Istanbul, Turkey – For many, footage of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan having fun with ice cream collectively on a summer time’s day encapsulated the shut ties between two authoritarian leaders with reputations as being among the many West’s bete noires.
The jovial scene occurred at an air present exterior Moscow in August 2019, a month after NATO member Turkey had taken supply of Russian-made S-400 missiles, main the United States to kick it off a next-generation fighter jet programme and impose restricted sanctions.
The subject stays on the prime of Washington’s listing of grievances with Ankara to today.
Chummy photos of two strongmen presidents with a deep mistrust of the West, nevertheless, belie the complexity of relations between the nations as tensions got here to a head lower than 4 years earlier when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over the Syrian border.
It is a relationship that has endured – regardless of their assist for rival proxies in conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh – by compartmentalising its numerous strands.
But the most recent flare-up – between Russia and Ukraine on the latter’s japanese border – may show completely different given Russia’s direct involvement on territory it considers its again yard.
“Ukraine is a completely different story,” Gonul Tol, director of the Washington-based Middle East Institute’s Turkey programme, informed Al Jazeera.
“There’s an in depth defence partnership that Turkey has cultivated with Ukraine within the final 5 to 6 years, which is absolutely vital to the Ukraine.
“But Russia considers [the eastern Ukrainian region of] Donbas a part of Greater Russia, it’s right on the border. In the mindset of Putin, Ukraine represents a much more important space. That means he’s going to be more aggressive in defending what he considers his sovereign rights.”
In latest weeks Moscow has amassed tens of 1000’s of troops in addition to tanks and artillery near Ukraine’s japanese border. Moscow and Kyiv have been in dispute since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists preventing authorities forces in japanese Ukraine.
Although Ankara has tried to emphasize its impartiality within the escalation, Moscow has proven indicators of impatience.
Meeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier this month, Erdogan issued a joint name for the “de-occupation” of Crimea and japanese Ukraine.
Besides navy cooperation with Kyiv, Turkey has historic and ethnic ties to Crimea’s Tatars that led it to sentence Russia’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, though it didn’t comply with others in inserting sanctions.
The Ankara assembly got here a day after Erdogan had spoken to Putin by cellphone and a Turkish announcement that two US warships deliberate to go by way of the Bosphorus to the Black Sea – a deployment since rescinded.
The day of the Erdogan-Zelenskyy summit additionally noticed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warn Turkey to “refrain from encouraging militaristic tendencies in Kyiv”.
Ankara offered a dozen Bayraktar aerial drones to Ukraine in 2019, airpower that has proved its value in opposition to Russian-built weapons techniques lately.
Moscow later introduced a halt to flights to Turkey till June. Although the suspension was framed as a response to rising COVID-19 instances, many commentators noticed it as a “punishment” that may deny Turkey’s beleaguered financial system 500,000 Russian vacationers.
“The cancellation of flights was an opening salvo and the tip of the iceberg of what Russia can do,” Tol stated.
Analysts say there are various similarities that bond Erdogan and Putin. Both view Western liberal democratic values as a risk; they’ve presided over rising authoritarianism; they usually utilise historic and spiritual themes to reframe nationwide id.
In a paper for the Foreign Policy Research Institute earlier this month, Anna Mikulska and Robert E Hamilton described the connection as “one of the most important … in Eurasia today” that “moves quickly between cooperation and confrontation, often in the span of only months”.
The glue that seals the bond is financial, particularly vitality.
Turkey’s lack of vitality sources means commerce between the 2 has historically favoured Russia.
Much of the $23.12bn value of Russian exports to Turkey in 2019 was made up of fuel provide whereas the $4.15bn in items despatched to Russia from Turkey was comprised largely of agricultural merchandise, equipment, textiles and autos.
However, Turkey has been diversifying its vitality sources to chop reliance on Russia even whereas cooperating on a pipeline that carries Russian fuel to Europe by way of Turkey.
“The relationship has been tilted towards Russia because Turkish goods are easier to replace for Russia than Russian imports for Turkey,” Mikulska, an vitality professional at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, informed Al Jazeera.
