Are Russo-Turkish relations taking a sour turn or is it simply business as usual?

By Ilayda Nijhar
Russia & FSU Analyst

Over the past week, tensions have yet again risen between Russia and Turkey – an alliance which is largely based both on cooperation and competition but also known at times for its unpredictability. Given the already unsteady relations between both nations over the past decade, particularly following the 2015 plane-downing episode and subsequent backlash by Russia, the latest developments are being closely monitored by regional watchers. 

The rapprochement between both countries following Erdogan’s official letter of apology in 2016 to Putin has been consistent in so far that Turkey has remained committed to the S-400s programme and enjoying relatively steady trade with Russia ever since. Nevertheless, while the Russo-Turkish alliance continues to flourish, there has been fatigue in Washington towards Turkey on behalf of the new Biden administration with a move away from Turkey being a key strategic ally. Even further, there appears to be less patience towards Turkey, particularly concerning growing distress amongst NATO members in light of recent Turkish activity, and less of a desire to prioritise the Middle East for the new administration, quite unlike the Obama administration. It is also worth adding that President Biden has still not had a phone call with President Erdogan. This could suggest Washington does not have an appetite for Turkey but also that Biden will be more focussed on a domestic agenda during his first term in office. 

When looking at last week’s events, Ukrainain President Zelensky visited Turkey on an official state trip. This was a widely anticipated trip by spectators and can be hailed as an overall successful trip as it went beyond the expected rhetoric with Turkey reaffirming its support for Ukraine’s unity and sovereignty. While this visit was scheduled prior to the current military escalation in Eastern Ukraine, the meetings remained highly sensitive, especially concerning the issue of Turkish drone sales to Ukraine. To add further fuel to the fire, Erdogan went so far as to condemn the Russian annexation of Crimea and Turkey’s full support to Ukraine in the recent increase of tensions in the Donbas region – a remark which undoubtedly caused unease in Moscow.

So where does this leave Russo-Turkish relations? Putin was quick to respond following the bilateral talks between Erdogan and Zelensky. As a form of reprisal, Russian flights are to be limited from April 15-June 1 coming as a major blow to Turkey given Russian tourism amounts between $4-5 billion in annual tourism. For an economy already severely impacted due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this serves as a major shock. While the official line for the flight restrictions has been as a response to increasing Covid numbers in Turkey, almost all political watchers agree this is a direct warning issued from the Kremlin to Ankara. With the potential of the restrictions being extended after June, this serves a set-back to the Russo-Turkish alliance which has already been witnessing growing periods of precariousness. One way of looking at Erdogan’s decision to advance interests with Ukraine and consequently turn away from Russia can be interpreted as sending a signal to the Biden administration that Turkey is ready to engage in a dialogue. Erdogan undeniably took a calculated risk with his decision over Ukraine and now expects a similar return from Washington. This would provide him with leverage over the upcoming Halkbank issue which is due to go to trial in New York. It also presents an opportunity for both leaders to have a direct conversation following Biden’s previous comments labelling Erdogan as an “autocrat” which was received as a sign of hostility by Ankara. 

Erdogan has taken a considerable chance with standing by Kiev’s side, but with already sour relations with the US and its NATO allies, is this enough to secure a seat back at the table? And if so, at what cost? Past events have proven that Russia does not forgive easily and with so much of the Turkish economy rooted in cooperation with Russia, was this a chance worth taking? And looking further, will this mean a reverse in the reset of relations in the Russo-Turkish alliance? And if so, what will this mean for the geopolitics of an already troubled neighbourhood? 

(Image credit to ORF)

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