Russia-Turkey: Dangerous liaisons

Date first published: 26/3/2019

Key sectors: defence; energy

Key risks: sanctions

In 2017 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed a US$2.5bln purchase Russia’s S-400 missile defence. The long-range anti-aircraft missile system is capable of destroying medium range cruise and ballistic weapons as well as on-ground targets. Turkey aims to deploy the system by October 2019 – if geopolitical concerns and US sanctions threats don’t get in the way. A deepening Russia – Turkey bond may come at the expense of Turkey’s relations with the US. Sanctions on Turkey may follow, which while not crippling in and of themselves, could further accelerate investors’ concerns about its economy.

The Pentagon has expressed disdain for the S-400 sale, arguing the system cannot be integrated into NATO, of which Turkey is a member. Washington has attempted to persuade Turkey to instead purchase Raytheon’s US$3.5 billion Patriot system. In February 2019, the informal deadline for these negotiations passed and without any public agreement. Turkey’s purchase of the S-400’s risks  sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act unless President Donald Trump waives them. Ankara has refused to reconsider. Such sanctions may push it closer to Moscow but the benefits of this are limited.

The S-400 sale is but one example of the budding Turkish-Russian alliance, a remarkable turnaround since the nadir of relations following Ankara’s downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015. This has been spurred by increased cooperation in the energy sphere, with Turkey becoming Russia’s second largest gas market and Erodgan’s 2016 agreement with Russian President Vladimir to further increase gas trade capacity by building the TurkStream pipeline. Operations are expected to start in late 2019. By increasing energy cooperation with Turkey, Gazprom seeks to lessen its dependence on transit routes through Ukraine. Ankara will benefit from gas transhipments fees and its newfound status as a key supply route for Europe.

As relations with Russia have warmed, Turkey’s transatlantic relations have become more strained. Washington’s support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria has infuriated Ankara, whichregards the YPG as an offshoot of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) thathas waged a resistance campaign in Turkey’s Kurdish regions for decades. Turkey is also angered by the US’ refusal to deport Fetullah Gulen and numerous other Turkish-born, US residents, who Ankara blames for the 2016 coup attempt. Although Ankara’s release of US- cleric Andrew Brunson last  October signalled greater co-operation,  tensions continue to emerge, as witnessed during the Khashoggi affair.

Overtly, Moscow has little to gain from deteriorating Turkey–US relations. This is partly because Putin and Erdogan share vastly different strategic and geopolitical priorities. But the US’ current lack of strategic leadership has made them partners of convenience. Since President Trump announced his decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu affirmed that there would be greater on the ground coordination in Syria. The two nations have also begun holding talks with Tehran about Syria’s future, angering Washington. Whilst this cooperation is a relatively new phenomenon, it comes at time when traditional alliances are crumbling and enhances Russia’s geopolitical position.

Although the increased cooperation between Moscow and Ankara is clear, it by no means signals a long-lasting alliance. For the moment, Erdogan is deepening security and energy cooperation with Russia to keep all options open. Fraught US-Turkey relations could prove be beneficial for Russia in the long term. Meanwhile, should sanctions be introduced it could cause further jitters for the Turkish economy, already in the throes of a potential new currency crisis just seven months after the last one.