Author: Federico Salvati
The following article analyses the evolution of the Russia – Turkey relations in the last three years with the major focus on the incident of shooting down the SU-24 aircraft in 2015. The event resulted in a diplomatic confrontation of both countries followed by a surprising rapprochement, which has led to numerous signs of close collaboration, especially in the context of the Syrian Civil War. The article aims to present how Putin and Erdogan, as the countries' leaders, acted and led their nations from the SU-24 crisis to the increased cooperation. The relations between these two actors can heavily influence the near future both on the European and international agenda, therefore, it is of the utmost importance to understand trends and perspectives of the current Russian – Turkish relations.
A quick historic overview
The mainstream narrative on Turkish-Russian relations is one of rivalry throughout history. More accurately, one could say that it is characterised by a series of crises and rapprochements due to overlapping strategic interests.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, many were looking at Turkey as a viable candidate to fill some of the voids left behind by the USSR in a common neighbourhood of the two countries. Scholars were pointing out how relations between these two could quickly escalate towards a geopolitical competition. However, at the beginning of the new millennium, Ankara did not demonstrate such inclinations. The influence and the projection capacity of Ankara remained limited to economic and diplomatic cooperation, without any strong developments (Simao, 2016, p.56). On the contrary, during this period the relations between Ankara and Moscow started to converge. This convergence has been felt especially in trade relations and energy exportation. Commercial relations between Moscow and Ankara are roughly worth $31.2 billion but more importantly, Turkey imports 70% of its energy resources from Russia. Furthermore, Turkey represents an important transit country for Moscow to sell its natural gas to the Wstern markets.
With the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, some tensions between the two powers have been rekindled. Turkish interest in the Syrian conflict has been very high. The government’s capacity to intervene though, matched neither its interest nor its rhetoric (Aydintasbas, 2016, p.4). Instead, in September 2015, Russia intervened in the context of “boots on the ground”, propping the Assad regime in the battle. The operations resulted in a massive air strike against the Sunni-armed groups, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in the Levant) and the Army of Conquest. The operations affected also the Turkey-sponsored groups next to the Turkish border as well as the Turkic civilian population still living in Syria.
Ankara responded immediately and very harshly to the Russia intervention, demonstrating its sheer disapproval. In the Turkish media, the Russian intervention was reflected as an attack against the Turkish national interest and the Turkmen living in Syria. Turkey decided to appeal to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), bringing up the case of the civil Turkmen victims of Russian bombings (Aydintasbas, 2016, p.13). In November of the same year, some new events unleashed a massive crisis between the two countries. The scenario - against everyone's expectations - evolved very quickly in a completely unforeseen direction bringing Turkish-Russian relations from an all-time low to an all-time high again.
The downing of the Russian fighter as the beginning of the crisis
In the morning of 24 November 2015, the Turkish presidency announced that the air force had downed a Russian SU-24 that had violated Turkish airspace (Aydintasbas, 2016, p.1). According to the Turkish authority, the fighter had been warned 11 times before being shot down for violating the national airspace for 17 seconds. This harsh reaction of Turkey was allegedly the result of a 2012 incident, in which a Turkish jet had been downed by Syrian forces (BBC, 2012). Turkey, after the 2012 incident has changed its rules of engagement, announcing it would consider all objects approaching its airspace as a threat.
Alleged flight plans
Turkey and Russia released multiple news items supporting opposite stands on the facts. The countries ultimately could not agree on a common version of the incident and while Russia was stating that the aircraft had never violated the airspace, Turkey was arguing the contrary (Aydintasbas, 2016, p.7). Following the downing, an escalation of rhetoric quickly turned the two countries against each other. On 28 November 2016 (ABC, 2016), Putin signed a decree that imposed restrictions on Turkish firms and Turkish goods in Russia. The president issued as well a travel ban, cancelling any charter flights between the two countries and putting an end to the Russian tour operators selling trips to Turkey. The absence of four million tourists in Turkey, combined with a decline of tourism from Europe caused the losses between $3.5 billion for the Turkish tourism industry (Forbes, 2016).
After some months of “arm wrestling” between the two nations, on 27 June 2016, Erdogan sent a letter to Putin apologising for the incident (Sputnik, 2016). The pilots, responsible for the downing of the aircraft, were even arrested in order to “establish the truth” (Daily News, 2016). Immediately after the letter, which text has not been revealed yet to the public, the relations between Russia and Turkey warmed up quickly. The sanctions were gradually lifted, while rumours started circulating on further cooperation between the two countries (RT, 2016).
