Q+A: Kerim Has on Turkey-Russia relations
In recent years, Turkey under Pres. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has claimed a growing presence in regional developments and the nation’s unique relation with Russia underlines this trend, or at least draws high interest.
There’s no shortage of coverage on the Erdoğan-Putin bromance and Turkey’s balancing act in Ukraine, but to go beyond daily headlines, we spoke to Dr. Kerim Has, a Moscow-based freelance political analyst on Russian and Eurasian affairs, about where Turkey-Russia relations stand on multiple fronts and where they might be heading.
Tr: Let’s start with Syria since Moscow hosted a high-level meeting between Turkish and Syrian officials last month. What are the benefits of Turkey-Syria normalization for all three parties and why now?
Erdoğan definitely wants a summit with Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad before the elections to give Turkish people the impression that 4 million Syrian refugees are going back home soon. In this regard, Erdoğan is really playing with a weak hand.
He also seeks a deal with the Assad government through Russian mediation and with US consent to launch a new, limited military land operation against US-backed pro-Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria. Such a move would help Erdoğan consolidate his power by appealing to nationalist sentiments while further demonizing the pro-Kurdish HDP, and driving a wedge between the opposition block (Table of Six) and the HDP.
For Damascus, the Assad government wants Ankara to cut off its military and financial support to various opposition and jihadist groups in Syria and to withdraw Turkish troops from its territory. However, it seems to me that these conditions are negotiable and will not be realistically fulfilled in near future. They’re not a must to start the recovery of relations, but rather the final destination of the normalization process. So, there is a room to maneuver for Erdoğan.
We should add to this equation that the Syrian economy is massively suffering after a decade-long war and sanctions. So, in principle, Assad should be interested in rebuilding relations with Turkey, however, he also doesn’t want to give an easy gift to Erdoğan.
As for Russia, it gains a lot if Turkey-Syria reconciliation truly happens. First, it would be a great political, military and economic gain for Russian interests in Syria. Second, Russia would be able to militarily and financially focus resources on Ukraine. Third, the threat of a new Turkish land offensive might push Kurds to make more concessions with Damascus and put distance between themselves and the Americans.
Also, rapprochement, even if conditional or imaginary, would probably boost voter support for Erdoğan. Even though Erdoğan is a very difficult partner for the Kremlin, he still seems to be “Moscow’s favorite candidate” in 2023 elections. In this context, Turkey-Syria normalization might also have some pragmatic benefits for Russian interests in Turkey.
Tr: Regarding Turkey's threatened Syria military operation, observers have argued Russia did not give the green light for such an action. Do you agree with this and what leverage does Moscow have over future military incursions in Syria?
I agree with the thesis that Russia has not yet given the green light for Erdoğan to launch a new military operation but, in my opinion, it doesn’t mean Moscow will never give its consent in the future. If Erdoğan really and strongly insists, he may get a “go ahead” or “yellow light” signal from Moscow.
Since Feb. 24, 2022, Turkish-Russian ties have been going through a transformation. While the dominant and senior party remains the same, the asymmetric relations in favor of Russia are slowly moving in favor of Turkey. If Erdoğan launches a new incursion in Syria, I think Russia would not and could not militarily confront the Turkish army on the ground. Diplomatically, Moscow could condemn a Turkish invasion, but politically, the relations would stay at a manageable level.
In my opinion, Erdoğan has yet to launch a new military operation mostly because he couldn’t get a permission from the US. Erdoğan doesn’t want an escalation with the White House. Rather he wants the Biden administration to turn a blind eye to his strengthening one-man rule in Turkey, to admit his rising authoritarianism is still a legitimate democracy and a strategic ally of the West.
Tr: Moving to the Russia-Ukraine war, Ankara has sought to play a mediating role in the conflict and we continue to see some high-level meetings in Turkey. How is Ankara's role viewed from Russia?
The Russian army and economy is suffering a lot in addition to its political and diplomatic isolation from the West. In this regard, Turkey appears to be the sole country in the Western bloc that didn’t participate in sanctions against Russia, and which also serves as a safe haven for Russian financial and economic activities.
In 2022, it is estimated Turkish-Russian bilateral trade reached $70 billion (official statistics have yet to be released). In the past, Turkey was usually in Russia’s top 10 list – around 7th or 8th – of foreign trade partners, but last year, for the first time it became the second biggest trade partner of Russia after China, according to a Russian academic.
Erdoğan has used Turkey’s Western-integrated economic and geographic potential to become a logistic hub and a bridge country for maintaining Russian economic relations with the West, ensuring the continuation of Russia’s export routes and revenues.
There are hundreds of Western companies that left the Russian market and are looking to open regional logistic centers in İstanbul to continue selling goods to Russia. Also, every day we hear of new Turkish firms entering Russia to replace departing Western companies.
