While Russia and Turkey have shown willingness to keep building their ties, the two nations may face limitations due to their divergence in foreign policy.
Ankara and Moscow have long struggled to narrow down their differences due to clashing foreign policy interests in Caucasia to Central Asia and the Balkans. In the last two decades, the relations were strained further with the emergence of the Ukrainian crisis and Syrian civil war.
Despite their competing foreign policies, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin still managed to carve out a way to encourage bilateral diplomacy along the healthy margins. Instead of confronting each other, both leaders developed a working relationship with an aim to minimise their long-standing differences.
The two leaders will have a one-on-one meeting on Wednesday in Sochi, a Black Sea port city of Russia, to discuss various issues from tensions in Syria to the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and Libya, where it’s still not clear whether elections scheduled for December will take place or not.
“The real story between Turkey and Russia is Syria, not the Azerbaijan conflict or Libya,” says Kamal Alam, a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Even though Russia is an Armenian ally, Moscow accepts that the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is part of Azerbaijani territory, which is something Turkey fiercely advocates.
While Turkey and Russia support opposing groups in Libya, after losses of warlord Khalifa Haftar against the UN-recognised Tripoli government, Moscow appears to diminish its political and military presence in the North African country, de-escalating tensions with Ankara.
In the Ukrainian crisis, both countries also support different political groups as Turkey continues to oppose the Russian annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Kiev’s purchase of Turkish drones against Moscow-backed rebel groups in Eastern Ukraine also creates some discontent across the Russian establishment, but that issue is also not a boiling matter at the moment.
But differences on the Syrian conflict remain serious as Russia and its ally, the Assad regime, continues to bomb Idlib, the last opposition stronghold in Syria, which violates the ceasefire deal brokered by Putin and Erdogan last year to put an end to the Assad regime's bloody land campaign in the northwestern province in late 2019.
“The real friction comes with Syria,” Alam tells TRT World, referring to Turkey-Russia differences over Idlib. “How do we move forward?” ask the two leaders probably to find a reliable path across Syria, according to Alam.
“It will not be an easy meeting,” Alam adds.
Idlib hosts more than four million people. Assad's relentless attacks on them pose a risk of another wave of refugees entering Turkey, which is the largest refugee-hosting country in the world with 3.7 million Syrians residing in it.
Alam thinks that after the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration seeks another exit from Syria, where Washington has allied with the YPG, the Syrian wing of the PKK, in the name of fighting Daesh. Much of northeastern Syria is currently under YPG's control thanks to the US' help.
The PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by the US, NATO, the EU and Turkey, has launched a decades-long terror campaign against Ankara, costing tens of thousands of lives.
The possible US withdrawal from Syria could happen at the end of this year, according to Alam. It means the YPG/PKK will be left alone in northeastern Syria if it’s not able to form another alliance with Russia and the Assad regime to survive in the region.
The PKK is not recognised as a terrorist organisation by Russia and the Assad regime has given the terror group a refuge in Syria in the past and has continued to deal with it during the civil war.
In recent years, Turkey has already secured several areas across northern Syria thanks to its back-to-back operations against both Daesh and the YPG/PKK. If Erdogan and Putin reach some kind of agreement over Idlib’s future status in Sochi, “perhaps Russia will help Turkey clear” the YPG/PKK from areas in northeastern Syria following the US withdrawal, Alam views.
“Turkey’s two main concerns in Syria are migration and terror,” says Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia political analyst, who will follow the meeting from Sochi.
During the meeting, Russia might demand from Turkey to soften its approach toward the Assad regime, using the recently-held presidential elections in Syria as a pretext, according to Yalinkilicli. Bashar al Assad won 95 percent of votes, according to the results of the elections which were widely believed to be rigged.
In the meeting, Putin might voice “an opinion that it’s better to have an Assad regime control over northern Syria than a PKK control over there”, Yalinkilicli tells TRT World. It’s not clear how Erdogan will respond to that opinion.
The Turkish president, who clearly expressed his displeasure of the US President Joe Biden’s management skills after the recent UN General Assembly meeting in New York, has already indicated that Ankara seeks closer relations with Moscow including buying more S-400s from the country.
“Working with Russia becomes easier because of weapons procurement and also the future of Turkey’s indigenous defence program. I think these are very important factors in the Turkey-Russia relationship going forward,” Alam says.
Despite Turkey’s repeated efforts, Washington has created conditions to prevent Ankara’s procurement of the Patriot system, forcing Ankara to seek other options like the Russian S-400s. “Russians ask less questions” while Americans create difficulties on weapons they sell to Turkey from their maintenance to where they will be used, Alam says.
“We have not seen any wrongdoing in relations with Russia so far,” Erdogan said. “We will of course reach an important decision in Turkey-Russia relations,” the president added, referring to the Sochi meeting tomorrow.
“Erdogan has signalled that he wants to move toward a new level of relations with Russia, seeking more military cooperation with Moscow,” says Yalinkilicli. “As a result, the Idlib issue is a litmus test for Turkey-Russia relations. Either both countries will be able to address this issue or it will stay as a thorny issue between the two countries,” the analyst says.
But both countries do not want a new era of political/military conflict in Syria, Yalinkilicli adds.
Besides Syria, Turkey and Russia might also find other potential cooperation areas in Afghanistan, where both countries develop cautious relations with the new interim Taliban-ruled government while continuing to have strong leverage over anti-Taliban Northern Alliance groups, according to Alam.
“Possible Russia-Turkey cooperation in Afghanistan might persuade the Taliban to have a more inclusive government,” Alam views.
Despite some signs of warming between Russia and Turkey, Yalinkilicli thinks that Moscow-Ankara connections have usually remained at a tactical level, depending on conjectural developments.
“Turkey and Russia are not strategic allies. Any political rapprochement between the two countries could be institutionalised under a strategic alliance,” the Moscow-based analyst views.
In the absence of current leaders, Erdogan and Putin, the Turkish-Russian relations might be in even much worse shape, Yalinkilicli says. “All these differences were kind of smoothed out thanks to good relations between Putin and Erdogan.”
For example, in Libya, despite backing opposing groups, both countries have reached some kind of understanding with each other, supporting both the interim government and the December elections, Yalinkilicli says. Conjectural developments favouring the legitimate Tripoli government have forced Moscow to reach an agreement with Ankara, he says.
But in Syria, Russia believes it has a different position, having a clear proxy like the Assad regime and military bases across the country as opposed to Libya, where Moscow could not have that level of political and military control. Unlike Libya, in Syria, Russia can also talk to different groups across the board, he adds.
Also Turkey’s fierce opposition to Russia’s Crimean annexation from Ukraine is a serious difference between the two countries, Yalinkilicli observes.
“Without addressing their differences over the Syrian and Crimean issues, I don’t see any real rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. Particularly, the Syria issue is the most decisive factor to keep relations stable.”
Alam echoed a similar view. “Outside the Biden factor, Russia-Turkey bilateral relationship is complicated because of Ukraine and Syria. So both sides need to give each other big things,” Alam says.