Should the West Fear a Turkey-Russia Convergence?

August 8, 2016

In each installment of “CGI Asks,” a selection of experts respond to a question on the latest developments in Russia and Eurasia.

In the run-up to the widely anticipated meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in St. Petersburg on August 9, we asked experts to consider the extent to which a possible Russian-Turkish convergence could affect Western interests in the region and beyond.


Photo: RIA Novosti/Reuters


Dimitar Bechev, Director, European Policy Institute (Sofia, Bulgaria) and Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University


Dimitar“Turkey and Russia may not be friends but they seem to understand each other well.” What I wrote right after the Su-24 incident applies just as easily today. The rapprochement to be heralded at Putin and Erdogan’s summit in St. Petersburg won’t mean a policy convergence across the board.  It will be, more likely, a return to the familiar mode of relations: cooperating on some issues, competing on others. With the battle of Aleppo raging, the two presidents will no doubt find it hard to bridge their differences on Syria. But they will announce the restart of the TurkStream pipeline under the Black Sea.

Whenever relations with the West turned sour, Turkey has reached back to Moscow.

Should the West fear Russia and Turkey joining hands?  Perhaps yes. Turkey’s government  is looking at both the U.S. and Europe with anger and frustration. It blames the Americans for hosting Fethullah Gülen, the failed coup’s alleged mastermind, and feels the EU has failed to show much empathy, focusing on the post-putsch clampdown. The historical record shows that whenever relations with the West turn sour, Ankara reaches back to Moscow: this happened after the Iraq war in 2003; in 1997 when the EU refused to open membership talks; and following the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Anti-Americanism in Turkish society is actually more deep-seated than in Russia.  

However, the “axis of the excluded” won’t materialize. Rather, Putin and Erdogan will each attempt to leverage mutual ties to clench a better deal from the West. Turkey will play a double game  engaging Russia while “soft balancing” it through NATO. Russia will do its best to widen the gap between Ankara and its Western allies, offering rhetorical support to Erdogan as he tightens his grip on power. But co-opting the Turks will remain a tall order for Moscow. 

Karena Avedissian, Fellow, Dornsife Institute of Armenian Studies, University of Southern California (USC)


KarenaIn the wake of the failed coup in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has arrested, detained, fired or suspended over 70,000 academics, teachers, journalists, civil servants, policemen and judges. The sheer extent of this crackdown suggests that it is being used not just to target coup plotters, but to sideline and eliminate anyone who presents a threat to Erdogan’s presidency. Simultaneously, anti-Western rhetoric is on the rise among Turkish politicians and segments of the population. In this way, the nature of Turkish politics is increasingly coinciding with Russia’s, where political challengers have been purged, anti-Western stances have been du jour, and where governance has become more autocratic for years. With the backdrop of Turkish-Russian rapprochement following the downing of a Russian jet in November and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for Erdogan during the coup, it is the merging of more authoritarian styles of governance – and Turkey’s slowly growing anti-western geopolitical interests in particular – that makes convergence between Russia and Turkey not just probable, but likely.

While Turkey’s post-coup crackdown has been alienating its allies in NATO and the EU, it has opened up space for a new page of Turkey-Russia relations. Erdogan’s move towards a more authoritarian style of leadership is not only unobjectionable for Putin, it also gives Putin an opportunity to provide Erdogan a model of what a virtually unconstrained presidency can do. A stronger partnership with Turkey, including deepened ties through several ongoing large-scale infrastructure projects, coincides with Russia’s desire to be a leader in the region, in particular in providing a global alternative to the West. At the same time, both countries benefit from using each as levers in their relations with the West, particularly over the Syrian conflict.

Turkey’s NATO membership and Russia’s broadly pro-Kurdish stance in the Syrian conflict present obstacles to convergence. This is a potential point of Western leverage. As NATO requires its members to uphold certain democratic principles, it should provide stronger incentives for its members to maintain them. Furthermore, it must finally be understood that the EU’s failure to deal constructively with the refugee crisis and rising xenophobia, together with the its less-than-stellar approach to association and accession with Turkey, result in Russia becoming a more enticing geopolitical partner for Ankara. Lastly, the fact that both Turkey and Russia have for years regularly carried out undemocratic and violent military operations on their own citizens (in Russia on North Caucasian Muslims, and in Turkey on the Kurds) while the West has stood by has only resulted in a sense of impunity on behalf of these regimes. That such regimes then find companionability cannot be ignored.