That said, Ankara’s role in the Ukraine conflict is viewed more positively than negatively in Russian political rhetoric and news coverage. However, almost always there is a subtle nuance on the fact that Erdoğan is absolutely an unpredictable, unreliable and a situational partner for Russia when his personality is discussed by professionals (policy makers, officials, experts, etc).
As one American envoy to Turkey once said, Erdoğan “believes in God … but doesn’t trust him.” In my opinion, “Russia also believes in Erdoğan, but doesn’t trust him.”
Tr: How do growing Turkey-Russia trade relations impact Western sanctions and trade restrictions on Russia?
We should underline there’s been a growing mutual dependency between Russian Pres. Vladimir Putin and Erdoğan after February 24. With the deepening economic crisis in Turkey, Erdoğan really needs money, loans and investments from abroad.
This is also one of the main reasons Turkey does not and cannot participate in anti-Russian sanctions. I think the worsening situation in the Turkish economy is very well known by Western officials and it’s one of the reasons they have yet to seriously increase pressure on Ankara.
In this respect, the flow of billions of dollars from Russia to Turkey for the Akkuyu nuclear power plant project seems to be a kind of a cover for both parties. Neither does Akkuyu currently need this huge cash inflow for construction nor does the Kremlin have the luxury to send billions of dollars to Turkey right now. In addition, Ankara has sought to postpone payments on Gazprom loans until 2024, i.e., after the elections. There are also negotiations between the two partners for a discount on Russian gas prices.
Here it seems to me that Putin is attempting to carve out a hole in Western sanctions while, at the same time, ensuring some guarantees and income for its long-term investments in Turkey, all by using Erdoğan’s ambitions to stay in power in Russia’s favor.
Tr: Can NATO bloc nations benefit from having an open Turkey-Russia channel?
Erdoğan was the first NATO country leader to visit Russia after Feb. 24, and it seems that the dialogue and relations between Turkey and Russia will not only continue, but also deepen in the foreseeable future.
To be frank, I think, keeping an open channel with Russia through Turkey is in favor of Western interests. This is true for predicting Putin’s future plans in Ukraine or in his economy or elsewhere, for maintaining the grain deal in İstanbul, and also to serve as a platform for meetings between American and Russian intelligence chiefs. Additionally, hosting negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian delegations in a NATO country rather than in Minsk or Astana is absolutely in the West’s interests.
Still, it should also be taken into account that Erdoğan’s pragmatic approach surely contains some risks for Turkey’s ties with its Western partners considering Ankara’s bad record on previous sanctions policies regarding Iran.
The political establishment in the West has long seen Erdoğan as an indispensable ally. This remains the case, but now Russia can also openly join the Western bloc in maintaining this consensus on Erdoğan’s stay in power. Erdoğan loves to take risks, whereas Putin has no better option than to deal with him – at least in the short term.
Tr: Is Turkish military support to Ukraine covered often in Russian media? How so?
Definitely. Turkish military support to Ukraine is one of the main spoilers of the above-mentioned image of Erdoğan policies in Russia. It is frequently criticized in Russian media.
But there are two important points to underline. First, Turkish military support to Ukraine and mainly the transfer of Bayraktar drones were hotly discussed in Russia in the initial months of the conflict.
We mostly witnessed the effect of Turkish drones on Russian losses in the first phase of the conflict, i.e. until the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kyiv. Probably, Russian radars and defense systems found some ways to more effectively counter Turkish drones over time.
Second, surely Turkish military aid is an important factor for both Ukraine and the Western bloc. However, it cannot drastically change the calculus on the ground and it is not a fundamental multiplier in changing the military balance of power in favor of Kyiv.
So, Russia here seems to pursue a dual policy towards Turkey. On one side, the Kremlin gains huge advantages from Turkey’s approach in the economic sphere. On the other hand, it continues to find Turkish military support to Ukraine tolerable and not at the level that might cross Moscow’s red lines.
Tr: What about the grain corridor? Who does this benefit, and do you believe it’s sustainable in its current form?
The grain corridor deal is a crucial topic for discussions between Putin and Erdoğan, and Turkey is certainly the country that benefits most from this agreement as Ukrainian grain is mostly transferred to Turkey.
The grain deal is already in effect, and I don’t foresee any huge problem in its technical and political implementation in the following months. Though Russia withdrew troops from Kherson, I’m not sure the Kremlin has totally given up its plans to capture the Odessa and Nikolaev regions, or in general, the border regions of Ukraine and the Black Sea. So, there is still a possibility that the grain deal can collapse at some point.
However, the grain deal was and remains the unique area of overlapping interests that benefit all parties, including Ukraine, Turkey, Russia and the Western bloc.
By giving its consent for the extension of the deal, Russia also tries to hold Turkey nearby in the military dynamics of the region. If the deal is not extended, some of the Western countries might try to send military ships to the Black Sea through the Bosporus Strait to accompany trade vessels carrying Ukrainian grains, which may pave the way to risky provocations for a new and direct NATO-Russia military confrontation.
