Turkey Hovering Between Russia & Ukraine?
The relationship with Moscow has developed over the years following the double track of cooperation and competition, in what some analysts define as an asymmetrical interdependence in favor of Moscow. In addition to the personal relationship between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, cooperation between Turkey and Russia has developed in several areas.
The first, and most important, is energy, particularly natural gas. With over 33% of gas supplies, Moscow is Ankara’s top supplier, despite the fact that over the years the Russian share has progressively decreased (it was over 60% in 2011) as a consequence of the energy diversification policy pursued by Ankara that started to rely on gas imports from Azerbaijan.
Russian gas, which reaches Turkish territory through two submarine gas pipelines in the Black Sea – the Blue Stream, inaugurated in 2003, and the TurkStream, put into operation in 2020 – guarantees constant flows. Beyond gas, energy cooperation has also extended to nuclear power, with the Russian company Rosatom developing the first Turkish nuclear power plant in southern Anatolia, which should produce about 10% of the country’s electricity needs starting in 2025.
It goes without saying that energy supplies constitute the largest part of the trade between the two countries: after Germany and China, Russia is Turkey’s third largest trading partner, with an interchange of 34.7 billion dollars in 2021, and the second largest supplier after China, with Turkish imports from the country reaching 29 billion dollars, while Turkish exports are just under $ 6 billion. The trade imbalance in favor of Moscow is therefore evident, although Turkish exports – mainly machinery, food products, and textiles – have grown considerably over the years.
The war in Ukraine and the Turkish intervention in Syria
The plunging of the crisis between Russia and Ukraine into a real war has put Turkey, which has good relations with both countries, in a difficult position.
Turkey is experiencing its worst economic crisis in two decades, and Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections by June next year.
The Kremlin could ease this instability through natural gas. “Turkey wants to keep its energy flows from Russia over the winter while maintaining economic cooperation to alleviate its difficulties and to open a [currency] swap agreement or get investment from Russia,” said Emre Caliskan, a research fellow at the London-based Foreign Policy Center. “Erdogan could present this as a victory to the Turkish public and perhaps alleviate the high food and energy prices that are likely to present a challenge in the coming elections.”
Cooperation between Turkey and Russia is offset by fierce competition in different theaters of crisis, particularly in Syria, where the two countries are on opposing sides. Analysts believe Turkey’s principal focus would be on Moscow’s lack of opposition to a Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
Tal Rifaat and Manbij, cities controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are likely targets. The Syrian group is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 38-year armed uprising against Turkey and is considered a “terror” group by Ankara, the United States, and the European Union.
Turkey has launched four cross-border operations into Syria since 2016 and controls land in the north with the goal of pushing away the YPG and establishing a 30-km (19-mile) secure zone.
“Erdogan wants a green light for a military operation in Syria,” Kerim Has, a Turkish political analyst based in Moscow, told Al Jazeera. “As we saw at the Tehran summit, Iran and Russia are against this operation, but I think Erdogan can persuade Putin. Many things depend on the domestic situation in Turkey because Erdogan wants to launch the operation before the elections so he can consolidate at least a few percentage points in the vote.”
The grain emergency summit between Russians and Ukrainians in Turkey
Ukraine is one of the major exporters of grain and the war drastically reduced its exports, creating a real grain crisis in the area.
Ankara is playing a key role in the grain issue: Erdoğan met Putin on August 5 in Sochi, Russia, after brokering a grain shipment deal between Moscow and Kyiv. The summit comes in the same week that a ship carrying Ukraine grain – the first since the conflict began – sailed under an agreement between the warring sides arranged by the United Nations and Ankara that resumes exports of Ukrainian and Russian agricultural products, easing the threat to global food security.
“By virtue of its role in the grain deal, Turkey has succeeded in positioning itself as Russia’s diplomatic conduit to the international community,” said Eyup Ersoy, visiting research fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London. “This diplomatic rearrangement has shifted the relational asymmetry more in Turkey’s favor and is expected to curtail, to some degree, Russian resistance against Turkish policies and initiatives on issues of common concern.”