Russia, Turkey and the Spectre of Regional Instability

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SOCHI, RUSSIA - OCTOBER 22, 2019: Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a meeting with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to discuss situation in Syria. Alexei Druzhinin/Russian Presidential Press and Information Office/TASS (Photo by Alexei DruzhininTASS via Getty Images)

Abstract: The ongoing war in Ukraine will have political and economic repercussions in adjacent regions such as the Southern Caucasus, Middle East and North Africa, and Southeast Europe.  In all of these areas, Russia and Turkey simultaneously co-operate and compete.  The paper explores how instability triggered by the invasion could possibly affect the relationship between Moscow and Ankara. Among other ramifications, the conflict in Ukraine has led to a surge in oil prices that will help Turkey’s competitors in Iran and the Gulf at least in the short term, and has lead to a surge in bread prices in a Middle East heavily reliant on grain imports from Russia and the Ukraine. The brief argues that Turkey will exploit opportunities, e.g. in the Southern Caucasus and to a lesser degree in the Middle East and the Balkans, while it hedges bets between Russia and the West. All the same, regional instability threatens to make Russian-Turkish relations more contentious.

The war in Ukraine is already having a serious impact on Russian-Turkish relations.  Ankara is trying its utmost to calibrate its response to the conflict. While it is supporting Kyiv on the one hand, including with arms supplies such as the infamous Bayraktar TB-2, it is also trying to mediate between the two sides on the other hand. Meanwhile, Turkey has also grabbed the opportunity to reset ties with its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) partners. In March, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte both visited Ankara. For his part, President Tayyip Erdogan attended a NATO summit in Brussels where he shook hands with France’s Emmanuel Macron, another leader who has been a thorn in the side of the Turkish government over the past years. There are further question marks about the economic fallout from the war. Already hobbled by runaway inflation, Turkey is particularly vulnerable to the surging gas and oil prices as well as the higher bills for food imports. This is one amongst several reasons why Ankara has been reluctant to join the Western sanctions against Russia, much like its response to the Russian takeover of the Crimea in 2014. All in all, the conflict is a double-edged sword: it both offers Erdogan opportunities and creates serious domestic and external risks.

What is missing from the picture, however, is the broader fallout from the war. There are implications and effects for regions where Russia and Turkey interact as partners and competitors. This list includes the Southern Caucasus, the Middle East and the Balkans, in all three of which Turkey and Russia are key players in security, politics, and economy. They furthermore have a set of complicated relations with Western powers: the United States (US), the European Union (EU) and its major member states. In other words, developments in the above neighbourhoods will undoubtedly bear on how Moscow and Ankara relate to one another and design and conduct their foreign policies towards each other and the West. The purpose of this paper is to provide a snapshot of the war’s ramifications on the three regions, and the possible implications on Russian-Turkish relations.

The Southern Caucasus

The recent flare-up of conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 allowed Turkey to insert itself in what Russia considers “a privileged sphere of influence.” Although the conflict ultimately reaffirmed Moscow’s role as the principal arbiter in the area and provided it an opportunity to put “boots on the ground” in Azerbaijan through a Russian peacekeeping contingent deployed along the line of contact, it also yielded gains for Ankara as well.  The renewed rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia is a striking example. On 12 March, Foreign Minster Ararat Mirzoyan and Mevlut Cavusoglu held a meeting on the margins of the Antalya Diplomatic Forum. Mirzoyan is arguing that the time is now ripe for Armenia and Turkey to re-establish diplomatic ties. This is a realistic prospect given than the chief obstacle on the Turkish side – the Armenian control of six buffer districts around Nagorno-Karabakh proper – was removed after the Azerbaijani victory in 2020.

While the normalization process was already underway before the Ukraine invasion, the current conflict undoubtedly gives it further impetus. Russia, Armenia’s principal security and economic partner, is facing crippling sanctions which will no doubt have negative effects on Armenia as well. The imperative for Yerevan to diversify relations is as strong as ever. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan came to power in 2018 thanks to a pro-Western revolution similar to the earlier “colour revolutions” in Ukraine and Georgia that frightened Russia and arguably laid the path for the current conflict. Therefore, he and his supporters naturally desire to deepen ties with the West. However, at this political juncture such a move would undoubtedly lead to pushback from Russia.  Turkey, by contrast, is more easily acceptable for the Kremlin, even though the rapprochement is not in line with Russian interests.[i]

Another benefit for Turkey is the partial drawdown of Russian military forces from the region.  There are reports of troops stationed in Tsikhinvali, in South Ossetia (part of Georgia under Russian occupation which Moscow recognised as an independent state in 2008) being sent to Ukraine.[ii] It remains to be seen if Russia will also relocate military personnel from the 102nd military base in Gyumri on the Armenian border with Turkey. 

To be sure, there are also risks. There are fears amongst Armenians that Azerbaijan can use the window of opportunity granted by a distracted Russia to renew its onslaught against Nagorno-Karabakh (or “Artsakh” as they call the breakaway territory). The cut-off of gas supplies on 23-4 March caused particular concern. A new escalation in the area will inevitably draw in both Russia and Turkey, and could halt or even derail the diplomatic negotiations between Yerevan and Ankara.

By: Dimitar Bechev

About the Author:

Senior Associate Fellow at Al Sharq Forum. Dimitar particularly focuses on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East and North Africa region. He is a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University, and is also the director of the European Policy Institute, a think-tanked institute based in Sofia. Former positions filled by Dimitar include Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). Dr Bechev has published widely on EU external relations, the politics and modern history of South East Europe including Turkey and Greece, and Russian foreign policy. He is the author of Constructing South East Europe: The Politics of Balkan Regional Cooperation (2011) and editor of a number of collective volumes such as What Does Turkey Think (ECFR, 2011). His scholarly articles have appeared in leading periodicals such as the Journal of Common Market Studies and East European Politics and Societies. Dr Bechev is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, Al Jazeera, openDemocracy, Politico, EUObserver and others. Research Interests: Russia’s Foreign Policy Towards the Middle East and North Africa, EU External relations, and Politics of South East Europe.

Source: Al Sharq Forum

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