RUSSIAN PRESIDENT Vladimir Putin (right) speaks to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, in August.. (photo credit:REUTERS)
It is conceivable that December was been the most harmful and nervous month for Russian-Turkish relationships during the last several years. A year ago, a Russian military jet was shot down by the Turks but now an even more dangerous and outrageous event happened in Turkey when Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov was assassinated in Ankara.
Many politicians and experts saw in death of the ambassador some historical parallels to June 28, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated. The killing became casus belli of World War I. The shooting down of a Russian fighter on November 24, 2015 caused many to believe that a direct confrontation between the two regional powers was inevitable. However, it happened neither after the incident with the plane nor after the brutal assassination.
How far is Russia ready to go with Turkey if even the murder of a Russian Ambassador could not stop the cooperation between Ankara and Moscow? Why is the Kremlin so persistent in its intentions to keep Turkey at least as a nominal friend? How far will these relations could go? What are the consequences for the West? The feeling of ordinary Russian people about the incident in Ankara was shock. But even so, they did not know how to react or who to blame. A year ago, they were put in a similar position. In 2014 and the first half of 2015, Turkey was a strategic partner of Russia, but after the downing of the Su-24, the Kremlin’s bellicosity towards Turkey was at the highest alert.
Politicians and pundits in Russia reiterated again and again this mantra, that it was a provocation. Russian President Vladimir Putin commended that the assassination was an attempt at “interrupting normalization of Russian-Turkish relations and the process of peace building in Syria which actively has been promoted by Turkey, Iran and Russia.”
As in the case with the downing of the Su-24, both sides accused “terrorists” of the act. But for each state the connotation of “terrorist” bears a different meaning.
Ankara blamed US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen for the assassination of the diplomat because reportedly an attacker was a police officer who had been dismissed from his position due to the allegation that he belonged to Gulen’s FETO network. Moscow is officially avoiding such explanations and mostly traces it to radical Islamic terrorists, but in public discourse many Russian politicians and experts consider that behind the scene there is not only a local Middle Eastern terrorist group, but even some specific states.
For Russia, ambassador Karlov was a symbolic figure for Russian-Turkish relations. He became an envoy in July 2013. Under his tenure there occurred all the crucial recent developments between the two countries.
As representative of Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Maria Zakharova described the relations in the last three years: “We surmounted throughout last year very terrifying times with Turkey. It was a tragic year for bilateral relations and for Turkey itself. Today is the turning point for all.”
Up to this day it is possible to say that Russia does not hold the Turkish government responsible for recent events. An investigation group was sent to Ankara and of course the results of the investigation will influence further policy towards Turkey. The decision has been already made that cooperation with Ankara must continue.
Tellingly, the meetings in Moscow on December 20 between Russian, Turkish and Iranian foreign and defense ministries happened notwithstanding the tragic events in Ankara. Interestingly, according to Ukrainian sources between December 20-21 there was a planned diplomatic mission by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey Mevlut Cavusoglu to Kiev, Ukraine. However, because of the death of the Russian envoy, the trip was canceled.
Recently Turkey made one more diplomatic strike at the Kremlin when Turkey, together with Western states, voted for the adoption of the UN General Assembly Resolution: “Situation of human rights in Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol (Ukraine).” Adopted on 19 December 2016, it defines Russia as an occupying power in Crimea.
The political elites in Russia and Turkey are seen as offering an unnatural union after a long lasting confrontation between the two nations which was almost archetypal in portraying them as foes. According to the elites, rapprochement should someday end up as cooperation. Just several days before the attack on the Russian envoy, there had been Turkey rallies against Russian atrocities in Aleppo. Even the terrorist who murdered the ambassador dedicated his action to victims of Aleppo. Notwithstanding all the facts, Russia persistently and fervently keeps good relations with Ankara. For instance, the notorious Russian politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky, vehemently cried out one year ago that Russia should attack Istanbul. Now he is simplifying the issue and is defending the new position.