Leadership style and foreign politics – a background analysis
Putin and Erdogan have similar leadership styles and their personalities influence greatly the course of their states (Wegren and Herspring, 2010, p.12 and Feroz, 2014, p.25). Both Turkey and Russia have always been “leader politics” nations, meaning that they have always valued and relied on the figure of their leaders as a personification of the state and the political life (Öniş and Yılmaz, 2015, p.7).
Görener and Uca, who conducted a quantitative profiling research on Erdogan, say that “The media image of Erdogan is becoming increasingly “assertive,” “authoritarian” and “power-hungry”(...) and Erdogan himself shows an increasing interest in forcing and manipulating events(....)” (Görener and Uca, 2011, p.362). Putin presents similar features as a leader. Especially after the “war on the oligarchs”, his image is one of an all mighty man whose power can directly change the reality in its smallest aspects. This authoritative construction of the leader image is accompanied by a very similar rhetoric used by both Erdogan and Putin. The leaders' alternate official and specialised language resembles that of a street slang, which they use to attack their rivals and opponents (Petrov, 2014, p.13).
However, a big difference should be noted in their posture. Putin is a very composed man, he patronises the audience, secure of his position. He does not have an explosive rhetoric and he always tries to show himself calm and self-confident to the media. Erdogan, on the other hand, is more direct and extroverted. He constructs the image of power through his dynamic rhetoric style and his aggressiveness (Görener and Uca, 2011 and Smirnova, 2012).
On the other hand, the rise to power of the leaders can be regarded as very similar. Both Putin and Erdogan came to power in a time when their respective nations were in a general political crisis. Russia and Turkey were growing progressively unable to cope with globalisation and modernisation (Dugin, 2015, p.32, Keyman, 2015, p.12). Putin's and Erdogan's rise to the power was based on an outspoken propaganda on how they would redefine society. Soon after their election, the countries' leaders started to deliver economic policies aimed at containing the capitalist liberal stand taken by their predecessors. More importantly, they started the implementation of a new social doctrine based on loyalty to the power and identity politics (Dugin, 2015, p.147).
The definition of the idea of the "Russian" as an identity unit has influenced deeply the political discourse of the country. The national identity of Russia today officially is based on the Russian language. Nowadays, in Russia, the citizenship is issued only upon the success in speaking Russian language. In addition, according to the last edition of the Russian National Security Concept, it is a duty of the state to defend all the Russian ethnics and speakers on the globe and more specifically in the “area of priority interest”. In a multicultural nation such as Russia, the Russian language seems to be the only real link between different national ethnic groups. Based on this, the government insists on its attempt to impose to the citizens some kind of generally shared loyalty towards Russia as a state.
Erdogan has been coping with the same problems as Putin but with some slightly different strategies. During the first phase of the AKP/Erdogan ruling period the leader severely struggled in order to reconcile together his moral and political view with the political situation at the time. Erdogan's ideology is clearly inspired by political Islam. So far, he has never tried to establish an Islamic state (Görener and Uca, p.372) but he has lost his respect for democracy and the rule of law. Especially after the coup attempt, the authoritarian stand in Erdogan's leadership has become increasingly clear (Akyol, 2015 and Zanotti, 2016), which finally resulted in the recent constitutional referendum, which gave Erdogan even more powers turning the country's political system into presidential one. As a self-proclaimed right-wing force, the AKP managed to infuse the political discourse with its reactionary and conservative values. Moreover, political Islam found its way back into the president doctrine with the fact that religion has been promoted as a basic feature of national identity (Gorlach, 2014).
From our comparative analysis, it emerges how both Russia and Turkey present astonishing similarities in their leaderships styles. It is important to outline such feature of the nations' political life because, being both “leader-politics” countries, the style of their leaders influences greatly the shaping of the national political agenda and the strategies used by the states to pursue such agendas.
To sum up, one could say that all the facts taken into account here highlight the presence in both countries totalitarian democracy regime, centred on the figure of the all-powerful leader. None of the leaders actually ever rejected the principles of the pluralistic state. In the official national narrative, both of them could be overthrown by a democratic election. But why should this happen, when they embody the essence of their national identity. Just like Putin is THE Russian man, Erdogan image is moulded on THE Turkish one.
