The Russian-Turkish Economic Partnership Takes Shape, but Tensions Persist
This piece has been updated and revised as of March 13, 2020.
BY RAHIM RAHIMOV
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, met in Istanbul on January 8, 2020, to mark the launch of TurkStream, the new natural gas pipeline stretching from Russia to Turkey. The occasion highlighted the growing economic partnership between the two countries while also serving to underscore continuing tensions, including pushback from Erdoğan’s domestic critics and disagreement between the two leaders over the way forward in Libya and Syria.
The pipeline arrangement encapsulates many points of tension. Turkey currently imports roughly half its gas from Russia, around 25 billion cubic meters (bcm) per year. When TurkStream is fully operational, Turkey is expected to import an additional 16 bcm from Russia, significantly increasing its energy dependence on that country.
Meanwhile, in 2019, Russia’s state atomic energy firm Rosatom started construction on Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, at Akkuyu, Mersim Province, in accordance with a 2010 agreement with Turkey’s parliament. A subsidiary of Rosatom, Akkuyu Project Company (APC), will develop and operate the facility. While Erdoğan’s government frames the energy partnership with Moscow as serving Turkey’s goal of becoming a global energy hub, Russia’s increased role in supplying energy to Turkey has raised concern. The leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party has strongly criticized Erdoğan’s government for that.
The Turkish media report that APC in 2019 amended its charter from that existing in 2010. The amendments allow APC to build seaports and terminals, engage in shipping, and perform a variety of other commercial activities not envisioned in the original charter. This move on the part of APC coincides with rising tensions in the Mediterranean region attributable to two causes. First, disputes over the development of offshore gas fields are intensifying among Turkey and its neighbors, especially Cyprus, the latter having recently entered into an agreement with Egypt to build a pipeline that would transport to Egypt gas from the rich undersea beds off southern Cyprus. Turkey wants access to that gas.
The Turkish media suggest that the amendment of APC’s charter is designed to facilitate the building of a new Russian-Turkish base in the Mediterranean. Erdoğan, however has said no project can go forward without Turkey’s participation and the protection of Turkish Cypriots’ interests in the Mediterranean—here referring to Greek, Cypriot, Israeli, and other ongoing efforts.
Second, the multiyear Libyan conflict is getting acute—and both Russia and Turkey have interests in the oil-rich North African state. Turkey recently sent its military to Libya at the request of the Tripoli-based, UN-recognized Government of National Accords (GNA) to counter the advancing forces of the National Liberation Army, led by warlord General Khalifa Haftar. The government in Tripoli under Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj is supported by Ankara, whereas Moscow has aligned with General Haftar, for now. (Both sides are supported by external actors, such that the Libyan conflict resembles a proxy war. Italy and France, for example, though not contributing forces to the conflict, have oil interests in Libya and side with the government and General Haftar, respectively. The EU is intensely interested in seeing the Libyan conflict resolved as a step toward reducing migration from the region.)
At a meeting in Moscow in January, General Haftar rejected the cease-fire jointly proposed by Ankara and Moscow. Haftar’s refusal to sign the agreement notwithstanding, during a joint press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin stated that Russia and Turkey had managed to get the opposing Libyan sides to agree on implementing a cease-fire beginning January 12, 2020. Chancellor Merkel confirmed that Berlin would host Libyan peace talks on January 19, but stressed that the Berlin conference, preparations for which had begun in the fall of 2019, would be held under the auspices of the UN rather than Germany, with involvement of the UN Security Council permanent members. Her insistence on this point signaled Europe’s concern over the possibility of another Russian-Turkish partnership in a conflict in which the West’s role is fading.
A communiqué issued after the conference, now dubbed the Berlin Process, described its goal as "assisting the United Nations in unifying the International Community in their support for a peaceful solution to the Libyan crisis." Prime Minister al-Sarraj and General Haftar refused to be in the same room with each other during the proceedings.
Meanwhile, on January 7, in actions seemingly designed to highlight Russia’s dominance and its self-imposed role of peacemaker in the region, President Putin paid a visit to the Damascus command post of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria, where he was met by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. After bilateral talks, the two presidents together walked into the Great Mosque of Damascus, the Umayyad Mosque, where Putin presented a seventeenth-century Koran to the mosque. This highly symbolic move was also intended to convey to Erdoğan that Russia is in control in Syria—in 2012, Erdoğan had vowed he would pray in the Umayyad Mosque—and as such, it underscored the serious differences persisting between Russia and Turkey.
Both Erdoğan and Putin are frank about their differences, but they seem determined to move forward, opportunistically, as partners. Putin in particular has emphasized the political will Turkey has exercised to overcome those difficulties. In the press conference following the official opening of TurkStream on January 8, he called attention to the partnership, saying, “Together, we can overcome difficult issues.” In his turn, Erdoğan praised Moscow’s role, citing a Russian proverb, “Good companions are the half the journey.”
One region in which the push-pull tensions of the partnership are unmissable is Syria. Though last fall saw considerable progress on several contentious issues, including the UN-backed formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee, tasked with drafting a new constitution, the different factions, supported by either Russia or Turkey, failed to agree on a meeting agenda. The UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy to Syria cautioned that external parties must step back from the table and allow Syrians to determine their own future; he also warned that security conditions must improve across Syria for the constitutional process to have a chance of succeeding. This points directly to another area of cooperation-with-clashes between Russia and Turkey. The two nations agreed to joint military patrols in a buffer zone in northern Syria on the border with Turkey and to a cease-fire in Idlib. However, ongoing clashes between the Russia-backed Syrian forces and the Turkish forces have led to the deaths of dozens of Turkish personnel and fueled tensions between Moscow and Ankara.
Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in Syria, represents a sore point in, and a serious test of, the partnership. Weeks of fighting between opposition forces and Syrian government forces culminated in Turkey shooting down Syrian government fighter planes on March 1 (the pilots parachuted to safety), while Russia did not intervene. The subsequent cease-fire brokered between the two countries has no credibility among the civilian population, which has not been granted a safe space by the agreement.
All that said and done, the partnership appears to be taking shape. Ankara’s condemnation of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula can be read as just an expression of Turkey’s discontent with Russia over the Idlib issue and Moscow’s failure to persuade General Haftar to the negotiations table. Moscow appears not to be inclined to make an issue out of Erdoğan’s often impulsive statements. Russian and Turkish presidential communications and high-level delegations sent to Ankara and Moscow to address various problems underscore a work in progress.
The geostrategic game is not for either nation to win hearts, minds, or territory but for both to secure a stronger economic foothold, and for this they may need each other. Erdoğan has said that his goal is to reach $100 billion in trade between the two nations. It is this economic component that cements what both Moscow and Ankara refer to as a “strategic partnership.” Therefore, despite old and new tensions, Ankara and Moscow will be driven by the urge to act in partnership in order to synergize and sustain their efforts and resources.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
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