In recent months, tensions between Russia and Turkey have worsened dramatically following the Turkish Air Force’s downing of a Russian bomber, which violated Turkish airspace in November 2015. Rhetoric on both sides has become more aggressive, and Russia has imposed a series of economic sanctions on Turkey. However, while the incident marked a flashpoint between the two countries, the precipitous decline in Russo-Turkish relations has been fuelled by underlying conflicts in a variety of geopolitical theatres.
Russia and Turkey have been pursuing competing interests in the Syrian civil war, in the Black Sea and in Armenia, leading to the souring of a once positive relationship between the two states. As a result of rising confrontation between these nations, Turkey has become even more desperate to turn westward, making key political concessions to strengthen ties with the European Union (EU). By establishing stronger bonds with the West, Turkey believes it can better deter further Russian threats to its security
Russo-Turkish Conflict in Syria
The most prominent theatre of conflict between Ankara and Moscow has been Syria, as Turkey seeks to depose the Russian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad through its support of Sunni rebel groups, all of whom the Kremlin views as terrorists. In addition, Russia has further antagonized Ankara by openly supporting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria, an organization that has waged an armed struggle for Kurdish independence from Turkey since 1984. Moscow has insisted that the Kurds have a seat at the table for peace negotiations in Syria, and has conducted air strikes in support of Kurdish combat operations against rival rebel groups. Due in part to Russian military and political aid, the PKK’s power has grown in Syria, as the group now occupies significant areas along the Turkish-Syrian border, a development that greatly concerns Turkish leaders.
Military Buildup in the Black Sea
Russia’s activities in the Black Sea region have also alarmed Turkey. The annexation of Crimea provided the Russians with control over the key port of Sevastopol, providing them with a valuable base from which to project naval power into the Black Sea, and further into the Mediterranean. Following the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, Moscow moved to quickly expand its operational capacity in the region, stationing bombers, fighters and modern anti-air defenses along the Crimean Peninsula. As Sevastopol is the only strategically significant naval base in the Black Sea, the buildup of anti-air and anti-naval forces there provides Russia with the ability to deter Turkey and other rival powers from conducting military operations in the area. Since Turkey has always relied militarily and economically on its access to the Black Sea, Russian militarization of the region is naturally concerning to Ankara.
The Armenian Issue
Furthermore, Russia has also antagonized Turkey through its military presence in Armenia, a nation that shares a 165-mile border with Turkey. In December 2015, Russia signed an air defense agreement with Armenia, deploying MIG-29 fighters, a UAV drone aircraft, MI-24 gunships and ballistic missiles to a base just outside of the Armenian capital of Yerevan. Armenia has longstanding and deeply felt grievances against Turkey, recently aggravated by Ankara’s support of Azerbaijan over Armenia in the conflict for control over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Turkey and Armenia currently lack formal relations, and Turkey is currently maintaining a trade embargo against its neighbor in the Caucasus. Given the tense relations between Yerevan and Ankara, Russian military support for Armenia is yet another way for Putin to pressure Turkey with the threat of force.
Analysis and Conclusion
Together, these conflicts between Russia and Turkey in Syria, the Black Sea region, and Armenia have increased tensions between the two states, as Russia has effectively surrounded Turkey on all sides with significant security threats. Faced with these problems, Turkey has been forced to counter by relying increasingly on its European neighbours, and has therefore intensified efforts to mend its strained relationship with them, many of whom take issue with the authoritarian tactics employed by the Erdogan regime. An example of Ankara’s tilt westward is demonstrated in the recently proposed deal between the EU and Turkey, whereby Turkey has agreed to accept all refugees who have crossed into Europe, in return for accelerated EU membership talks, as well as permission for Turkish nationals to access the European Schengen passport free zone by June 2016. By strengthening economic and political relationships with European nations, Turkey hopes to use these closer ties to deter further Russian aggression.
In a way, Russia’s actions have provided the West with valuable leverage over Turkey. Turkey, now more than ever requires EU support, and is therefore willing to make substantial concessions to secure it, as shown by the recent refugee deal. In this regard, Putin’s actions may have indirectly provided some benefit to the countries of the EU, by driving Turkey to strengthen its Western ties and therefore forcing the country to accept the terms of further integration, as stipulated by the West.
Thus, EU nations should recognize this valuable bargaining chip they can utilize against Ankara, and take advantage of this influence to drive Turkey to adopt policies that align with Western interests. For instance, the EU could press Turkey to adopt reforms on civil rights, contribute more resources to the fight against ISIS, or be more cooperative on matters pertaining to Syrian peace negotiations. EU members should also use this leverage to persuade the country to work with the West to restore stability and solve critical problems for a region mired in chaos.