There was a sense of déjà vu when Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in Moscow to hammer out a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province.
Just as was the case back in 2015-16, Russia and Turkey appeared on the brink of armed conflict due to clashing interests in Syria. And just like four years ago, after months of posturing and brinkmanship, Erdoğan backed down and Putin emerged triumphant.
When Turkey shot down a Russian SU-24 warplane over Syria in November 2015, the prospect of war appeared frighteningly real. But by late summer 2016, Erdoğan apologized to Putin, the two held a summit in St. Petersburg, and the relationship between the two authoritarian regimes even grew stronger.
But today, Russia and Turkey are again facing off in Syria. Ankara is determined to protect its border and prevent a fresh influx of refugees on its territory and Moscow is bent on preserving Bashar al-Assad’s regime as a client and helping him reunite Syria.
As a result, the two have been clashing in Idlib province, where a Russia-backed offensive by the Assad regime has forced nearly a million people to flee towards Turkey’s border and a Turkish-backed counteroffensive has tried to push back.
On March 5 in Moscow, Erdoğan agreed to a limited ceasefire that strongly favors Russia and Assad. The agreement essentially freezes the front lines and consolidates gains made by Assad’s forces since they violated a 2018 ceasefire.
Putin’s game with Turkey is about more than winning advantage in Syria. It is a ploy to weaken NATO by alienating Turkey from the United States and the Alliance.
The crisis in Russian-Turkish relations provides the West with both risks and opportunities. Here are four things we need to understand about Russian-Turkish relations.
The Relationship Is Asymmetrical – In More Ways Than One
The relationship between Russia and Turkey is asymmetrical, and it favors Russia.
With a GDP of roughly $1.58 trillion, the Russian economy is nearly twice the size of Turkey’s $851 billion economy. The lion’s share of trade between the two countries is accounted for by energy, with Russian exports of natural gas, oil, and coal accounting for 37.8 percent of Turkey’s energy mix. Russian visitors also account for the largest part of Turkey’s vital tourism industry. In 2019, Russians accounted for 7 million of the 51 million tourists who traveled to Turkey.
This asymmetrical interdependence means that Ankara is vulnerable to economic blackmail from Moscow. This is exactly what happened after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015 and Moscow responded by halting Russian tourism and imports of Turkish agricultural products.
The military balance between the two countries is also lopsided. Turkey may have the second largest army in NATO after the United States, but at $61.4 billion, Russia’s defense budget is more than three times that of Turkey, which spends just $19 billion.
But while the asymmetrical relationship favors Russia, Turkey has a much greater stake in what happens in Syria. This is because for Moscow, the conflict in Syria is aspirational. Vladimir Putin’s regime is seeking to preserve a client state that it can both monetize and use as a geopolitical asset.
But for Erdoğan, the conflict in Syria, which is on its border, represents a vital–if not existential–interest. There are already approximately 4 million refugees from the Syrian war in Turkey. And as Assad seeks to forcefully reunite the country with Russian and Iranian assistance, millions more will follow.
And this asymmetry in interests means that Ankara is unlikely to fully capitulate to Moscow despite the economic and military imbalance – but its ability to stand up to Russia is dependent on Western support.
Imperial Aspirations Matter – On Both Sides
Putin makes no secret of his desire to revive the Russian Empire, albeit under the guise of the “Russian World.” And Erdoğan doesn’t hide his aspiration to revive Turkey’s Ottoman glory.
But when those two empires existed, they fought no less than 17 wars between the 17th and 20th centuries – all of which were won by Russia. As Soner Cagaptay, author of the book Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East, noted on The Power Vertical Podcast, “the story of the rise of the Russian Empire is the story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire.”
And this means that as Moscow and Ankara seek to establish spheres of influence over former imperial domains and reestablish relationships with onetime client states, they are bound to clash.
Viewed through this imperial lens, Ankara views Syria much the same as Russia views former Soviet states such as Ukraine or Georgia. And in this sense, the Moscow-based foreign affairs analyst Vladimir Frolov wrote recently that Idlib could “turn into the ‘Syrian Donbass’ where Ankara will retain its control for the placement of refugees and a security buffer along the border.”
It’s Not Just About Syria
Syria is not the only place where Russia and Turkey are competing. They are also the main power brokers, and are supporting opposing sides, in Libya’s civil war.
Turkey is supporting the Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), which is internationally recognized and controls western Libya. Russia is backing the military strongman Khalifa Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, which controls eastern Libya and is attempting to take power by force.
Russia has deployed approximately 1,500 mercenaries from the Wagner Group to back Haftar. In January, Erdoğan deployed Turkish troops to Libya “to support the legitimate government and avoid a humanitarian tragedy.”
Turkey and Russia are also clashing in the former Soviet space. Ankara is the main backer of Azerbaijan in its longstanding frozen conflict with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh. Russia is Armenia’s main military patron, providing for the lion’s share of Yerevan’s defense capacity.
Erdoğan has also spoken out forcefully against Russian aggression in Ukraine and in support of the oppressed Crimean Tatars. During a visit to Kyiv in February, Erdoğan said that Ankara does not recognize Russia’s “illegitimate annexation of Crimea” and that it supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
The West Has A Window Of Opportunity
According to a March 3 report by Reuters, in a private meeting with political allies after she spoke with Putin by telephone, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the Kremlin leader for refusing to take part in a four-way meeting with Erdoğan and French President Emmanuel Macron to deescalate the crisis in Idlib.
Two days later in Moscow, Putin cornered Erdoğan into a ceasefire that is advantageous to Russia. This is illustrative of a historical pattern in which Turkey has been repeatedly defeated by Russia – either diplomatically or militarily – when it is on its own; but in which it is on the winning side when it has allies.
On The Power Vertical Podcast, Cagaptay noted that while Turkey lost all of its 17 major wars with Russia, it did win two conflicts with Moscow in which it had allies: the Crimean War together with Britain and France and the Cold War together with NATO. And Turkey’s decision to join NATO in 1952, he added, was a direct result of Josef Stalin’s 1946 demand that Turkey grant the Soviet Union basing rights along the Bosphorus strait.
The ongoing crisis between Turkey and Russia could be such an inflection point, one that provides the West with a window of opportunity to reset its relations with Turkey.
As political commentator Barçın Yinanç wrote in the Turkish daily Hürriyet, “the crisis in Idlib is set to show that we have come to the limits of the so-called Turkish-Russian strategic relationship.”
Russia leveraged its last rapprochement with Turkey in 2016 to drive a wedge between Ankara and NATO. In addition to signing an agreement to build the TurkStream natural gas pipeline, Turkey angered its Western allies by purchasing Russian S-400 air defense systems.
This time, the United States and the Atlantic alliance needs use the turbulence between Ankara and Moscow to persuade Turkey that it’s future – and its security – lies with the West.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.