Alexander Shumilin, Director, Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow)

ShumilinPutin and Erdogan find themselves only at the beginning stages of a practical (following a declared) rapprochement. The parameters and priorities of this development will be decided at their meeting in St. Petersburg. The top priority – after “turning the page” on the question of compensating Russia for the downed jet – will be to balance what can be called the political-strategic interests of Russia against the political-economic interests of Turkey.

If we factor out the common “political” denominator, then it turns out that Moscow’s main interests in its normalization with Ankara come down to issues of a military-strategic nature. These include:

  • In Syria, to avoid new clashes with Turkey (first of all in the air), as well as to prevent Turkey’s participation in a potential “Plan B” that could lead to significant Russian losses in the conflict;
  • Within NATO, to promote the formation of a Turkish “special position” in regards to Russia in order to minimize the potential of a military or political escalation between Moscow and Ankara. Such an escalation could lead to Turkey closing off maritime access to Russia’s military vessels, which would fundamentally devalue the significance of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea;
  • To maintain and expand Turkish cooperation in the “South Stream” pipeline project, intended to supply Russian gas to Europe while bypassing Ukraine.


Erdogan’s interest in drawing closer to Putin appears to boil down to two factors: the economic one (including tourism, trade, and construction) and the political one. In the latter case, Erdogan wants to use his improving relations with Russia to a) discourage Russia’s activity in stoking anti-Turkish sentiment among the Kurds and b) as a lever to regulate Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and EU, who currently find themselves in a state of political and military tension with Russia.

It is hard to imagine that Erdogan has the ability to violate any of the norms – both formal and informal – that tie him to Western institutions. For him, Russia is more likely a convenient card to play in order to both overcome the current tensions with the West and to start a new and advantageous stage of the relationship. Erdogan’s ability to “pivot East” to the detriment of the West is constrained by the domestic political situation in Turkey, as well as by demographic realities: as the failed coup showed, a significant part of the Turkish population – as well as a good number of military and government officials – see their future in an alliance with Europe. This could include some kind of combination of Europeanism and soft Islamism.

In other words, the convergence between Putin and Erdogan resembles more of an attempt by two leaders, who have found themselves in a tight spot, to use each other in order to solve their own, quite large and even fundamental, problems.

Nicholas Danforth, Senior Analyst, Bipartisan Policy Center 


Nicholas danforthWith Turkey’s president on his way to St. Petersburg amidst a flurry of anti-Western rhetoric, it’s only a matter of time before someone insists that in improving ties with Russia, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is once again turning his back on the pro-Western policies of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Ataturk, of course, was the one Turkish leader who achieved anything close to a friendly relationship with Russia during the past century. The relationship was partly built on a shared ideological and geopolitical hostility toward Western imperialism. But, more importantly, it was facilitated by the fact that in the 1920s and 1930s, Russia was too weak to pose a serious threat to Turkey. 

The more powerful Russia becomes, the less plausible of a partner it will be for Turkey.

Anyone in Washington worried about Russia and Turkey forming a similar anti-Western partnership today can take comfort in the fact that the more powerful Russia becomes, the less plausible of a partner it will be for Turkey. They can also take comfort in the fact that while Turkey and Russia have already begun rebuilding their mutually beneficial economic relationship, from Cyprus to the Caucasus to Syria, the two countries’ interests remain fundamentally at odds.

It is telling that many analysts assume Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey would require Ankara giving up its interests in Syria and essentially accepting Assad’s victory. Yet this sort of unilateral concession is unlikely to form the foundation of a durable relationship. Especially if anti-Assad rebels prove capable of holding their own against the regime in Northern Syria, Russia’s ability to make inroads with Turkey might depend on being willing to offer real concessions to Ankara’s interests in and around Aleppo and with regard to the Syrian Kurds.

