In the past five years, Russia has emerged as the most important actor with regards to Turkey’s foreign and security policies. It is widely assumed that Turkey, which has suffocated from Western imperialism and seeks to make its own space in foreign policy has had to approach Russia and use it as an equalizer, especially against the US.
In this article, I will explain why Turkey has successfully used its powerful northern neighbor twice in the past as a counter-balance. I will discuss why the third attempt was unfortunately not as successful when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) was in power. I will argue that Russia has ceased to serve as a counter-balance for Turkey for some time now, but rather has become a contractionary and restricting actor in Turkey’s foreign policy.
The Bolsheviks as a counter balance
During the Turkish war of independence, the Anatolian movement was able to use the Bolshevik Revolution with with utmost skill against the West, namely Britain and France back then. The Turkish National Assembly, which was founded in 1920, sent a letter to Lenin as well as two top-level delegations. The Turkish envoys stressed the anti-imperialist nature of the national struggle. It is undeniable that Soviet diplomatic, economic and military support played a significant role in its victory. While the Soviet Union was a pillar of Turkey’s foreign policy of strategic balancing, even after the republic was founded, Moscow continued to provide some economic support, including technical assistance.
Soviet aid during the Cold War
In the mid-1960s, Turkey turned to its northern neighbor once again. This had to do with Ankara’s need for domestic development as well as the détente environment that prevailed in the international system. This time, it was more of an “economic/developmental” counterbalancing. Known for his pro-U.S. stance, former President Süleyman Demirel visited Moscow in 1967 and signed a deal.
Later, in the midst of the Cold War, the Soviets started to make colossal industrial investments in Turkey, which operate to this day. Those investments contributed to Turkey’s development and created added value. With low rate and long-term loans, giant industrial facilities such as İskenderun Iron and Steel, Seydişehir Aluminum, Aliağa Oil Refinery and Bandırma Sulfuric Acid Factory were built. With the erection of these establishments, several Soviet consultants came to Turkey, trade relations developed and Turkey’s development via production also reflected on its foreign policy.
In contrast to the era of former PM Adnan Menderes, Turkey embraced the “multi-directional” principle in its foreign policy and achieved autonomy from the West. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that Russia has spared these kinds of investments from its allies such as Bulgaria and Romania, turning down their demands.
Balancing, AKP style
The AKP administration, especially after the coup attempt of July 15, 2016, has warmed up to Russia and seems to have established a leaders’ diplomacy between Erdoğan and Putin. This approach was the consequence of domestic cooperation with the so-called “Eurasianists,” and also to ease the jam in Turkey’s foreign policy, particularly to be able to move into Syria.
A certain style of conducting business has clearly been developed, in an unprecedented manner while still in accordance with today’s diplomatic standard, that is, whereby two leaders frequently phone each other, urgent meetings are organized and issues are somewhat resolved.
Since the AKP government has had a confrontational relation with the West, it was widely claimed that the West sought to undermine the AKP-led Turkey. In order to counterbalance this pressure, it has also been claimed that Turkey had to get closer to Russia. It remains a mystery why countries that are in the same alliance system as Turkey were more uncomfortable with its growth and strengthening, than Russia. Reviewing current developments, one can see that Russia’s role in Turkey’s foreign policy has long ceased to be a balancing one.
In fact, Turkey’s closeness with Russia has become a factor that is increasingly difficult for Turkey. It is a factor that Turkey always needs to take into consideration in its foreign policy. expansionism and revisionism
Russia as a regional rival
In fact, Russia has always been on the opposite side of each international and regional conflict Turkey was interested in since the 1990s. Russia was the external supporter of the massacres and genocide that were carried out in Bosnia and Kosovo by supporting the Milosevic administration. In the 1992-93 Karabakh war, by directly taking the side of Armenia, Russia contributed to the occupation of Azerbaijan territory. As for the Kurdish issue, Russia did not side with Turkey. When Öcalan left Syria, he stayed in Moscow for a long time until the US located him and reported it to the Turkish authorities.
Currently, in almost all the regional conflicts Turkey is involved in, Russia has been on the opposite side. Haftar in Libya, Sisi in Egypt, Greek Cypriot Republic in the East Mediterranean, Al-Assad in Syria and Armenia in the Caucasus are actors Russia directly or indirectly supports. Russia, which Turkey wants to use as an equalizer against the West, was behind the February 2020 attach which claimed the lives of more than 30 troops. It is obvious that a country which is on the opposing side of Turkey in almost all regional foreign and security issues cannot be a country that Turkey can rely upon and take strength from whilst opposing the West. It is impossible for the U.S. not to see this. For Turkey, Russia has become an opponent whilst trying to deal with regional issues and a rival that it is seeking to protect itself from, instead of a counterbalance factor.
