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Turkey and Russia: Friends for Now - by Ekaterina Zolotova for Geopolitical Futures – 09.11.22

Their relationship will never be frictionless, but they are prone to spasms of cooperation.

2022 has been a year of unprecedented trade growth between Russia and Turkey – the only NATO member that has yet to participate in anti-Russia sanctions. In fact, the government in Ankara has made it a point to keep a constant dialogue with Moscow on a variety of issues. But that doesn’t change the fact that Russia and Turkey are natural competitors that have strict limits to the level of cooperation they can engage in. Still, a long-term partnership, however constrained, is acceptable to both so long as everyone, including European countries, benefits from the relationship.

A Lot of Sense

Russia’s interests have long intersected with Turkey’s. This presents as many opportunities for conflict as it does for cooperation. Turkey and Russia see each other as neighbors along the Black Sea, and both are interested in maintaining good relations while keeping a certain distance. Tensions arise, of course, in places like the Caucasus, which is seen by both as their own backyard.

Today, their interests butt against each other in several areas. Take Central Asia. The region boasts largely Muslim but ethnically Turkic populations, and Ankara has engaged in several projects to shore up its ethnic linkages. Moscow believes Ankara is doing so in its traditional buffer zone and sphere of influence. In the Middle East, they are on opposite sides of the Syrian war, and in the Caucasus, Turkey actively supports Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, even as Russia balances between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan entered into a strategic military and political alliance with Kyiv at the outset of the war, sending drones and helping to build out the Ukrainian navy.

Despite all their differences, they have both benefited from improved trade relations this year. They recorded growth in key areas such as engineering products, civil electronics and food products. In August, Moscow and Ankara signed a roadmap for economic cooperation, which means to increase trade to $100 billion per year.

The fact that the Russian ruble is legally accepted in Turkey has facilitated this newfound partnership, and in September, Russian authorities announced that Turkey would start paying for 25 percent of Russian gas supplies in rubles. On Oct. 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed the creation of a gas hub in Turkey, which could offset Russian losses through the Nord Stream pipeline and which the Turkish government has been very receptive to.

And though this may seem like a contradictory turn of events, it actually makes a lot of sense for both. Bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey are built primarily on the pursuit of economic imperatives. Both economies have structural problems generally, and both were in particularly bad shape earlier this year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and so on. Sanctions made Russia’s problems only more dire.

Moscow needs to constantly export energy resources to ensure the inflow of funds and replenish the budget. It also needs to maintain access to imports to ensure the influx of consumer goods and products on which Russia remains import-dependent. This has been particularly tricky without access to the SWIFT payment system. For its part, the Turkish economy is in crisis – on the eve of elections, no less. The Turkish lira continues to weaken, with inflation getting worse. The central bank systematically reduces key interest rates, which lowers the cost of loans to increase business activity but strengthens the position of exporters vis-a-vis the lira.

More, Turkey’s economic model is based on production, which is additionally stimulated by cheap credit – and on exports to avoid overproduction and recession and to ensure the inflow of foreign currency. In this model, Turkey needs to have a permanent trading partner, and Russia, which is struggling to produce industrial products on its own – things that Turkey can produce – is a natural partner. Importantly, Turkey depends on Russian energy resources, so it would have a hard time saying no to Russian trade proposals even if it wanted to.

Third parties are benefitting from Turkish-Russian cooperation too, largely because Turkey’s location makes it an ideal transit hub. The European Union, for example, was an important trade partner for Russia, but much of its trade has dried up because of sanctions. Under these conditions, Turkey becomes a waypoint for the transit of goods to Russia, as well as a reexporter of goods like Russian gas. Hence why Turkish imports from Italy, Germany, France and the U.S. have all increased.

Coming to Terms

Still, there’s no reason to believe this will be a lasting marriage. Put simply, there are major geopolitical obstacles that stand in the way. Russia has always been active in the Black Sea, and its activities will always be seen by Turkey, to some degree or another, as an encroachment. Ankara believes Russian behavior – be it the war in Ukraine, the incursion into the breakaway Georgian territory of Abkhazia, or the annexation of Crimea – can tip the balance of regional power in Russia’s favor, and thus wants to try to counter Moscow when it believes its interests are under threat.

Russia sees Turkish forays in the Caucasus and Central Asia similarly. None of this is absolutely prohibitive for cooperation, of course, but both sides understand that they are working within a set of geopolitical parameters rather than acting on opportunities with limitless potential.

For these reasons, Turkey and Russia are neither allies nor strategic partners, for geopolitical tension will always be embedded in their relationship. But economic realities and the need for domestic stability periodically trump whatever rivalries they have, leading to spasms of cooperation based on specific projects. Turkey is playing an important role as Russia becomes more geopolitically and economically isolated, and because their relationship indirectly benefits the West, the West is fine with letting them come to terms. As long as there is interest in these relations, Turkey and Russia will see further growth in cooperation.

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Turkey and Russia - Friends for Now – By Ekaterina Zolotova for Geopolitical Futures – 09
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Ekaterina Zolotova

Ekaterina Zolotova is an analyst for Geopolitical Futures. Prior to Geopolitical Futures, Ms. Zolotova participated in several research projects devoted to problems and prospects of Russia’s integration into the world economy. Ms. Zolotova has a specialist degree in international economic relations from Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. In addition, Ms. Zolotova studied international trade and international integration processes. Her thesis was on features of economic

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