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Benyamin Poghosyan: «Russia - Turkey relations. Implications for the South Caucasus »

Photo: meirss.org

In recent years Russia-Turkey relations have gone through tremendous transformations. In November 2015 two states entered the acute crisis phase with no hope of quick improvements. However, in the summer of 2016, the reconciliation process was launched which resulted in an unprecedented level of cooperation in the economic and military-technical fields. What are the main factors for such change and what is the current Russia - Turkey partnership funds for the South Caucasus.

There are two key factors driving Turkey close to Russia. The absolute necessity for Turkey to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in the Northeastern part of Syria resembling the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, and the growing distrust of Turkish leadership towards the US based on the perception that Americans were involved in July 2016 military coup attempt.

Since its military intervention in September, 2015 Russia has steadily increased its role in Syria. All external actors involved in Syrian conundrum accept the reality - nothing can be fixed in Syria without Russian consent. The Kremlin is the only power having friendly relations simultaneously with Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, President Assad and Turkey. Thus, cooperation with Russia in Syria is vital for Turkey to reach its key goal - to destroy the PKK linked Kurdish PYD and its military wing YPG. Since the late 2016 Kurdish issue has been the number one concern for Turkey in Syria replacing the five-year struggle to depose President Assad as Ankara's absolute priority.

The 2016 July military coup attempt and US refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen to Turkey, whose Turkish leadership and President Erdogan perceives himself as the chief mastermind behind the coup has a fomented distrust towards the US. Despite President Trump seemingly personal good chemistry with President Erdogan relations are continuing to deteriorate. US support for Syrian Kurds in its fight against the Islamic State has only exacerbated the situation. Turkey's decision to buy S-400 air defense system from Russia and the actual launch of deployments in mid-July puts additional pressure on bilateral relations. Despite Turkey's efforts to avoid sanctions through personal Erdogan - Trump talks, the White House has officially stated that Turkey will be excluded from the F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

Russia values ​​its partnership with Turkey through both economic and political terms. Turkey is one of the largest importers of Russian natural gas and through the Turkish stream two pipelines currently under construction Russia will use the Turkish territory as a transit for gas exports to the EU. Another key bilateral economic project is the 20 billion USD worth four units of the 4800 MWe Akkuyu nuclear power plant. The construction was launched in April 2018 and the first unit will be operational in 2023.

The political component of relations with Turkey is based on Russia's current policy to create or deepen disagreements among NATO allies and weaken the Trans-Atlantic bonds thus making Europe feel more vulnerable in terms of security concerns. Beside this strategic goal, Russia needs better relations with Turkey to alter its favor with the military balance in the Black Sea. Despite Bulgaria's and Romania's accession to NATO their navies are too weak to balance or deter Russia. The key NATO asset in the region is Turkey and any deterioration in the US - Turkey or / and NATO - Turkey relations definitely plays into the hands of Russia.

Meanwhile, it should be emphasized that despite growing cooperation in recent years, Russia and Turkey are far from being strategic partners. They have strategically different goals in Syria, and despite all the contradictions regarding the S-400 purchase, Turkey remains firmly anchored in NATO and even Russia's suggestion to sell Turkey Russian SU - 35 fighter jets could do little to strategically alienate Turkey from the Alliance. No one in the alliance is even thinking of Turkey's expulsion from the Alliance and even the US is ready to continue its military cooperation with Ankara outside the F-35 project. Although according to recent polls approximately the 81 percent of the Turkish population sees the United States as a threat to Turkey, the strategic rift between the two states is unlikely. Defense partnership with the US and NATO membership provides Turkey with much needed hard security to guarantee in the Middle East volatile region. It should be noted that despite all friendly talks with Russia Turkey does not recognize Crimea as part of Russia or the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and had productive military cooperation with Ukraine.

