Turkish-Russian ‘controlled cooperation’ at a critical juncture
In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were expectations that Turkey and Russia would engage in a serious rivalry in the Caucasus and Central Asia, which are areas that Moscow considers to be its backyard and part of its sphere of influence. In fact, the two countries have engaged in a constructive dialogue concerning their areas of interest, limiting their descent toward direct competition.
The Joint Action Plan for Cooperation in Eurasia, signed in 2001 between Turkey and Russia, is noteworthy. The plan was prepared with a vision of increasing multidimensional cooperation between Ankara and Moscow throughout Eurasia, including the possibility of the two countries working together in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. It not only served to spotlight their cooperation on areas of mutual concern, but also brought on to the agenda the topic of international terrorism, which had always been a gray area between them. Thus, through this plan and thanks to the regional developments of the early 2000s, relations between Turkey and Russia were increased to the level of a cohesive and constructive cooperation.
Setting aside their countries’ historical rivalry, both Moscow and Ankara, under the leaderships of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, respectively, wanted a state of cooperation on a wide range of issues, including economic, political and cultural. However, the foundations of these multidimensional relations that have existed since the early 2000s were seriously tested with the Arab uprisings that took place in late 2010.
Over the past decade, while the two countries maintained their political and economic cooperation in some areas, they have started to face each other from opposing sides on several fronts across Eurasia, from Libya to Syria, and now also in the Caucasus, due to the Armenian-Azeri conflict. Lastly, Monday’s Russian strike on a Turkish-backed group in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib led their relations to a critical juncture. The attack on Idlib — which is a delicate area in the “controlled cooperation” between Ankara and Moscow in Syria — includes hints and insights into the policies of Turkey and Russia vis-a-vis developments in the Caucasus.
The airstrike, which took out dozens of Turkish-backed rebel fighters, marked a significant escalation. According to analysts who follow the truce on Idlib, Moscow aims to gain leverage against Ankara by hitting the city. Referring to Turkey’s military involvement from the eastern Mediterranean to the Caucasus, analysts connect the Russian strike in Idlib and the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, since Turkey gives its full support to Azerbaijan by all means.
In the last few years, any conflict taking place, whether in the Caucasus or the eastern Mediterranean, or even any diplomatic standoff between regional countries, spills over to the war in Syria, where no light is expected to be seen at the end of the tunnel anytime soon. Needless to say, the resolution of the Syrian conflict would be like bursting a bubble, since the disagreements between Turkey and Russia in Syria have the potential to poison the whole relationship, while a positive development could pave the way for the end of the other disputes between them.
Although Moscow has occasionally made smaller strikes in Idlib on groups that it considers radical, Monday’s attack was considered to be important for three reasons: It was the most violent breach of the cease-fire deal that Ankara and Moscow inked in March; it was a large strike very close to the Turkish border, which is unusual; and Russia and Turkey are also at odds in the Azeri-Armenian conflict.
The attack on Idlib includes hints and insights into the policies of the two countries vis-a-vis the Caucasus.
Following the Idlib strike, there are two further critical developments that are likely to influence Turkish-Russian relations in Syria and the wider region. First is the upcoming US presidential election, scheduled for Tuesday. The identity of who leads the US for the next four years will be crucial not only to Turkey, but also the entire region. In particular, US policies concerning the Syrian crisis are significant here. Every new administration means new relationships with foreign countries, which need to adjust their positions according to the change. This is what is called interdependence.
Second is the increasing tension in the Caucasus. Moscow wants to have the only say in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, as it believes this crisis is happening in its backyard, where no foreign involvement should happen. Turkey is not an exception here. Moreover, Moscow has no interest in prolonging the conflict, which may undermine its influence in the area and pave the way for Western involvement.
However, Turkey feels it cannot stand by and watch this conflict from the sidelines. This stance was the basis of the bold Turkish power play in the Caucasus, related to both the regional and international contexts. In regional terms, Turkey’s involvement was very much related to the fact that Russia was already deeply involved with Syria and Ukraine and this could weaken its power in the Armenia-Azerbaijan dispute. In the international context, the EU and US have been busy with their own domestic environments, meaning there would be little — or even no — Western response to what has been happening in the Caucasus.
It would not be wrong to say that what happened in Syria on Monday was the obvious spillover effect of what is happening behind the scenes in the Caucasus between Turkey and Russia. A recalling of the joint action plan of the 2000s is, therefore, what is needed for Turkish-Russian relations.
- Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz