Can Russia ever be Turkey’s alternative to the West?

This report has been prepared by Masa Experts after the meeting held at Masa Ankara on November 1st, 2022 in participation with Prof. Erel Tellal.

The question of Russia greatly occupies the Turkish political psyche, not only because of Russia’s significance as a historically relevant “co-empire” in Turkey’s natural area of influence, but also as a current revisionist power in the international system which enjoys a unique partnership with Ankara.

The premise of our discussion on Russia has focused on contemplating Russian strategies and methods in which this brand of revisionism plays out. We have also attempted to scrutinize the level of Russian influence that has penetrated the Turkish government and decision-making apparatus. The nature of Ankara and Moscow’s ties is the subject of speculation, particularly in this instance of heightened risk perception by the transatlantic alliance and the United States. Growing Russian influence in Turkish foreign policy is a question requiring urgent address by policy makers.  

Our guest Prof. Erel Tellal made the point that Russia’s current irredentist, expansionist endeavors – manifest in Ukraine but historically relevant since Moscow’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 – is not simply the product of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s personal brand of politics. In other words, Russia’s current course of action is not the product of a single person’s endeavors, rather are the natural reflexes of the Russian state.

Prof. Tellal argued that Russia’s current position is a systemic one – necessitated by foremost domestic conditions that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and later by the emerging international and regional order that Russia had to come to terms with. Here, our guest drew an unchanging picture of Russian interventions since the so called “Color Revolutions” of 2004, particularly manifest in the post-Soviet geopolitical space. Russian foreign policy continues to be rationalized as being formulated in defense of an ever-expanding NATO alliance around Russia’s geographic space.

Russia remains a major geopolitical liability for the sustenance of the international order and the Western world – which Turkey is (at the very least in the military alliance sense) a member. Russia’s fracturing of the international system destabilizes regions and is a risk to transatlantic cohesion, hence we must approach the matter with great caution. The risk of Russian irredentism is real, manifests itself in various geo-locations and is difficult to contain.

In this regard, we are witnessing the collapse of the symbolic framework that lies in Russia’s relationship with the West and the West’s view of Russia. As Slavoj Zizek reiterated in his reference to NATO/West-Russia relations after the collapse of the USSR, Western countries will treat Russia as a “superpower” in this process, but with one condition: Russia will not act like a superpower. For the West, Russia will be addressed as a superpower, and this level of contact is lost with Russia’s policies focused on becoming a “superpower”, which emerged and intensified especially in the post-Yeltsin period. Ever-proliferating tensions between Russia and the West should thus be approached with a policy of calm.

Recognizing these risks, we are also aware that the Turkish-Russian relationship is multifaceted and nuanced. Unlike other members of the Transatlantic world, Turkey has thus far resisted the call to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, instead opting for a policy of neutrality. This neutrality has also seen the proliferation of an already robust relationship.

Turkey has carefully, but rather successfully, managed a delicate balancing act between Russia and Ukraine. Supplying the latter with military hardware and engaging with the former in strategic level relations in addition to Ankara’s already existing partnerships in the West. Concrete steps at mediation, such as the Istanbul Grain Initiative are indeed commendable and deserve praise, particularly as Ankara appears to maintain a working relationship with both sides.

On the other hand, there is cause for concern in Turkey’s relationship with Russia, particularly on the matter of whether it constitutes a break with the West. An acute example of this is growing Russian influence in Turkey, a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly apparent. Policy makers, pundits and public influencers are increasingly striking a pro-Russian line. Kremlin media outlets are allowed total freedom in promulgating propaganda and disinformation. There are alarming questions on whether key constituencies within the state apparatus and amongst the elected elite favor Putin over relations with the West.  

While Turkish-Russian relations are indeed significant, both in their current incarnation and historically as two empires intertwined by a series of wars, negotiations and agreements that have colored the socialization of entire generations of political elites, they are not an alternative to Turkey’s relations with the West and NATO. Turkey’s ties to the Transatlantic world continue to function in an environment of robust financial and political cooperation, manifesting in a particularly elaborate relationship. Thus, a view that favors Russia, in which Russia recognizes Turkey as a temporary ally to utilize against the West would constitute a major risk to Turkish foreign policy.

If Turkish authorities indeed perceive Russia as a viable alternative to relations with the West, and particularly NATO, Turkey will find its position weakened against Russia. A Turkish policy that steers Ankara’s loyalties away from the West is a policy of disadvantage for Ankara, as Turkish-Russian relations are in fact proliferating because of Turkey’s position as a unique member of the Transatlantic alliance that can manage a working relationship with Moscow as well.

Reporter: Batu Coşkun

Batu Coşkun hakkında 13 makale
After graduating from Bilkent University, Department of Political Science and Public Administration, he completed his master's degree in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics.

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