Thanos Dokos, Director-General, Hellenic Foundation for European & Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP)


ThanosThe strained Russian-Turkish relationship of the past few months has often obscured the fact that Moscow and Ankara have had close economic and political relations for many years. Trade, investment, tourism and energy cooperation have been flourishing. Despite a historically adversarial relationship, and an inherent distrust, Russia and Turkey shared an uneasiness about increased U.S. and NATO presence in the Black Sea. It should also be noted that Turkey did not apply sanctions against Russia in the context of the Ukraine crisis, despite being a NATO member, and that President Erdogan has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Vladimir Putin.

Although the two countries supported opposing sides in the Syria conflict, and the stakes were quite high, the shooting down of the Russian military plane and the substantial deterioration of their relations came as a surprise to most observers. The high cost of the bilateral crisis, especially for Turkey, led to expectations that President Erdogan would take early action to restore relations. Probably because of pride (personal but also national), such action was not taken until a few weeks ago, when the tourist season was almost lost for Turkish resorts expecting Russian tourists. President Erdogan realized that the cost of a strained relationship with important countries such as Russia, Israel and Egypt was too high for Turkey and made a rational choice to try to improve relations with all three. The failed coup d’etat also allowed him to advance the rather dubious story of the coup organizers being responsible for the shooting down of the Russian plane. Therefore, the Turkish initiative to repair relations with Russia was a rational and expected action, which was, however, influenced to some extent by Turkish annoyance about the suspected U.S. role in the failed coup. 

If the Russia-Turkey convergence is indeed a rational and expected development, should we expect a negative impact for Western interests? There are several unknown variables that render any prediction highly uncertain. First, although President Putin would probably welcome any opportunity to weaken the unity of NATO – assuming, of course, that the relationship between the West and Russia will remain adversarial –, it is unclear whether he trusts Erdogan enough to seek a full restoration of bilateral relations, especially as their two countries continue to hold widely diverging positions in the Syria conflict. 

Second, a rapprochement may lead to a revival of plans for energy cooperation, i.e. the so-called Turkish Stream. Such a development may be perceived in some circles as incompatible with Western efforts to reduce reliance on Russian natural gas. Third, closer cooperation between Turkey and Russia (countries holding specific levers) may complicate the refugee situation for EU countries. The fourth and perhaps the most important question is whether President Erdogan truly believes that the U.S. tacitly supported the failed coup and therefore intends to further distance himself from the West, or whether he is using the issue as a bargaining chip. Turkey’s ambitious foreign policy agenda has transformed it into a rather unpredictable partner for the West during the past few years, and Erdogan himself has not always made rational choices – at least from a Western perspective – but he surely understands the cost of an estrangement between Turkey and the West. It is therefore too early to tell whether the attempted rapprochement with Moscow is a rational tactical move or an irrational strategic shift.  

Gareth Jenkins, Nonresident Senior Fellow, Silk Road Studies Program (Johns Hopkins University)

GarethRussia is likely to be the main beneficiary of the increased tensions between Turkey and the West – particularly the U.S. – since the failed coup attempt on July 15, 2016. The putsch came a little over two weeks after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 27, 2016 to try to repair relations with Russia by “expressing his regrets” (according to Turkish officials) or “apologizing” (according to Russian officials) for the shooting down of a Russian SU-24 close to the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015.

Erdogan’s motivation appears to have been primarily economic. The sanctions imposed by Moscow following the downing of the Russian plane had not only hit Turkish exporters and contractors but, by vigorously discouraging Russian citizens from visiting Turkey, threatened to create a crisis in the Turkish tourism industry, which had already been hard hit by a sharp decline in visitors from Europe due to security concerns. The timing of Erdogan’s letter, in which he also described Russia as a “friend and strategic partner,” was a gift for Putin. Turkey’s relations with the U.S. were already strained. By reacting positively to Erdogan’s overture, Putin was able to chip at NATO solidarity in the run-up to the alliance’s summit in Warsaw on July 8-9.

