Turkey, Russia close ranks on several fronts
Despite having been at odds over several issues, Russia and Turkey have managed to bounce back from crises and find common ground. Today, their relationship is deepening on multiple levels, including the TurkStream gas pipeline, diplomacy over Syria, the Akkuyu nuclear plant, Russia’s S-400 air defense system, counterterrorism and their relationships with the US.
TurkStream gas pipeline
Russian President Vladimir Putin was in Istanbul last Monday to mark the completion of a key phase of TurkStream, a major natural gas pipeline project under the Black Sea connecting Russia and Turkey. Although the ceremony was symbolic since the project won't be completed until the end of 2019, it was a significant opportunity to once again bring together Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (they have met six times this year).
The EU’s hesitant stance toward the Syrian war, the refugee issue and regional conflicts have played a crucial role in nurturing the Russian-Turkish rapprochement.
“TurkStream is a historic project, and we put in a lot of effort to realize it,” Erdogan said. When Putin announced that Russia planned to build TurkStream after a summit in Ankara in 2014, alarm bells started ringing in Europe. Russia’s Gazprom began construction in May 2017 after years of tension between Moscow and Kiev over supplies of natural gas to Western Europe via Ukraine.
Once the project is finalized, TurkStream will carry natural gas from Russia to Europe via Turkey, bypassing Ukraine. There will be two pipelines delivering 31.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year to Turkey.
Akkuyu nuclear plant
In April, Putin and Erdogan attended the foundation-laying ceremony for Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, which will be built by Russia’s Rosatom in the Akkuyu district of the southern province of Mersin at a cost of $20 billion. The project is due to be completed by 2023, which will be the centenary of the Turkish republic.
S-400 air defense system
Ankara this week said it expects the first batch of the Russian S-400 air defense system to be delivered by the end of 2019, and joint production to start then, despite the eyebrows raised in Washington and other Western capitals. Delivery will be made under a loan agreement that Ankara signed with Moscow in December 2017.
Turkey, Russia and Iran are the guarantors of the Astana peace process for Syria, which was launched in January 2017. Through this process, Ankara and Moscow have managed to turn Syria from a bone of contention to a bridge between them. On Nov. 28-29, Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are set to hold the 11th round of talks in Astana.
Among the various mediation attempts regarding Syria, the Astana process seems to be the most realistic and successful, at least for now. So far, it has achieved its goal of creating “de-escalation zones” in the country. Ankara and Moscow are also cooperating on monitoring the cease-fire between the Syrian regime and opposition groups in Idlib, although the situation in the province remains fragile.
Maybe for this reason, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly told his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar and spy chief Hakan Fidan that Moscow and Ankara need to take swift decisions to support the “demilitarized zone” in Idlib. The province was not the hot topic at the Istanbul meeting, but will definitely occupy the upcoming one in Astana.
Frustration with the US
Misguided US moves in the Middle East, and the EU’s hesitant stance toward the Syrian war, the refugee issue and regional conflicts, have played a crucial role in nurturing the Russian-Turkish rapprochement.
Turkey seeks cooperation with others that best serves its security and regional interests. The same applies to Russia. Their closeness is neither an axis shift nor the establishment of a new alliance. It is a win-win formula based on common ground. By contrast, the US failed to find common ground with Turkey and relied on other actors in the region, bringing Ankara and Moscow closer.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.