On March 23rd, Johns Hopkins University hosted a discussion about Russian-Turkish relations and how they affect the Caucasus and Central Asia as well as the Middle East.
Featured at the discussion were Kurt Volker, Olga Oliker, Eric Edelman, Avinoam Iden, and Svante Cornell, who was tasked with opening the talk.
Eric Edelman, former Ambassador to Turkey, was quick to remind the audience that conflict between Russia and Turkey is not a new phenomenon. For centuries, the Russian and Ottoman Empire fought each other. When Russia was overtaken by the communists in 1917, tensions subsided somewhat, but Turkey’s accession into NATO kept embers smoldering.
After the fall of communism, Turkey saw an opening to expand its influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus, as both regions are home to large populations of Turkic peoples. In the Caucasus, Turkey quickly became friendly with Azerbaijan, a country that speaks a language called Azerbaijani which is nearly identical to Turkish. Similarly, four of the five Central Asian countries, Tajikistan being the exception, that became independent in 1991 are Turkic countries that have varying levels of similarity to the Turkish language. Turkey’s allies in the West considered its new potential for influence as positive, but Russia disagreed.
To understand Turkish foreign policy, one must understand Turkish domestic policy under President Erdogan. Erdogan has been in power in Turkey since 2002 when his moderate Islamist Justice and Development Party swept to power. Though Turkey remains considerably freer than most countries that it surrounds, plenty of problems have arisen. Press freedom is under attack. The foreign policy program of “Zero problems with neighbors” has quickly become the exact opposite. The conflict with PKK terrorists in the southeast continues to fester. The economy is faltering.
Turkish foreign policy took another hit when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian SU-24, especially after evidence emerged that the plane had spent less than a minute in Turkish airspace.
Another squabble has to do with a small neighbor of both countries: Armenia. Turkey and Armenia have been at odds for over a century because Turkey refuses to call what the Ottoman Empire did to its Armenian population in 1915 genocide. Russia has recognized the events of 1915 as genocide since 1995 and because of this, Armenia enjoys relative friendship with Russia against Turkey and its other neighbor Azerbaijan, who also refuses to acknowledge the events as genocide.
On the topic of Turkey’s oil-rich Azerbaijani cousins, Avinoam Idan, Senior Fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, stressed a relationship based on energy. Azerbaijan is sitting on a large amount of oil and Turkey hopes to get its hands on that oil. There also exists a possibility that a stronger Azerbaijan backed by will try to move towards unfreezing the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Russia, because of its friendly relationship with Armenia, would likely apply pressure on Azerbaijan to do the opposite by stationing more troops in Armenia.
Russian support of Hezbollah, however, could hurt relations with respect to Israel and its borders, whereas it looks like Turkey and Israel are mending their relations.
Another important point is that concerning NATO. NATO has doubled in size since the fall of communism, and most of the countries that have joined were once communist. The end of U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term may also entice the Kremlin into taking military action somewhere else as the South Ossetia conflict took place at the end of Bush’s 2nd term, though this may be pure coincidence.
Next to speak was Olga Oliker of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. It’s important to remember that neither Turkey nor Russia wanted to harm relations with the other country. The actions both countries are taking shouldn’t be described as a proxy war either as in the Syrian Civil War, Turkey and Russia “...are two different countries, supporting two different sides, for two different reasons.”
Both countries are in a rut with economic problems in Russia and a wave of refugees spilling into Turkey, but Russia is more concerned overall with taking the stage as a great power than Turkey is and the Kremlin constantly is on the lookout for ways it can show Russia to be that great power.
It’s also interesting to note that Turkey and the United States are not quite on the same side in the Syrian Civil War either and this represents an opportunity for the Kremlin to take action.
The Kremlin’s openings for opportunities seem to come at the expense of the United States, which, according to Kurt Volker, former US ambassador to NATO. Indeed, the American involvement in the Syrian Civil War has been “bumbling”, while Turkey’s goals are clear, namely defeat of the PKK, the end of the Assad regime in Syria, and the prevention of an independent Kurdish state. Russia’s goals meanwhile run almost exactly contrary. The Kremlin is friendly with Assad and its involvement in Syria has definitively turned the civil war in favor of Assad’s forces and to some extent the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition in the north of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Armenians. Meanwhile, Washington, Mr. Volker argues, seems to be going back on its already loosely defined goals. The United States doesn’t want ISIS to be powerful, but at the same time action against them has been largely restrained, and there’s not been much cooperation on the Refugee Crisis in Europe.
The personalities of the Turkish and Russian heads of state have been considered quite similar for some time. Erdogan has been accused by his critics of wanting to turn Turkey into a state similar to Russia where the President wields considerably more power than in Turkey’s present parliamentary structure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both are disliked by pro-Western “liberal” Russians and Turks. And both leaders have led their respective countries into uncertain futures both on a global and domestic scale.