Recent domestic political developments in Turkey that have seriously weakened President Erdogan's positions also do not bode well for long-term Russia-Turkey friendly relations, which to a large extent are based on President Putin and President Erdogan's personal ties. AKP catastrophic defeat in Istanbul Mayoral re-election and upcoming party split with AKP key members - former President Gul and former deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan - plans to establish a new party in Autumn 2019 have a potential to seriously undermine President Erdogan's position. The possible CHP, Good Party, HDP and Gul - Babacan Party's even temporary cooperation could create the necessary conditions for snap Presidential and Parliamentary elections in late 2021 or the beginning of 2022. In the event of a scenario this may bring more moderate and Pro-Western forces back into power in Turkey, which most likely will have a negative impact on Russia - Turkey relations.

Meanwhile, the current Russia - Turkey cooperation also has regional implications. South Caucasus, as a field of competition between the two states, is not an exclusion. Turkey's regional policy is based on its strategic alliance with Azerbaijan, growing economic ties with Georgia and cultivating Turkey - Georgia - Azerbaijan trilateral partnership. Launched as a purely economic cooperation to promote Azerbaijani oil and gas exports to Europe via Georgia and Turkey, now trilateral cooperation also has a political and security dimension with regular meetings of foreign and defense ministers. Turkey fully supports Azerbaijani position on Karabakh conflict and together with Baku implements pressure policy on Armenia including economic blockade. Another component of Turkey's policy in the region is growing military cooperation with Azerbaijan which includes the sale of armaments, military education and trainings of Azerbaijani soldiers and officers in Turkish military universities as well as regular military drills including in Nakhiev very close to the Armenian capital Yerevan .

As for now Turkey is satisfied with the geopolitical status quo in the South Caucasus as it enjoys strategic partnership with Azerbaijan and close cooperation with Georgia, while Russia has a very limited presence in Georgia and despite growing military cooperation with Azerbaijan, Baku has no intentions of joining either Collective Security Treaty Organization or Eurasian Economic Union. In this context, deepening Russia - Turkey's relations are welcomed in Azerbaijan as they make it easier for Baku to cultivate military cooperation with Russia while simultaneously fostering its partnership with Turkey. Georgia also has no serious reasons for concern as Russia - Turkey bromance has not changed Turkish position on Abkhazia or South Ossetia and has not brought any restrictions on Turkish economic involvement in Georgia. Meanwhile, the growing Russian economic influences in Georgia especially in the energy field could in the future create some opportunities for joint Russia - Turkey economic projects in Georgia including electricity exports to the Turkish Eastern provinces.

As for Armenia, Russia - Turkey's cooperation may have both positive and negative impacts. There are growing concerns in Armenia that Russia - Turkey and Russia - Azerbaijan partnership may transform Armenia into a spoiler that creates obstacles for Russia to deepen its cooperation with both Ankara and Baku. From this perspective, Russia may become annoyed by persistent Armenian complaints about the sale of modern Russian armaments to Azerbaijan or Armenian concerns about Turkey. However, as Turkey remains competitor if not adversary for Russia in the region, the worse case scenarios for Armenia envisaging the betrayal by Russia of Armenian national interests are less likely to materialize, and not because of the fact that Russia is not able to do that but simply because it does not correspond to the Russian national interests.

Meanwhile, growing Russia - Turkey cooperation also makes it less likely that Turkish moves to strategically change the status quo in the region, including the Karabakh conflict without consulting with Russia. In this context, Turkey may have become a more predictable actor in the region, especially with regard to its relations with Armenia or the Karabakh conflict.

Summarizing we may emphasize that Turkey is not interested in further growth of Russian influenza in the South Caucasus, especially in Georgia and Azerbaijan. Given the Russian perception of the South Caucasus as part of its legitimate interests and the vision of the region as a buffer territory to prevent the penetration of Western malignant influenza into Russia, the strategic goals of Turkey and Russia in the South Caucasus are not compatible and the genuine partnership of Ankara and Moscow in the region is too unlikely.

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Executive Director, Political Science Association of Armenia, Founder and Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies