visit after the coup failed was to Moscow.
Putin proceeded with his courtship in October 2016 by returning Erdoğan’s visit coming away with an agreement to provide Turkey with natural gas courtesy of GAZPROM, the Russian majority state-owned giant gas corporation. A new pipeline costing some $11.4 billion dollars, would cross the Black Sea from Russia’s Krasnador region to Kiyiköy north of Istanbul. TurkStream was subsequently extended into the Balkans to sell Bulgaria and North Macedonia gas bypassing Ukraine and Romania. Erdoğan and Putin inaugurated flows in January 2020 in good time for anticipated US sanctions after Russia’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
Weapons play no small part in cementing Russia’s relationship with Turkey. American Patriot missiles deployed at Turkey’s Gaziantep 5th Armoured Brigade Command to protect the Turkish-Syrian border were withdrawn in October 2015 amidst rising US-Turkish tensions over US training and arming Kurdish guerrilla forces. In 2017, a year after the coup against Erdoğan, and after protracted and failed negotiations with Washington to supply the Raytheon Patriot missile system, Erdoğan stunned NATO by signing an agreement with Russia to buy its S-400 air-defence system. According to Maximilian Hess in Economic War: Ukraine and the Global Conflict between Russia and the West, Hurst 2023, by way of response the US dropped Turkey from ‘participation in its programme to develop the F-35 fifth generation fighter jet’, on the grounds that Russian missile technicians would get access to the technology in the state-of-the art plane.
President Trump initially blocked additional retaliatory sanctions under the US 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) but then implemented them in December 2020, during his last chaotic days. A better offer of Patriot missiles was made. The game continued with Turkey seeking more S-400 batteries from Russia. As Economic War says: “Russia had successfully developed its partnership with Turkey to increase its energy leverage over Europe through the TurkStream pipeline, and the West’s sanctions had failed to halt closer Russian-Turkish cooperation”.
During April this year the foundations were laid on the Turkish coast north of Cyprus for the Akkuyu nuclear power station, costing some $20 billion and comprised of four units of a Russian designed nuclear reactor. A joint enterprise between a subsidiary of the Russian State corporation, Rosatom, and a Turkish company, when finally constructed the reactors will provide 10% of Turkey’s energy needs. Talks on the building of another nuclear power station are taking place between Turkey, Russia and South Korea.
These snapshots of the relationship between Russia and Turkey, taken partly from Hess’ scholarly book (almost 40% of it made up of footnotes, bibliography and index), give some idea of the intense economic war that accompanies the fighting in Ukraine. As a new multi-polar global configuration of states comes to birth with the formation of new trading blocs, the hegemony of the US-led ‘West’ wanes. And as it does, the limited effectiveness of sanctions becomes more apparent. The US Treasury hasn’t even been able to grab Graceful in Germany, a yacht in which ‘Putin had an interest’. It was spirited back to Russia two weeks before the invasion of Ukraine and appropriately renamed Killer Whale.
The dollar retains its global power, but few surpass Erdoğan’s ability to manoeuvre between shifting alliances playing one side against the other. Visitors to Turkey, lured by promises of accessible dental treatment – a remarkable advertisement on London Overground trains – cheap holidays and expensive Catholic pilgrimages to Ephesus, might ponder Erdoğan’s choice of strategic partner on the world stage. At the least he is giving pragmatism a bad name.
See TheArticle 29.08.2023