Similarly, Putin moved swiftly – much more so than the U.S. or the EU – to condemn the failed coup of July 15. Although no conclusive evidence has yet been made public, both Erdogan and the overwhelmingly majority of the Turkish public are convinced that the attempted putsch was the work of the followers of the former Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen, who has been living in exile in the U.S. since 1999. When combined with the tardiness and – from a Turkish perspective – the perceived half-heartedness of the U.S. condemnation of the coup, the presence of Gulen in the U.S. has strengthened the perception, widespread at the highest level of the Turkish government, that Washington was directly or indirectly responsible for the putsch. This may not be true, but it is widely believed – and has been reinforced by the vigor with which the U.S. has criticized Erdogan’s brutal crackdown on alleged Gulen sympathizers since July 15. No such condemnation has come from Moscow.

However, even if it is possible to see why Turkey has warmed towards Russia and what Russia has to gain from a rapprochement with Turkey, a full-scale strategic alliance appears unlikely. The two countries remain far apart on a number of issues, not least Moscow’s support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It is possible that, in return for closer political and economic ties with Russia, Turkey will further reduce the (now largely ineffective) support it has provided to rebel groups in Syria. But it is difficult to see how Erdogan can abandon his long-held insistence that Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime must be overthrown without severely damaging his credibility both domestically and amongst the Sunni Muslims in the Middle East. In addition, Turkey’s armed forces are so heavily dependent on NATO for access to expertise and equipment that any attempt to withdraw from the alliance would have a devastating impact on the country’s security capabilities at a time when its military has already been severely damaged by Erdogan’s purges of alleged Gulen sympathizers from its officer corps. In the short term, rather than a complete severance, we are likely to see a loosening of Turkey’s ties with NATO. How long it will last and what the eventual outcome will be are both currently unclear.

But over the months ahead, Turkey is likely to be very reluctant to participate if, for example, NATO opts to take active measures to confront Russia. In addition, there is a strong possibility of a major crisis in bilateral relations between Washington and Ankara. Turkey is expected to push very hard for Gulen’s extradition to face charges of instigating the failed putsch. Even if convincing evidence is produced, the U.S. is unlikely to extradite Gulen, not least because of concerns over whether he would receive a fair trial in Turkey. The resultant tensions are likely not only to strain an already very tense relationship, but severely complicate cooperation in areas such as the air campaign against the Islamic State.

Richard Giragosian, Director, Regional Studies Center (Yerevan, Armenia)


richard_giragosianThe West should fear many things from both Russia and Turkey, but fear over a “Russia-Turkey convergence” would be neither prudent nor prescient. In fact, the West should actually embrace and encourage the de-escalation of the crisis between the Russian and Turkish presidents. And in many ways, the crisis was not really between Russia and Turkey. Rather, it was a clash of titans, driven and defined by a personal battle of egos between Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan.  And although this explains much of the intensity of the crisis, it also makes it easier for both sides to climb down and step back.

The crisis was not between Russia and Turkey, but between Putin and Erdogan.

On a broader strategic level, there is little likelihood of this Russian-Turkish “normalization” threatening the West.  Turkey’s bid to restore and repair ties with Russia is not an alternative and certainly no substitute for Turkey’s deeper ties to the West. And despite the current crisis in Turkish relations with the West, the Turkish leadership is smart enough to remain aligned with the West. Turkey realizes that beyond the bluff and bluster, Russia is still operating from a position of fundamental weakness and insecurity. Further, Turkey has always sought to be on the winning side of geopolitics.

However, we can expect Turkey to engage in its own bluff and bluster, leveraging its overtures to Moscow to garner greater dividends from Brussels and Washington. But at the end of the day, it will take much more than a one-time presidential summit to overcome the inherent rivalry between Russia and Turkey, and there is much more that divides the two countries than unites them. And in the wake of Turkey’s failed coup, an emboldened Turkish president will only seek to enhance his own position. From this perspective, it is the West, much more than Russia that matters most to Turkey, especially as Turkey recognizes that its own strategic significance is still crucial for Western interests.