“That has modified considerably within the final two or three years primarily based on developments within the pure fuel market that Turkey has taken benefit of strategically, changing into a transit territory of fuel not simply from Russia but in addition Azerbaijan.
“Turkey has additionally constructed LNG [liquefied natural gas] terminals and is importing quite a lot of LNG, which has elevated its place vis-a-vis Russia. Russia can’t afford to lose Turkey both as a transit territory or a marketplace for fuel.
“Turkey sees that and is able to extract benefits from it.”
‘Almost schizophrenic’ overseas coverage
While decreasing over-reliance on Russia is smart, Turkey nonetheless has to reside in the identical neighbourhood as a rustic that it has had an on-off rivalry with for the reason that 16th century.
This have to get together with Moscow has typically been portrayed as Turkey “turning away” from the West after serving as NATO’s “southern flank” in opposition to the Soviet Union.
However, misunderstandings over Turkey’s shifting, “apparently almost schizophrenic” overseas coverage stem from Erdogan’s mixture of pragmatism and ideological pink strains, in line with Selim Sazak, analysis director at TUM Strategy in Ankara.
“Part of the confusion comes from Erdogan’s very rigid commitment to certain issues and his total flexibility on others that he can use as bargaining chips,” he stated.
“In the Syrian quagmire, you need to be able to give something to the Russians when the need arises so you buy the S-400 because it’s a $3bn leverage tool for something else.”
Despite the frequent emphasis on their friendship, the trail Erdogan and Putin share has typically been rocky.
The capturing down of a Russian jet in late 2015 noticed Putin impose a ban on Turkish meals imports, an finish to constitution flights and heavy restrictions on Turkish building tasks.
The row was smoothed over and when a coup try threatened to overthrow Erdogan in July 2016, Putin was first to supply unconditional phrases of assist.
Even the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Ankara later that yr didn’t hamper renewed ties.
Russian assist for Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has provided many alternatives for battle with Turkey however all have been averted regardless of Ankara’s ongoing assist for anti-Assad militias seen as “terrorists” by Moscow and Damascus.
Instead, Erdogan has lately toned down his rhetoric in opposition to the Syrian president, now not insisting on his overthrow, and joined Russia and Iran within the Astana course of to hunt an finish to the conflict.
The deaths of 34 Turkish troopers in an air strike in February final yr precipitated little disturbance to their cooperation.
Ankara accepted the assault had been solely carried out by Syrian jets, regardless of witness accounts of Russian involvement, and Russia stood by as Turkish drones, artillery and jets pounded Syrian targets in retaliation.
Across the Mediterranean in Libya, their pursuits additionally diverged, with Ankara having backed the Tripoli-based, United Nations-recognised authorities in opposition to japanese forces covertly supported by Russia.
Closer to home, final yr’s preventing in Nagorno-Karabakh between Azerbaijan and Armenian separatists led Russia to name an finish to the violence after Turkish-supplied drones performed a serious function in Azerbaijan’s victory.
In a battle between two former Soviet republics – one in every of which, Armenia, is a member of the Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization – Moscow imposed a ceasefire enforced by 2,000 Russian peacekeepers with Turkey provided an observer function.
Ideologically, each Turkey and Russia have bonded over an anti-Western outlook fostered by grievances – Russia, as its former japanese European companions have flocked to NATO and the European Union, and Turkey, because it has seen its hopes of becoming a member of the EU dwindle.
“They have a similar relationship with the West, although Russia’s is a lot more strained,” Mikulska stated.
“That’s why we talk about the axis of the excluded, where both countries have been disappointed with what the West has offered and what it has delivered.”
She added: “But there’s extra that divides them than brings them collectively. Both are attempting to be the Eurasian champion and Nagorno-Karabakh was the battle that actually uncovered that.
“Turkey may win some regional battles with Russia over time but it realises that it can’t be the regional hegemon while Russia is around.”
Meanwhile, discuss of Turkey’s “turn” to Russia appears overblown.
“Turkey has no interest in making it easier for Russia to expand its zone of influence,” Sazak stated.
“The closer Russia comes to you, the greater your chance of being mauled by the Russian bear.”