NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which defines the security challenges facing the Alliance and outlines the political and military tasks that NATO will undertake to meet those challenges, was adopted at the Madrid Summit, June 29-30, 2022.
The previous concept was agreed in 2010, during the Lisbon Summit held Nov. 29-30, 2010. Over the past 12 years, NATO’s perception of Russia has changed dramatically. In the 2010 Strategic Concept, Russia was listed as a potential partner for cooperation with NATO to create a common space of peace, stability and security. However, in the new Strategic Concept, Russia has topped the list in terms of being the most significant and direct threat to the security of the Allies and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region. The perception of Russia as an imminent threat raises the question of the impact on Turkey’s bilateral relations with Russia, which have so far remained close despite Turkey’s membership in NATO.
In order to predict the future of Turkish-Russian ties, it is helpful to recall the significant events that have taken place between the two countries in recent years. These developments will help us understand the issues that govern the bilateral relations. The personal relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the content of which is not fully known to the public, is one of the factors shaping Turkish-Russian relations.
On Nov. 24, 2015, a Turkish Air Force F-16 fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 that had violated Turkish airspace near the Syrian border. This incident caused an escalation of tension between the two countries and marked the beginning of a crisis.
Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Anatov issued a statement on Dec. 2, 2015 claiming that Turkey was the main customer for oil smuggled from Syria, that President Erdoğan and his close family were involved in the smuggling and that they had evidence of it. Images of the oil trade with ISIS were broadcast on television by Russia Today (RT). Two British scholars, George Kiourktsoglou and Alec D. Coutroubis, published an analysis of how ISIS oil is sold from the Ceyhan terminal in southern Turkey. Aware that the evidence in Russia’s hands would harm him and his international legitimacy, Erdoğan decided that restoring relations with Putin would be the best course of action for him. Thanks to the intensive efforts of former Kazakh President Nazarbayev, a letter of apology written by Erdoğan was delivered to Putin. On June 29, 2016 Putin announced to the world that relations with Turkey had been normalized.
After a July 15, 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, Erdoğan established an authoritarian regime. In order to form this regime, he worked with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the Vatan Party. Both political parties have effective collaborators in the mafia, the Turkish Armed Forces, the Security Directorate General and the judiciary. These political parties supported Erdoğan in every way possible to establish an authoritarian regime and forced him to move closer to Russia. If Turkey pursued policies compatible with the EU and NATO, the anti-democratic practices could not be implemented. Erdoğan also predicted that the US, NATO and the EU would not react to his anti-democratic practices due to the public support behind him. After all, according to Erdoğan, until the government changes as a result of elections in Turkey, the US, NATO and the EU will have to cooperate with him.
Following the July 15 coup attempt, Erdoğan and Putin met one-on-one in St. Petersburg, in August 2016. At that meeting Putin made three requests of Erdoğan, all of which have been accomplished in the last few years:
- The agreement for the TurkStream natural gas pipeline project was signed;
- The Akkuyu nuclear power plant project was included in the scope of strategic investments to benefit from the necessary state facilities; and
- The S-400 long-range air defense system was purchased.
The US only showed a concrete reaction to Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system and removed Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
But Putin never considered the Erdoğan government a strategic partner. He used the Erdoğan government in line with Russia’s interests merely taking advantage of the conditions created by the conjuncture. Being a realistic leader, Putin knows very well that Turkey cannot completely detach itself from NATO and that it must maintain its relations with the US and EU countries. For this reason, Putin has not yet forced Erdoğan’s government to make a direct choice between NATO and Russia
The sanctions imposed by EU countries and the US due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have increased Russia’s need for Turkey politically and economically. Turkey is not a party to the sanctions imposed on Russia. According to Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak, the changing foreign economic environment is opening new opportunities for economic dialogue between Russia and Turkey, which could become an important trade and logistics center for the supply of products to and from Russia.
Although NATO ‘s recognition of Russia as a direct threat to the Alliance will complicate Erdoğan’s relations with Russia, it will not bring about a radical change in the relations.
The unipolar world order led by the United States has evolved into a multipolar structure. In this system, there is a great power competition among the EU led by Germany, the Anglo-Saxon bloc consisting of the US and the UK but led by the US, and the Sino-Russian bloc led by China. If Erdoğan makes good use of the power gaps created by the competition, this can open up opportunities for him. Erdoğan has managed to survive by maintaining the balance among the blocs so far. As the last-minute lifting of the veto on Sweden and Finland joining NATO shows, Erdoğan knows the parties’ red lines very well and does not want to cross them.
Therefore, as Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın stated, the Erdoğan government will try to survive in the conditions of the “New Cold War,” in which the competition among the great powers will take place, by pursuing a policy of balance among the blocs. For this reason, it will try to maintain its relations with Russia without violating the red lines of NATO and the United States. Putin will accept this attitude with understanding because for Putin, Erdoğan is valuable as long as he stays in NATO.
* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.