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou, Associate Professor and Director of the Center for International and European Studies (CIES), Kadir Has University (Istanbul)


DimitriosThe best that Russia and Turkey could hope for in their bilateral relations is a return to the status quo ante, i.e a return to pre-24 November 2015, the date that a Turkish Air Force F-16 shot down a Russian Sukhoi bomber aircraft. The deterioration of relations between the two countries since that time has had an adverse effect on a budding economic relationship, including in the nuclear and pipeline energy sectors. Turkey’s agricultural industry had also benefited tremendously from its exports to Russia, as the country had not signed up to Western sanctions against Moscow, and a visa-free regime allowed for the mass summer migration of Russian tourists to Turkey’s Aegean coast resorts.

More importantly, the November incident threatened to undo one of the great balancing acts between the two countries in the Black Sea region, where Ankara and Moscow have seen eye to eye, albeit from different strategic perspectives, with regard to the maritime security dimension. Both countries seek to maintain the primacy of the Montreux Convention, which regulates ship access from non-littoral states to the Black Sea. Today’s eighth anniversary of the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 is a solemn reminder of how this Russo-Turkish correlation of interests in the maritime security realm restricted U.S. options in support of Georgia. Without the rapprochement between the two countries, Russia would have seen Turkey follow more firmly NATO’s growing anti-Russia rhetoric (as evidenced from the recently concluded Warsaw Summit). This would also imply the spilling over of tensions into the Caucasus, where both countries have interests.

That said, the divergences between the two sides regarding Syria will continue as the current Turkish government still seeks a future Syria without Assad at the helm and a decreased, if not non-existent, role for the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). The closer alignment of U.S. policy with the Russian position over the last few months may cause Turkey to readjust its own Syrian policy in the future, but for the time being Ankara and Moscow differ on this issue.

On the other hand, Russia has an important lever in that, unlike many Western countries, it has long been a leader in banning Gulen charter schools from Russia and even considers many books by Gulen to be of extremist nature. Nevertheless, Erdogan’s Moscow visit cannot undo some basic facts: mainly that Turkey’s number one import and export partner is the European Union, while it is the EU’s fifth largest trade partner. Turkey is also on opposite ends of the strategic divide with Russia given its longstanding membership in the NATO alliance. As Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, Mehmet Simsek, suggested in an August 8 interview to Hurriyet Daily News, “Turkey’s disagreements with both the United States and the European Union after the failed coup of July 15 will not have a lasting impact on economic and political cooperation.”

Moscow may interpret the budding Russian-Turkish entente as an opportunity to drive a wedge between Turkey and its allies, as well as to regain the upper hand in the energy landscape with promises of a profitable Turkish Stream for Turkey (given the latter’s ambitions to become a regional energy transit hub). But for Turkey, the convergence between the two countries acquires a different significance. While Turkey gains an ally in its fight to undo FETO (the Fethullah Gulen Terrorist Organization, as Turkey labels Gulen’s organization) and looks forward to increasing its trade with Russia – as well as salvaging whatever is left of the tourist season – it still perceives its Moscow overtures as a balancing act: first, to regain some bargaining power by implying that it could act as a spoiler within NATO, and secondly with the EU and in the energy game if some of its interests are not considered and prioritized – in particular, at this point in time, the dismantling of FETO internationally. This does not imply long-lasting convergence with Russia, but rather a marriage of convenience.

Mehmet Fatih Öztarsu, Analyst and Reporter on the Caucasus/Central Asia


MehmetThe Turkey-Russia convergence can be viewed as a new chance for regional security, after current relations worsened over the Syrian issue. The region currently has significant potential to produce new conflicts among states. Since the downing of the Russian aircraft by Turkey, we have witnessed a secret type of chaos in the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. Turkey and Russia are important players for this area, and the West should expect much more than a convergence in the coming future.