Foreign Policy Doctrine
The second instance that influenced the crisis and the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey is the countries' foreign policy doctrine. The entire Russian foreign doctrine is centred on the idea of multipolarity. After 1996, the creation of a world with multiple power centres became Russia's long term project. Russian multipolarity, though has some particular and unique features that are worth exploring. It is based on geopolitics and informed by the principle of regionalisms. The division of power in the international system origins from geographical and cultural values that interact with each other under the main variable that influences the international equilibrium: proximity (physical, economic and political). Alexander Dugin deals with the argument extensively in his work. The conservative right-wing Russian philosopher sees Russia as the main exponent of what he calls the “earth civilization”. Russian is seen as a civilizational power centre, that projects its cultural and military influence in an area (the “near abroad”) of primary interest. This exclusive influence is a national prerogative essential for both national security and international stability (Dugin, 2015, p.163).
Ankara bases its political doctrine on the same principles of “centricity” and projection as Moscow. Furthermore, just like in case of Russia, the Turkish external policy is based on historic terms (Loannis and Grigoriadis, 2010). While the Russian “near abroad” coincides roughly with the post-Soviet area, Ankara's sphere of influence is drawn from the former Ottoman empire and cultural ties with Turkic populations. The core assumption of Ankara's foreign policy is influenced by the assumption that historical flows govern power relations, alliances and rivalries in the international system (Kibaroğlu, 2010, p.9). Equilibrium and stability are given by following and recognising these flows. Ankara sees itself as the centre of a civilization push. The big central difference between Moscow and Turkey is that Ankara never acted as an independent security provider in its area of influence. Its membership in NATO and the closeness with the European Union surely influenced this outcome but at the same time, the all political idea of Turkish foreign policy is mostly based on cultural and historical grounds. If Cyprus is excluded, Turkey has always “tagged along” capitalising on its strategic position while cooperating within the framework of the US and EU policies (Kibaroğlu, 2010, p.10-15).
At the same time, on the Eastern front, Turkey never pushed too far against Russian interests. Since the beginning of the 2000s until 2011, the famous “zero problems” policy, with its consequent deep diplomatic and economic engagement demonstrated a commitment of Turkey to enhance regional security focusing on development and good political relations. After 2011, this policy seems to have completely failed. In addition, after the Arab spring, Turkey has failed to assume its place as a regional political leader, ultimately being hurt by the popular uprising since it exposed the uncompromising violent side of Erdogan's regime. This progressively isolated Turkey from its Western allies which had heavy consequences on its domestic policy.
How leadership and foreign policy doctrines have prompted a Russia-Turkish rapprochement?
What are the drivers that provoked first the crisis and then the reconciliation between Russia and Turkey? For Russia, the intervention in Syria was the first one beyond the borders of its regional sphere of interests since the end of the Cold War, therefore, qualified the country as a global level security actor. The fact that Turkey took down the aircraft affected the image of military supremacy that Russia has been trying to transmit abroad and at home. For this reason, the stand taken by president Putin was harsh from the very beginning. The official version why Ankara decided to shoot down the aircraft is that after the change of the rule of engagement in 2012, Turkey was more sensitive and more assertive in the defence of its airspace and the Russians had repeatedly violated the airspace during the past months.
Possibly, Erdogan's power rhetoric forced the hand of Turkey in adopting such a military posture, in order to re-centre the country as the main power in the region. This policy line, though, was immediately perceived by Erdogan as a possible threat. While at the beginning the terms used by the president were harsher, when the news arrived that the pilots of the aircraft had been killed by the opposition forces in Syria, Erdogan immediately insisted that he did not want to escalate the situation (CNN, 2015, Reuters, 2015a and Aydintasbas, 2016, pp.8-9). The death of the pilots, on the contrary, affected the base of Russia's security concept itself. For the last 20 years, Russia justified its interventions with the fact that it was protecting Russian nationals. This corporate spirit is the ground for the Kremlin identity policy and the death of the pilots was perceived by consequence as defining Russia as a nation.
Consequently, President Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev and the Russian media started a heavy crackdown on Turkey. The attacks though were mostly targeting President Erdogan as a political leader rather than the Turkish nation itself. Putin expressed his respect for the Turkish nation and the Turkish people while stressing his resentment for Erdogan's leadership. This act was well-crafted; it was done in order to destabilise the constructed image of President Erdogan as a guarantor of social welfare and to hurt his actual power capacity. The intention was to present the image of the leader as flawed and erratic, rather than attacking Turkey as a nation, creating further polarisation, which would have impeded future reconciliation.
