The commercial relationship

The commercial relationship thrived despite the legacy of geopolitical rivalry between St. Petersburg/Moscow and Istanbul/Ankara, as well as more recent sources of friction between the two countries. In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Turkey aligned itself with the former, while Russia assumed the role of the latter’s historic protector against the Ottomans (while simultaneously supplying weapons to both countries). The Turkish government apparently turned a blind eye to the support provided by the Turkish Chechen diaspora to Chechen fighters waging an insurgency against Russia in the 1990s. That did not stop Russia from signing a major gas pipeline agreement with Turkey in 1998. Turkey, for its part, while refusing to recognize the annexation of Crimea by Russia, did not approve of and has not participated in European Union (EU) sanctions against Russia.

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4/10/20, 7)39 PMRussia in the Middle East: Jack of All Trades, Master of None – Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Page 9 of 22https://carnegieendowment.org/2019/10/31/russia-in-middle-east-jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none-pub-80233

But there is more. Russia and Turkey have followed similar domestic political trajectories. In the 1990s and early 2000s, both countries implemented major domestic reforms, each pursuing its own path toward closer relations with Europe. In Turkey’s case, this approach included attempted membership in the EU. However, following a period of ultimately unsuccessful attempts at rapprochement with Europe, both countries experienced major shifts in their domestic politics with the emergence of strong and increasingly authoritarian leaders. As a result, their relations with the EU suffered, in large measure due to Europe’s dim view and criticism of their domestic political developments. Russia and Turkey, each following the vision of its leader, morphed into Europe’s outcasts with similar, though not identical, grievances against their European would-be partners.

Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Moscow, August 27, 2019 (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images).

Equally important to the development of the relationship between Russia and Turkey has been the personal relationship between Putin and Erdoğan. Both leaders found themselves the targets of European criticism for their backsliding on human rights and corruption, and both rejected such criticism as interference in their domestic affairs. Both maintained an uneasy relationship with Washington and in particular a difficult personal relationship with Obama. This combination of positives and negatives predisposed the two leaders toward a sense of solidarity with each other and declarations of friendly personal relations. However, with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the relationship between the two countries and the two leaders was put to the test in several crises in quick succession.

The record of Turkish-Syrian relations is complicated, and often tumultuous. It includes the legacy of an uneasy relationship between a former empire and its colony, which share a 500-mile border and have competing territorial claims; the legacy of the Cold War, when Syria was aligned with the Soviet Union, and Turkey was the pillar of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO’s) Southern flank; and the harboring in Syria of the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Öcalan, whom the Turkish government has accused of masterminding a terrorist campaign inside Turkey. Turkey’s leaders welcomed the Arab Spring for their own set of geopolitical, religious, philosophical, and internal political reasons, but they initially urged Assad to exercise restraint in his efforts to quell the civil unrest in Syria. Assad’s uncompromising and increasing brutality in dealing with the opposition left little doubt about his unconditional rejection of that advice, and Turkey moved to the column of Assad’s adversaries and supporters of his opposition, while Russia remained a staunch ally and supporter of his regime.

As in other relationships between Russia and various parties to the Syrian conflict, both those directly and indirectly involved in it, the pivotal moment came with the deployment of Russian air and ground forces to Syria in the fall of 2015. The Russian military positioned itself in close proximity to former Cold War adversary Turkey, with the two operating in the increasingly congested Syrian airspace.

On November 24, 2015, a Turkish F-16 plane shot down a Russian Su-24 aircraft in what Ankara claimed (and Moscow vehemently denied) was Turkish airspace. The Russians insisted that their plane had been shot down over Syria. The incident triggered a furious reaction from Russia, including a set of punishing economic sanctions and demands for an apology from Erdoğan, which he delivered in June 2016 in an effort to gain relief from sanctions and political pressure from Russia.

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