Putin-Erdogan Relations Grow into a Russian-Turkish Partnership

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, both shunned by the West, are working on major weapons and nuclear energy deals that might grow into a long-term partnership between the two nations, Russia and Turkey.

Russian president Vladimir Putin paid an official two-day visit to Ankara, Turkey, on April 3, 2018. Presidents Erdogan and Putin blessed the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) project at the official groundbreaking ceremony on April 3. The Akkuyu project, scheduled to be completed by 2023, will be Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. The Russian state nuclear company Rosatom is in charge of the funding, construction, and operation of the project. The Akkuyu NPP is Rosatom’s first project under the “Build, Own, Operate” scheme. So Russia will own and operate the plant, and effectively sell power to Turkey. The $20 billion Akkuyu NPP, with a capacity of 4,800 MW, is expected to provide 10 percent of Turkey’s electricity needs.

Rosatom’s engagement in nuclear power projects has been turning into a viable tool to drive Russian influence abroad. In contrast to the oil and gas exports used by Russia to serve foreign policy objectives mainly in Europe, the powerful nuclear power industry enables the Kremlin to pursue its goal globally, from Latin America to Africa and elsewhere. In that context, along with the complex details and major commercial nature of the deal, the Akkuyu project represents a long-term strategic engagement between Russia and Turkey. Indeed, the plant’s period of service is 60 years, extendable by another 20 years.

Vladimir Putin thanked Turkey for granting the project strategic investment status. Yet, as part of the project, Russian academic institutions are providing field-specific training and higher education to Turkish students, who will work for the Akkuyu project specifically and the nuclear industry in general. Furthermore, although Ankara had officially pursued developing its nuclear industry with the signing of an agreement on the peaceful use of atomic energy with the United States in 1955, little progress had been made until the deal with Russia. And Turks have perceived the United States and other Western countries as the most significant obstacle to Turkey’s nuclear ambitions rather than a partner in achieving them. It is in this context that President Putin summed up the significance of the Akkuyu project by saying, “In fact, today we are not simply present at the construction of the first Turkish nuclear power plant, we are witnessing the laying of the groundwork for Turkey’s nuclear industry. We are creating a new industry.”

A partnership between the two countries has also emerged in the sphere of defense technology. Putin and Erdogan have agreed on the early delivery of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems to Turkey, reportedly as early as October 2019, rescheduled from the initially planned 2020. Ankara and Moscow finalized the $2.5 billion Russian-Turkish agreement on the purchase of S-400s in 2017. Under the agreement, Turkey is to pay 45 percent of the cost up front, while Russia is to provide a loan to cover the remaining 55 percent. A striking point of the deal is that the loan will be issued in Russian rubles, not U.S. dollars—the first time Turkey has taken such a step, according to Erdogan. The S-400 deal has raised concern among the United States and other NATO members. However, NATO members Greece and Bulgaria have purchased S-300 systems, an earlier version of the S-400s.

A key aspect of the S-400 deal is that Turkey seeks to ensure domestic production of the systems. This means a certain level of transfer of related technologies or know-how to Turkey. Moreover, Russia offers a more flexible deal than Turkey could realize on NATO or U.S. defense systems, which impose restrictions on where the equipment is to be deployed and against what kind of targets it can be used, and limitations on access to specific security codes. Overall, the S-400 agreement epitomizes Ankara’s plans to diversify its defense capabilities away from NATO. Therefore, the deal also foreshadows a long-term Russian-Turkish partnership in the military sphere.

In another example of Turkey acting outside the usual province of established Western institutions, the Iranian, Russian, and Turkish presidents held trilateral talks in Ankara on April 4 as part of the Astana process to try to resolve the Syrian conflict. Though the meeting was hosted by Turkey, a long-term NATO ally of the United States, it was not held under the auspices of the UN or the EU. “This is the first time since the Second World War that a meeting like this was held without the approval of the UN. They are determining Syria’s future without any American representative,” Israeli defense minister Avigdor Liberman said, astounded.

The new relations rest somewhat uneasily. Though Ankara has partnered with Moscow and Tehran in leading the Astana process, controversies and disagreements persist among the three governments. Indeed, a few days after Putin’s visit to Turkey, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said that Ankara should hand over control of Syria’s Afrin region, which is currently controlled by the Turkish armed forces, to Damascus. Erdogan immediately slammed the idea. Moreover, Erdogan unambiguously supported the recent U.S.-led strikes against Syria while Moscow staunchly condemned them, charging they demonstrated “blatant disregard for the international law.”

Therefore, the future of Russian-Turkish relations may be hobbled by where each country ends up in the Syrian conflict. But for now, Turkey’s noninstitutionalized relations with Russia are burgeoning, whereas its institutionalized relations with the West are deteriorating. And that is taking place because of the will of Putin and Erdogan to find compromises to problems that impede progress in bilateral relations.

During the Cuban crisis, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey Raymon A. Hare described Turks as people who “don’t understand the concept or process of compromise,” characterizing “this Turkish quality as the greatest asset to the U.S. and to the West.” That perception appeared to change radically with Erdogan’s letter of apology to Putin following the downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkish defense forces. Two factors must be considered, however, in understanding that change and Ankara’s strategic pivot toward Moscow. On the one hand, from Ankara’s perspective, the U.S.-led West takes for granted Hare’s “uncompromising nature” of Turks. Indeed, the West’s position on Turkey’s EU membership bid and on the Kurdish dimension of the Syrian conflict has flown in the face of Ankara’s interests. On the other hand, Vladimir Putin seems to understand Turkey’s sensitivities on such matters, and moves accordingly to attract Ankara.

Rahim Rahimov is an independent political analyst focusing on Russia and post-soviet space with interests in conflicts, foreign policies and economic and political integration projects. Rahim is also a contributing analyst for The Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor. He holds an MA in International Relations from Hult International Business School in London, UK and a BA from the Baku State University, Azerbaijan. He speaks English, Russian, Arabic, Turkish and Azerbaijani.
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