Russia’s Turkey Foreign Policy Objectives
BY ILIYA KUSA
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine entered its sixth month, the Russia-Turkey presidential summit, which took place in Sochi on August 5, revealed a significant shift in Russia’s foreign policy tactics. It seems that Moscow sees Turkey as a key transactional partner that can help boost Russia’s prospects in its confrontation with the West, the broader context for its war with Ukraine. Ankara, in turn, appears to be eager to provide Russia with some much-needed assistance, while expecting significant concessions in return.
The Logic behind a Stable Partnership
The Russia-Turkey partnership has been transactional yet solid and stable for many years. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t shake it significantly, though the Turkish government officially sided with Ukraine, condemned the Kremlin’s aggressive military offensive, and provided Kyiv with additional military equipment and drones to be used against the Russian army.
None of this should come as a surprise. Turkey and Russia have managed to maintain a situational partnership in different parts of the world despite disagreeing on a number of issues—Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, terrorism, energy, trade. This was possible because of Ankara’s highly pragmatic and personalized foreign policy, which puts national interests at the core of the country’s activities. This disposition is something Vladimir Putin understands very well.
The latest Erdoğan-Putin meeting, like many before it, was organized within this very logic. The two presidents launched the discussion with the ultimate goal of finding a stable, predictable, and mutually acceptable format for bilateral relations that would allow the two countries to continue to coexist in a difficult and polarized international environment.
Turkey’s Interests in the Ukraine War
Turkey’s key national interests in the context of the war in Ukraine are focused on preserving and expanding Ankara’s regional and international influence by intervening politically, diplomatically, and economically in the conflict. Ankara sees the current crisis as the harbinger of a global shift that will lead to the establishment of a new, multipolar world order, giving Turkey a more active and dignified role in regional and international affairs.
To improve its geopolitical and geoeconomic position in the region, Turkey needs to maintain its partnership with Russia, squeezing out concessions and counterbalancing Western influence. To this end, Turkey must engage with Russia politically, preserve close trade and economic ties, continue to realize steady Russian tourism revenues, find ways to attract more investment, further expand its regional political clout, and maintain the status quo—where it benefits Turkey—with respect to regional security issues, such as the Syria conflict, the geopolitics of the Black Sea, or the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, in which Turkey sides with Azerbaijan.
The role of mediator in the Ukraine war gives Turkey an excellent opportunity to position itself between Russia and Ukraine and avoid coming down firmly on one side or the other. The June grain agreements signed in Istanbul with Turkey’s mediation, which allowed Ukraine to resume shipping grain from its Black Sea ports to world markets, were a huge diplomatic success for Ankara and Erdoğan personally as they cemented a potential role for Turkey as a mediator in any postwar peace negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow.
Russia’s Interests in a Transactional Partnership with Turkey
Russia’s interests in the context of the war seem to be shifting toward a more complex multisectoral strategy aimed at creating conditions that would allow Moscow to keep up the war effort longer. The Kremlin seems to have accepted the unpleasant truth that its massive concentrated military offensive in February–May failed to crush the Ukrainian Armed Forces or force the Ukrainian government into surrendering. Therefore, it has moved to a more nuanced foreign policy, the main goal of which is not achieving a quick and decisive victory over Ukraine but rather wringing out an ending through attrition and Western fatigue. Moscow sees the war in Ukraine as a broad confrontation with the West as a whole and hopes that its enemies will bleed out faster or at least fear further losses enough to ask Russia for a ceasefire and a compromise.
To convince the West to engage in such negotiations, however, Russia needs to show that it isn’t losing in Ukraine and is capable of waging a protracted war for years without worrying much about the impact of sanctions. Therefore, Russiais working on other fronts to improve and recast its geopolitical and economic situation.
In the near term, Russia wants to alleviate the impact of Western-led economic sanctions and trade restrictions, reorient its exports toward other markets, and build alternative logistics to compensate for the loss of Western markets and technologies. This means that Russia will need to find strategic partners who might agree to help it establish alternative transport routes to realize its import substitution policies, provide industrial and military technologies for short-term modernization just to keep the war machine going, create conditions for Russia’s redirection of energy supplies, maintain high-level political communication, and engage in regional and international dialogue.
In other words, Russia needs to create the semblance of an anti-Western alliance that could compensate for Moscow’s total rupture with the West and help it minimize sanctions-related risks for years to come. With this in mind, Russia is expected to target neutral non-Western countries, especially those that exhibit self-confidence and a strong desire to play a more meaningful role in the postwar multipolar world order. These countries include China, India, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, among others.
Grounds for a Russian-Turkish Transactional Partnership
The Turkey-Russia relationship is a good example of the potential for such a transactional partnership to emerge as a result of the Ukraine-related international crisis. Both countries need each other, both have their own grudges against the West, both are ambitious about their future roles in world affairs, and both speak the same language of national interests and political realism.
Whether Turkey and Russia will be able to form an uneasy but quite profitable alliance remains to be seen. The Sochi summit is only the first step in this direction. There are other indicators that suggest Turkey has started to explore the possibility of forging a closer relationship with Russia.
Russia’s oil exports to Europe through Turkey were reported to ramp up quietly despite the EU’s intention to enforce a partial oil embargo in December. Turkish officials for several months have been mulling the idea of ditching payments for Russian energy in dollars, with Erdoğan recently confirming this after the Sochi meeting. Since June, Turkey and Russia have also been working on the Syria file and have reached an agreement to cooperate on Ankara’s long-desired military offensive in northern regions of that country.
It is hard to say that Russia and Turkey have become “friends” in the context of the war in Ukraine. Much will depend on what tangible concessions each country is prepared to make to the other and whether they can come to an agreement on regional issues where they have substantial differences, such as the Syrian crisis, the provision of energy supplies to Europe, or a new regional architecture in the South Caucasus in the post-Karabakh war era. In any event, developing transactional relationships of this sort is something Moscow will be working on for years to come as it tries to build out strategic relations with other non-Western countries in a multipolar world.
The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange. Read more