It is understandable that pro-Russian and pro-Eurasian segments in Turkey are fed up with the West and US imperialism, but while emphasizing this, they should not ignore Russian expansionism and revisionism. In 2008, Russia occupied Georgia and started controlling two autonomous regions there. In 2014, it separated Crimea from Ukraine and in an unprecedented manner in modern times - it annexed another country’s territory. Moreover, it conducted a hybrid war in the Donbas region east of Ukraine, removed the national signs of soldiers and resorted to tactics aimed at wreaking hvoc, like an underground organization. In 2015, it established a military presence in Syria. It bombed Aleppo, causing horrific civilian casualties. Its relations with the PYD, which Turkey considers a security threat, are quite good. In Libya as well, unlike Turkey, it does not play openly. It supports Haftar whilst using Wagner mercenaries to give the impression that they are not associated with him. Most recently, in the Azerbaijan-Armenia war, Russia used a trilateral mechanism to end the war and to keep Turkey out of the peace process.
Economic and energy partners?
Inevitably, Russia is an economic partner for Turkey. Yet from an economic point of view, while it is a partner that Turkey, as a buyer, would pay the price of goods without any delay, but encounters several difficulties when exporting its own goods. Economic ties create a huge foreign trade deficit due to the purchase of natural gas, and Turkey has been unable to reduce it so far. For 20 billion dollars of imports, Turkey has 4 billion dollars of exports.
In the past 20 years, never has there been such a unbalanced foreign trade relationship between Turkey and Russia. No country would tolerate a 15 to 20 billion dollar-wide foreign trade deficit every year. This accounts for almost half of Turkey’s total foreign trade deficit. While Russia is an important partner in terms of tourism and Turkey's investments, the low revenue per tourist remains a serious issue. Pipeline projects such as the Turkish Stream are aimed at meeting Russia’s strategic/economic needs, not Turkey’s. On the issue of financial support that Turkey sorely needs right now, Russia is never mentioned among the names of other contributing countries such as the UK, Qatar and China.
Competitive cooperation and compartmentalization
In recent times, pundits have sought to analyze Turkey-Russia relations with the concepts of competitive cooperation and compartmentalization. Both countries compartmentalize their relevant problems and freeze them somehow, thereby shifting the focus on fields where in which they will cooperate. In this way, fields of competition and cooperation are opened. This approach no longer means anything, because Turkey-Russia relations are not at a stage where one or two minor regional problems would be frozen and both sides would move on. Which dimension of Syria will be pushed into the compartment? Only last month, Russia hit those groups near Idlib, the ones Turkey was openly supporting, thereby sending out a message. Turkey-Russia relations have become a set of compartmentalized issues. From Hagia Sophia and the Blue Homeland navy drill to Libya and Cyprus, in none of these fronts did Russia side with Turkey against the West.
Moreover, when comments such as “Russia supports Turkey” appeared in Greek media, both the Russian Embassy in Athens and the Russian foreign ministry strongly denied it, calling them “provocative statements.” In the East Mediterranean, in an environment where Turkey was completely excluded, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited the Greeks in September 2020, providing them with covert support. Though it was the result of its own mistakes, Turkey has been left isolated and excluded in Eastern Mediterranean geopolitics. Turkey was unable to receive any overt or covert support from Russia. Russian media criticized Turkey’s Libyan policies and gas exploration activities.
It is time for Turkey to define its relationship with Russia. It is not possible for a country with which we have so many problems to play a stabilizing role for Turkey. This is contrary to the logic of foreign policy.
If the West decides not to impose sanctions against Turkey, this will not stem from a fear that Turkey is getting to close to Russia. The West is also aware that there is no space left for Turkey in its relations with Russia. For Turkey, Russia is not a country that supports it in critical foreign policy matters. It is also not a country that provides economic aid and alleviates the economic dependency of Turkey on the West or a country that transfers military technology.
If Turkey was able to buy the Patriots from the U.S. at suitable prices and conditions by playing the S-400 trump card, this could have been considered as a concrete situation in which this kind of counterbalancing worked in favor of Turkey. Unfortunately, we have not had such developments. The closeness with Russia has become a problem in relations with the West. This in turn has made Turkey’s hand against Russia weaker, not stronger.
Surely, the main problem is not relations with Russia. In general, Turkey's foreign policy is moving on the wrong axis on a very problematic ground. The issue is not being close to Russia, it is having to be close to Russia and these are two very different situations. Turkey needs to have a change of mentality not only in foreign policy, but also in domestic politics.