Russia wants to clamp Turkey in its pliers. The death of the Russian envoy could not stop Russia from its expansionist ends. Moscow’s strategy is beyond a simple strategic partnership. The big picture shows that the Russian supported construction of a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, Turkey’s first such plant, is only a tactical element.
It is noteworthy that the Kremlin has at least four geostrategic tasks regarding Turkey. First, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies should be fostered.
Secondly, pro-Russian and anti-Western attitudes in Turkish political and militaries elites should be cherished.
Russia has actively been supporting in Turkey the rise of Kemalist political parties which are characterized by strong pro-Russian proclivities and sentiments.
Actually, for the Kremlin, Erdogan is only the instrument for specific purposes and some argue that Kemalist parties are a kind of chrysalis that someday will play a role of the fifth column. Third is to prize the anti-EU and anti-NATO grievances in the Turkish society. Forth is to encourage Turkey to rely on Russia for energy needs.
The ultimate aim of these measures is a geopolitical one. Firstly, it is to recalibrate the official position of Ankara on Syria. Moreover, to make Erdogan more negotiable and to neutralize his support of Sunni Muslims and accept the reality that from now on Russia will have a military presence in the Turkish underbelly.
A recent aforementioned meeting and agreement in Moscow demonstrates that Ankara is ready to negotiate and to renounce some positions on Syria. Secondly, is to derail more than fifty years of Turkish alignment to West and link Turkey to Russia’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization. After the foiled coup in July the deterioration of situation with human rights has taken on an enormous scale and those factors drive a wedge between Ankara, Brussels and Washington. At the beginning, the Kremlin would like to see an eventual halt for European aspirations in Turkey. Erdogan promised a referendum in order to find out desires of the Turkish people about a European future or whether Turkey should make “a pivot to Asia.” Ankara’s promise to restore the death penalty will definitely play a crucial role in relation to the European demands regarding human rights.
If Russia manages to achieve these aforementioned purposes it will create a tremendous global shift. The last decade was historical in that China achieved economic success. The Third World is approaching the geoeconomical parity with the West. In terms of political developments, geopolitical shifts in balance of power between the West and the rest of the states could be achieved if Russia uproots Turkey from the West and restores Assad’s sovereignty over Syrian territory – the prestige effect will be tectonic. On December 23 Vladimir Putin in front of the military elite of Russia stressed that “nowadays we are stronger than any potential aggressor.” For sure these kind statements were inspired until now by feelings of restored Russian great power status.
For Europe, Turkey’s pivot to Asia would mean a heavy geopolitical toll. Europe will become “Fortress of Europe” which is encircled by a belt of instability and surrounded almost on every corner by hostile states or regions. Turkish instability or its turn to Russia is finally closing the belt of instability around Europe and Europe loses key leverage in the Middle East.
Without the United States and with tough liberal approach in diplomacy the European Union might not keep Ankara in its geopolitical camp. Brussels needs the US. Once Richard Nixon stressed to Mao Zedong “What is important is not a nation’s internal political philosophy. What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us.” Keeping Erdogan by the promises of accession to the EU and some other economic preferences are impossible anymore. Only the security guaranties and only clear western policy to Ankara could save Turkish alignment to the NATO and Europe. Even without them, promises of accession to the EU have already become ironic.
Russia’s zeal has a logic and the Kremlin knows what to do in order to get success. Making a European apostate out of Turkey is the purpose that is worth taking rides on a wild tiger. Russia’s Turkey’s obsession is really justifying finance expenses, military and manpower loses. However, not everything is as straightforward as it seems – Erdogan is as pragmatic as Putin. Between them there is an exercise in a grand game of pragmatism.
On Capitol Hill a new pragmatic leader is emerging in Donald Trump, but Europe is still congested by the uncertainty.
The author is a researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Warsaw University. He is an expert on Russia at the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs. He is an Assistant of the Head of the Mejlis of Crimean Tatar People since 2014.
He has also represented Crimean Tatars at variety of international institutions as such OSCE.