Topics: International security
For centuries, the relationship between Türkiye and Russia has been the one of interdependencies and conflictual cooperation. Though never trusted, Moscow has always held a special place in Turkish strategic thinking – as a rival, a partner or an adversary.
Despite rapid advancement of military and defence capabilities in recent decades, Türkiye still has not fully overcome a “Great Russia” myth stemming from its defeats in Russo-Ottoman wars. During the Cold War era, Turkish foreign policy-making was dominated by a security mindset of a NATO’s flank country facing the Soviet threat. Nowadays, this perception of Russia as a major regional power has often determined Ankara’s acknowledgement and accommodation of Russian interests even when they have been contrary to its own. At the same time, a deep-rooted lack of trust to the West and a historical tradition of neutrality have largely shaped Türkiye’s current position, justifying cooperation with Russia as an alternative to the US-led unipolar world.
Ankara’s Russia policy is highly unlikely to take a U-turn in the mid-term. Whatever the outcome of the 2023 elections, a broad consensus among government and oppositional parties reflects a widely shared understanding in Türkiye that Russia is a powerful neighbour that geography dictates to get along with, if not by choice, then out of obligation. Despite the fact that Russia is Türkiye’s strategic rival in the Black Sea, Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean, a belief that Türkiye cannot refuse from cooperation with Russia is similarly shared by the country’s leadership, business community and people.
Besides, from a Turkish perspective, involvement in a number of regional conflicts where Türkiye and Russia support opposite sides (Georgia, Ukraine, South Caucasus, Syria, Libya) makes coordination, if not cooperation, with Moscow a necessary precondition for risk management and de-escalation. While in certain cases these coordination mechanisms might be helpful to avoid major crises, they also create additional leverages for Russia over Türkiye’s foreign policy decision-making, first and foremost in Syria. Oftentimes Russia has used its military presence in multiple regional conflicts as mutually reinforcing bargaining chips in negotiations with Ankara over other issues.
Domestically, Türkiye is dependent on Russian gas (45%), oil (20%), coal (40%) and nuclear energy (with Russian “Rosatom” building Türkiye’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu and discussing a new deal to build the second plant in Sinop). Türkiye enjoys burgeoning trade relations with Russia covering a wide range of areas (USD 35 bn of bilateral trade in 2021, which has doubled since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022). In 2022, Russia topped the list of countries Türkiye imported from and ranked fourth as one of the main export destinations for Turkish goods and services. Russia also remains the largest source country of tourists for Türkiye.
Throughout the history, Russia has weaponized economic dependencies against Türkiye – from agricultural embargoes to travel bans to energy blackmailing to refugee crises. With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which coincided in time with the economic crisis in Türkiye, the importance of two countries for each other has grown steadily. After introduction of the European and US sanctions, an increasingly isolated Putin’s regime has seen Türkiye as one of the few remaining “windows to Europe”. In its turn, Türkiye has found ways to benefit from Russia as a valuable trading partner and a source of financial support for its banking system. Besides economic benefits, Russia’s efforts to turn Türkiye into a “regional hub” for Russian gas, oil, oligarchs, financial operations and tourists aim to further undermine Ankara’s already complicated relations with its European and transatlantic partners.
The structural and conjunctural dependencies of Türkiye on Russia, both internationally and domestically, are aggravated by a highly centralized decision-making process under the executive presidency model and the vulnerabilities of a polarized Turkish society to external influences and manipulations. This exposes the country to a variety of Russian info ops, perception management and reflexive control operations aimed at inciting anti-Western sentiments and Eurasianist ideas among Türkiye’s political, military elites, and common people. The overlapping anti-Western and Eurasianist narratives of Russian propaganda and Turkish domestic political agenda have allowed (pro-)Russian commentators to gain significant popularity in Turkish media, disseminating distinctly pro-Russian views in mainstream media networks, both pro-government and opposition, right-wing as well as left-wing. An increasingly nationalistic rhetoric of the government in the wake of the 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections fuels this trend.
Overall, the wide-spread anti-Westernism in Turkish society, mounting problems in Türkiye’s relations with the EU and NATO, benefits of economic cooperation with Russia, current media landscape, and sensitive political environment ahead of critical elections create a fertile soil for growing Russian influence. Against this backdrop, efforts should be stepped up to keep the country engaged with the West, both politically and economically. Reinvigorating negotiations to upgrade Customs Union with the EU, based on clear conditionality; reviving dialogue within NATO on defence technologies, and supporting Ankara’s efforts to diversify energy supplies would help decouple Türkiye from Russia as an “indispensable” partner. Expanding Türkiye’s military and humanitarian cooperation with Ukraine to deter Russian aggression would both strengthen Türkiye’s position vis-à-vis Moscow and reinforce its role as an important NATO member in the region. Last but not least, Western partners should boost cooperation with Turkish civil society on cyber and information security, which is crucial for countering Russian disinformation, bolstering Türkiye’s resilience to external malign influences, and for the country’s own democratic future.