After the sanctions, Erdogan took eight months before actually sending his apologies to the Russian president. During this time, Turkey tested Putin's commitment to his position. Both leaders played some kind of chicken game based on their image of strong leaders. They both tried to “rally around the flag” in order to harness the maximum consensus possible to support their stand. The game ended with reconciliation because of the position of Turkey in the geopolitical scene and its dependence on Russia. With the time passing by, Turkey was paying in the stalemate a higher price than Russia.
Russian external doctrine is based on the idea of isolation and projection. The popularity of Putin has been build upon the concept that he could lead Russia to stand on its own as a powerful international actor able to project its influence (Dugin, 2015, p.167). Turkey, on the other hand, based its doctrine on a progressive diplomatic and economic line-up of the region. The isolation, in which Turkey progressively ended up after 2011, was not intended by the Turkish policy. Further isolation with Russia could have put serious danger to the role of Turkey as a major energy hub. Ankara has been promoting this view for over 15 years now. The abolition of the South Stream project was very welcomed in Ankara as an opportunity to get closer to Russian exports (Bechev, 2015). The tensions between Moscow and the EU raised the strategic role of Turkey as a mediator and a transit country in the energy market. This could work, but only if Turkey would have had good relations with both Russia and the EU. In the end, Turkey chose to end the stalemate discharging the responsibility on the pilots. Insisting further on its position would have resulted only in further isolation and a progressive spoiling of the leader image as well as the international role of the country.
To sum up, in the first phase of the crisis, both leaders' strong postures played a major role in escalating the situation. In a second phase Turkey could back down because its domestic and foreign policy were not inescapably linked to any of the issues at stake in the confrontation. Moreover, the status quo of the stalemate was undermining the image and the posture of the leader at home demonstrating Turkey's geopolitical and economic dependency on Russia and its isolation within the NATO. Russia's commitment was higher and in the stalemate, Moscow had a higher price for dropping out but a lower one to persist in the status quo.
The way forward reactions to the US Actions in Syria
The reconciliation between Russia and Turkey has proven to be lasting, despite some antagonising issues, like killing Russian Ambassador in Turkey, Andrei Karlov, in December 2016. Moreover, it brought some outcomes regarding the Syrian conflict. On 27 January 2017 Russia, Turkey and Iran announced to have reached an agreement on a unilateral cease-fire in Syria (Bernard and Saad, 2017). This came as a surprise to many, since it was clear that Turkey was not supportive of the Assad regime while Russia treats its preservation as the main goal.
The dialogue, despite bringing a great hope for the Syrian conflict, ended up being very little more of a diplomatic move. The powers, bluntly said, failed to deliver on the promises made. Other developments further has proven the discrepancy of goals and interests of Russia and Turkey in the region. In the wake of the US attack on a Syrian governmental base, the Kremlin condemned the action while Turkey instead supported and defined it as “a positive reaction”.
This does not support the hypothesis, advanced by many commentators that Turkey wanted to create a regional block with the help of Moscow to cut off the West from the region. However, the situation has proven to be complicated as at the same time Ankara conducted, on the 5 April 2017, joint naval exercises with Moscow in the Black Sea after an agreement on that in a bilateral meeting a few weeks before. All things standing we still can speak about a rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow.
Reading the facts exposed in this article one can understand that guiding Turkey in these years has not been the post-Ottomanism as presumed by many Western scholars but instead – opportunism. The moment Russia demonstrated to be a better option compared to the weak US response to the Syrian problem, Turkey decided to take action. Firstly, Ankara shot down the aircraft to stay consistent and loyal to its posture and its allies. However, after evaluating costs and benefits of the stalemate, not receiving the support they hoped for from their allies, Ankara's decision-makers opted for a rapprochement with Moscow.
As we have seen, isolation is not an issue of Russia while on the other and Ankara's behaviour will depend upon an opportunistic decision to side with the party that will guarantee the best outcome. The uncertainty in the future first of all remains to what extent the US will be ready for a commitment in the “Syrian theatre”, and in second place – the actual capacity to deliver concrete results of Moscow as a security provider.
Federico is a young professional specialised on the Caucasian region and post-soviet geopolitics. He started working in Italy with various research centres like the National Research Centre or the High Institute for Defence Studies. He spent some time in Georgia working or collaborating with different local and international NGOs. He is currently studying in Berlin a Master degree in Conflict Resolution. He is a member of the EU Foreign Policy Research Group responsible for covering Turkey and Caucasus Unit.
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