Firstly, trade and energy relations in the region should be normalized. The lack of investments in the Russian “near abroad” have spelled a disaster for the region, as both sides’ economies went downhill in a short period of time. This situation has triggered local conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Today, Armenia and Kazakhstan face chaos on the domestic side as their publics lose trust in the future, and a slippery ground is not an acceptable thing for either country. During the first month of the conflict, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan offered Turkey to use the Caspian route for the export of its goods. It was not a good solution, but it is an important example that highlights the concerns of regional states. On the energy side, Turkish Stream and other collaborations have to continue. Russia knows that the location of Turkey is an advantage for Russian energy supplies to the West. Turkish “izvinite” diplomacy (“apology diplomacy”) worked, and Moscow  has declared that the two sides are ready to normalize relations.

In my opinion, the West should support this process. The outbreak of the Ukrainian crisis, the annexation of Crimea and the Syrian war have put the brakes on Western initiatives in the region. In short, we can say that there has been little to no Western influence on the Caucasus and Central Asia since the beginning of the Obama administration, and today it seems that the U.S. and Europe have little concern for the current situation. In this environment, there remain several conflicts and frozen normalization attempts in the region – including the Turkish-Armenian normalization process – which  Russia and Turkey cannot solve without Western support. In this regard, Turkish-Russian convergence should be welcomed as an opportunity to breathe new life into efforts to stabilize the region.

Mihai Sebe, Expert in European Affairs and Romanian Politics, European Institute of Romania (Bucharest)


Mihai SebeDespite areas of shared interests, Turkey’s membership in NATO all but precludes a security dimension to rapprochement – especially one that directly threatens the West. While the political fallout of the failed July coup is testing Turkey’s already strained relationship with the United States and Europe, leaders on both sides realize that the Alliance is essential to their collective security.

The Kremlin’s primary short-term interest is to ensure a stable and friendly Turkey. Beyond its clear strategic importance, Turkey represents a key energy interest for the Kremlin. Indeed, the revival of Turkish Stream, the gas pipeline project that was suspended after the November 2015 downing of a Russian Su-24, has already been “given the greenlight” ahead of the Putin-Erdogan summit. The return of tourism represents another immediate dividend for both sides, as Turkey lost $840 million in the first half of 2016 alone as a result of Russia’s travel ban. Yet, numerous roadblocks to deeper cooperation persist.

An important example of Turkish-Russian divergence exists in Syria, where Ankara remains vehemently opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power, while Moscow continues to encourage Kurdish separatism. Both policies are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. From an economic standpoint, Turkey’s remains dependent on its Western trade partners (in 2015, Germany alone took the largest share of Turkey’s exports, with 9.3%). Russia simply cannot replace Europe as Turkey’s dominant market. In short, a long-term strategic alliance that threatens Western interests between Russia and Turkey does not look feasible.

Instead, we will see Turkish-Russian cooperation on individual points of common interest. For now, Russia is the winner of such an arrangement, as its relative bargaining position with the West vis-a-vis Turkey is increased. Beyond the value of Turkey’s military and place in NATO, one must also remember its relative weight in addressing Europe’s migrant crisis. In the best case scenario for Moscow, a closer Ankara may help in the eventual lifting of Western sanctions over the Ukraine conflict.

In regard to the Middle East, a Turkey-Russia convergence could be beneficial for the West. A redefinition of the “spheres of influences” between the main regional actors, in this case Turkey and Russia, could lead to an increase in stability, as regional hegemons take control of local conflicts to safeguard their own interests (an approach of “if you own it, then you must protect it”). The increased involvement of regional actors would also eliminate a highly valuable propaganda tool – the claim that Western interventionism hinders the normal development of the region.

In the long term, the West needs to address the issue of Turkey’s stalled EU accession, which has complicated its relationship with the West and pushed Ankara towards Moscow. Recently, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern declared that Turkey’s accession to the EU is a “diplomatic fiction” and called for the creation of an alternative concept to describe the future EU-Turkey relationship. The cancellation of EU-Turkish negotiations would open a Pandora’s box and further push Turkey outside of EU standards. Any talks involving a privileged partnership for Turkey would be counterproductive. They would: 1) reopen the migrant’s migratory flux from Turkey into Europe; and 2) push Turkey into alternate international alliance structures, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which has already offered Turkey full membership.


The Center on Global Interests provides an open platform for discussion. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s).