Fort Russ guest analyst Eduard Popov: Russian-Turkish Reset is a Dead End

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June 30, 2016 – 

By Eduard Popov for Fort Russ

Translated by J. Arnoldski

On June 29th, a telephone conversation was held between the presidents of Russia and Turkey. This event closed one page in bilateral relations and opened another. But just how deep will Russian-Turkish cooperation turn out in these new conditions and what obstacles lie waiting?

The termination of relations between the two countries especially painfully hit three main spheres: public relations, economic and trade relations, and political or military-political contacts. Judging by publications in the Turkish press, Turks very positively perceive the results of the telephone conversation between Putin and Erdogan and expect a quick, comprehensive restoration of relations. 

But Russian society views the subject altogether differently. Various information sources (radio stations, tabloids, popular internet portals, and social networks) are conducting public opinion surveys on the matter. For example, on the morning of June 30th, the tabloid RIA Novosti conducted a public opinion poll on the question: “Do you plan to vacation in Turkey if relations with Ankara will be unfrozen?” 71.3% of respondents answered negatively to this question. The results of other surveys have showed an even more categorial rejection of the new positive image of Turkey. Overall, Russian public opinion has turned out to be unprepared for such a dizzying somersault in perceiving Turkey. Distrust and hostility towards Turkey (or at least towards President Erdogan) will remain for a long time. Perhaps even forever.

The Russian political establishment has underestimated the strength and depth of public dislike for Turkey. It cannot be excluded that this factor will bring unexpected surprises in bilateral relations.

Bilateral relations can be restored easiest of all in the trade and economic sphere. The Russian leader has instructed the government to discuss restarting bilateral cooperation in the trade-economic and other spheres with the Turkish side, and the lifting of the anti-Turkish food embargo has already been announced. Russian Vice Prime Minister Kozak has also announced the return of Turkish construction companies to Russia. For its part, Russia expects to return to the Turkish grain market. 

Prospects for the energy and tourist spheres, however, are seriously doubtful. Although President Putin asked his Turkish colleague to take additional measures to ensure the safety of tourists from Russia, this wish will remain unenforceable. On the very same day of negotiations, three explosions hit the Istanbul airport. Turkey continues to be vulnerable to terrorist attacks by Islamists, and a real war against the Kurdish population still plagues the country. The full recovery of tourist flows from Russia to Turkish resorts is therefore unfeasible. In addition to terrorist threats, anti-Turkish public opinion in Russia poses another obstacle. 

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A new page in the realization of the gas pipeline project Turkish Stream, as has been already stated by Gazprom, might still be opened. Announcement’s of the realization of this strategic project could also become serious arguments promoting the other proposed gas pipeline from Russia to the EU, Nord Stream-2.  But, Turkish Stream remains politically vulnerable since it depends entirely on friendly relations between Moscow and Ankara. It is absurd to close one problematic direction of gas transportation (the Ukrainian one) only to open another (the Turkish one) while still requiring huge capital investments. The launch of Turkish Stream would turn Turkey into all but a logistics monopolist. There are by no means less issues with the feasibility of Russia constructing the nuclear power plant in Akkuyu. The main beneficiary of such energy projects is Turkey, not Russia. 

The most problematic area of Russian-Turkish relations, however, is the political and military-political sphere. In the 1990’s, Turkey actively supported anti-Russian separatism in the republics of the North Caucasus. Now Turkey supports the activities of Crimean Tatar extremist groups in the south of Ukraine’s Kherson region. According to some reports, Turkish soldiers, under the guise of militants from the terrorist organization Boz Kurt (“Grey Wolves”), have participated in the blockade of Crimea and in fighting in Donbass on the side of the UAF. However, documentary confirmation of this information has yet to be provided.

For the sake of restoring relations with Russia, Turkey can easily sacrifice such an ally as Ukraine. But it will never abandon its support for Crimean Tatar extremists. The ideology of neo-Ottomanism aims to restore the former greatness of the Ottomans, an important part of which was the Crimean Khanate. Turkey is also actively penetrating the Turkic regions of Russia where pro-Turkish lobbies were established long ago (the most influential being in the Republic of Tatarstan). 

These contradictions, like the contradictions in the Caucasus, however, existed for more than a decade without ever leading to sharp confrontation. The much more acute contradictions between Russia and Turkey are those lurking in Syria. The political goals of the two countries are not only different – they are complete opposites. Russia’s support for the legal president of Syria, Bashar al-Assad, and its allied relations with the Kurdish militia directly contradict Ankara’s allied relations with ISIS and its determination to overthrow the legal Syrian government. 

In the 1990’s, Turkey actively exploited Russia’s weakness and supported Chechen and North Caucasian separatists. Today, Putin’s pragmatic Russia hardly misses a chance to support (at least diplomatically) the Kurdish population in Syria (which from Ankara’s point of view is tantamount to supporting Turkish Kurds). Today, however, it is Russia that is strong, while it is Turkey that is weak. 

General conclusion: Russia and Turkey are restoring relations, but only until the next crisis. 

Eduard Popov, born in 1973 in Konstantinovka, Donetsk region, is a Rostov State University graduate with a PhD in history and philosophy. In 2008, he founded the Center for Ukrainian Studies of the Southern Federal University of Russia in Rostov-on-Don. From 2009-2013, he was the founding head of the Black Sea-Caspian Center of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, an analytical institute of the Presidential Administration of Russia. In June 2014, Popov headed the establishment of the Representative Office of the Donetsk People’s Republic in Rostov-on-Don. He has actively participated in humanitarian aid efforts in Donbass and has been a guest contributor to various Donbass media, such as the Lugansk-based Cossack Herald

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