For Russia, Turkey’s current closure of the straits to foreign military ships is preferred over a war or direct military escalation with NATO in the Black Sea.
Tr: What are you hearing about Russians moving to Turkey? Apparently, many are opening businesses and purchasing property. Also, how has banning the Mir system in Turkey impacted Russians in the country?
Turkey has turned into the most important pipeline not only for Russian business, but also for Russian tourists and youth fleeing mobilization. İstanbul is now the number one destination for Russian and Western business circles and their continuing contacts. Russian business people opened 1,363 new companies with foreign partners in Turkey last year.
More than 5 million Russian tourists visited Turkey, which is very high considering the economic difficulties in Russia. Among them, more than 153,000 Russians got residence permits in Turkey, which is incredibly high. These statistics show one thing clearly: Turkey is becoming not only a host country for possible Russia-Ukraine peace negotiations, but also a critical diversification route for Russian economic and social orientation in the near future.
Banning the Mir system in Turkey definitely had some impacts on Russians in the country, but it’s a problem that can be overcome by using available economic and trade techniques. Both countries can establish alternative payment systems that can work between Turkey and Russia.
Tourism operators can also offer various cards or payment methods to their clients planning to visit Turkey. Cash payments are also possible in a worst-case scenario. So, indeed, the problems caused by banning the Mir system can be mitigated.
Tr: With Moscow’s attention on Ukraine, news reports suggest Russian influence is decreasing in the Caucasus. Do you agree? If so, what might this mean for Nagorno-Karabakh and Turkey's role in the region?
Yes, in general, it’s true. But, to make a certain assessment we should wait a bit more to see how the negotiations are going to evolve and whether or not a peace agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia is reached, and on what terms. It is highly likely that 2023 will be quite decisive for Russian influence in the Caucasus.
Azerbaijan, with Turkey’s support and the West’s silent approval, is testing Russian reaction in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Lachin corridor and even on the border with Armenia.
However, we should also accept that as Russia’s need for Turkey increased throughout 2022, it is same for deepening Russia-Azerbaijan contacts, as well. Putin needs the opening of the so-called “Zangezur corridor” through Armenian territory for Russian economic interests today more than he did on Nov. 10, 2020, when he signed trilateral ceasefire statement with İlham Aliyev and Nikol Pashinyan.
It is also one of the main reasons why Azerbaijan’s increasing pressure on Armenia hasn’t gotten strong military or political reaction from Russia. Moscow seeks to continue, increase and diversify its trade and economic routes to the outside world. Yerevan is strategically important for Moscow, but Baku has also become a critical political and economic partner for Russia since the 1990s. Armenia is a Moscow ally, but Azerbaijan is also not an enemy or adversary of Russia.
On the other hand, one thing is already clear: Russian long-term influence and military-political presence not only in Armenia or in the South Caucasus, but also in all post-Soviet territory and the far abroad is slowly eroding with the extension of war in Ukraine.
Turkey’s role in the South Caucasus may enormously increase in every sense, from geopolitical orientation to the geo-economical integration of the whole Caucasus with Euro-Atlantic institutions. I think that’s also exactly one of the main reasons NATO’s leading powers, like the US and UK, mostly keep silent or latent support for the Turkish-Azerbaijani axis in the region as NATO would mostly benefit from the vacuum of power and reduction of Russian presence in the Caucasus.
Tr: Is there anything else we should watch out for? What do you expect in the coming months regarding Turkey-Russia relations?
The war in Ukraine granted Erdoğan massive leverage regarding both his relations with Russia and the West throughout 2022. If the war continues with the current dynamics and doesn’t get out of control and turn into a direct military confrontation between NATO and Russia, Erdoğan will continue to take advantage of the conflict in 2023, as well.
In fact, we didn’t see a strong resistance or any meaningful reaction to Erdoğan’s rising authoritarianism in the last decade from the Western world. Most of the leading Western policymakers supported or preferred a transactional relationship with Turkey and turned a blind eye to Erdoğan’s strengthening one-man rule in the last decade.
And just recently they started to talk more seriously about his “dictatorship” as last week’s coverage in The Economist suggests. However, it is exactly the appeasement policy of the West towards Erdoğan that yielded today’s complex relationship with Turkey.
And now Moscow also relies heavily on Erdoğan. But Putin’s dilemma hangs on the fact that while he supports Erdoğan in Turkey’s 2023 elections, Moscow will also face a more active and unpredictable Turkey in Russia’s “backyard” in the following period if Erdoğan stays in power.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, in his great novel, The House of the Dead, writes: “You like your honey sweet, then learn to like the cold” (Любил медок, люби и холодок). It’s well known that bears love honey, but we also know that although sweet, honey can also be poisonous. Erdoğan will always keep his potential to turn into a honey trap for Putin in the future.
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