The renewal of Turkish-Russian relations represents an invigoration of its already existing “Eurasian direction” in foreign policy, including outreach to Central Asia, India and China. It is a substitute for the failed “Zero Problems with Neighbors” policy of former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, but it antedates even the first election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as prime minister.
Turkish-Russian relations in recent historical perspective
It should be seen in the perspective of Turgut Ozal’s reorientation of Turkish foreign policy after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. After Ozal’s death, Turkey’s relations with Central Asia concentrated mainly on cultural and linguistic cooperation, and on economic relations, particularly infrastructure investment.
During the late 1990s Turkey had a coalition government, and its domestic political instability weakened the Central Asian direction of Turkish diplomacy. But today, Russian-Turkish cooperation in Central Asia to forestall Chinese influence is not out of the question. The Central Asian states would in general welcome this, and the task is to define in which particular spheres of policy such cooperation could be established.
Ozal’s vision for a dynamic and prosperous Organization of Black Sea Economic Cooperation (OBSEC) did not come to pass, because the institution had no real autonomy of its members, and “hard power” in the region came to prevail over “soft power”. But a constant factor in the region was Turkish-American cooperation around Caspian Sea basin energy resources. For that reason, Turkey’s relations with Azerbaijan did not weaken during these years. Today, the energy sector is a main focus, emerging from the meeting in St. Petersburg, being taken in the attempt to restore cooperation in Turkish-Russian relations.
The Russian attempt to reinvigorate cooperation with Bulgaria over the defunct South Stream project is only a method for pressuring Ankara psychologically over Turkish Stream. This is shown by the Russian insistence to Bulgaria, that any agreement over South Stream should have juridical guarantees from the Bulgarian side. This is impossible without the approval of the European Union, which is (to put it mildly) highly unlikely to acquiesce.
This Russian move represents only that they are playing the longstanding Bulgarian wish for gas-hub off against Turkey. It is a transparent maneuver to gain leverage against Ankara in the negotiations that still have to take place for Turkish Stream to be constructed.
One of the biggest differences between the two sides, before talks were broken off last year, is that Russia wanted only the right-of-way for a pipeline across Turkish Thrace (but refused for a long time even to provide a map suggesting where the transit route might lie), whereas Turkey quite rightly was insisting on the construction of upstream infrastructure, and with Russian contributions.
This significant difference was never resolved, and it remains to be seen how easily the two sides will reach agreement over the issue, which really is about the Russian vision for Turkey’s role in any real partnership between the two sides.
Turkish-Russian relations and natural gas pipelines
Pipes already manufactured for the South Stream project are still in Bulgarian warehouses. The Russians themselves scaled down Turkish Stream from 62 billion cubic meters per year (bcm/y) to 31 bcm/y after launching their Nord Stream Two project to double the volume of gas exported from Russia to Germany. Half of Turkish Stream’s 31 bcm/y could possibly replace the gas that western Turkey receives through the “Western route” of Ukraine-Romania-Bulgaria.
Russia pretends that the rest of this gas could reach Italy through the overland Interconnector Turkey-Greece-Italy (ITGI) and the undersea Poseidon pipeline (Greece to Italy under the Ionian Sea). If that does not work, then Russia pretends it might reach southeastern Europe through the so-called Tesla (Greece-FYROM-Serbia-Hungary) pipeline. The ITGI-Poseidon and Tesla routes are nothing but alternative branches of the old South Stream project. However, surveying and engineering for these routes was never done.
Russia will tell Turkey, that if the European markets do not work out, then the second string (15 bcm/y) of Turkish Stream could supply additional natural gas to Turkey if Turkish demand grows sufficiently. This project would surely be unprofitable to Russia for many years in the beginning, but the pipes will rust if they are not used. And as the Blue Stream example shows, Russia has no hesitation about constructing uneconomical pipelines for political and strategic gain.
What is clear, however, it is that in Turkish-Russian relations it is not in Turkey’s security interest at all to accept such an offer. Turkey’s natural gas consumption is already 40 per cent dependent upon imports from Russia, and it would be prudent to diversify sources in order to insure security of supply. Europe’s experience with Russia shows that Moscow has no hesitation about cutting off contractually obligated gas exports in order to press for political and strategic objectives.
Turkish-Russian relations: Balance-sheet and prospect
That said, Turkey and Moscow need each other for the moment. Both have much greater international and domestic challenges then either had a decade ago. In the history of European international relations, Turkish-Russian relations are usually strongest when both have international and domestic problems.
The only surprising elements of the present situation is that Russia has decided to proceed even though Turkey refuses to recognize the annexation of Crimea, against Russia’s stated interests, and Turkey has decided to proceed even though Russia is insisting to have its own way in Syria, against Turkey’s stated interests.
Russia is beginning to develop offshore fields in the Black Sea that it seized from Ukraine in the course of its annexation of Crimea, so Turkey may have to decide eventually whether it will accept natural gas from those sources. Turkey sees a “strategic partnership” with Russia as desirable, but Russia does not reciprocate this sentiment.
It is in fact difficult to see what Russia would be able and willing to offer to Turkey to make a project for “strategic partnership” into a reality. Even the grand bilateral commission will have trouble addressing this issue. Russia has enough problems stimulating its own domestic economic growth.
Receiving Turkish investment in the construction sector while offering tourism, a gas pipeline, and a nuclear reactor is fine partnership on a piece-by-piece basis, but there is nothing strategic about it. It will take time even to reestablish agreement on the terms of previous cooperation. And not even China can replace European foreign direct investment in Turkey or European markets for Turkish exports.