Turkey, Russia to maintain pragmatic relationship for ‘as long as possible’ - ex ambassador

Turkey and Russia are continuing to engage in a pragmatic partnership for as long as possible despite being at odds in many theaters, analyst Omer Onhan wrote in an op-ed with pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Aawsat

Onhan, a former Turkish ambassador, detailed the long history of conflict in Russian-Turkish relations from the days of the Russian and Ottoman Empires. Before both empires collapsed after the First World War, the two clashed in numerous wars as part of a wider ideological struggle between the two in their shared neighbourhood. 

He noted that recent history has evolved from wars for territory to a mix of cooperation and competition. Today, Russia remains the largest energy exporter to Turkey and the main source of tourists who inject much needed funds into the Turkish tourism sector. However, Onhan points out that “80 per cent of bilateral trade volume is in favor of Russia”. 

The personal relationship between Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin has been an important element in keeping relations from veering into conflict.

Ankara-Moscow relations soured after a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian SU-24 on November 25, 2015,  but they rebounded after Putin called his Turkish counterpart on the night of the failed July 15, 2016 coup by elements of the Turkish military. By 2019, Erdoğan was referring to Putin as one of the world leaders he admired most. 

For whatever bonhomie shared by Erdoğan and Putin, Onhan says Russia and Turkey remain at odds across Syria, Libya, the southern Caucasus and Ukraine. In each of these conflicts, they back opposite sides but have generally avoided direct confrontation beyond their proxies. 

Onhan suggests that the latest source of competition could be Afghanistan where Russia has maintained dialogue with the Afghan Taliban-led government and Turkey seeks a role in operating Kabul’s international airport. He does not specify where their interests conflict, but says it would depend on how each develop their presence in Afghanistan in the future.

Turkey’s on again-off again relationship with Russia has rankled Ankara’s traditional Western partners, who see it as proof that it is drifting towards Moscow. Disagreements over Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 is the most immediate issue that raises these concerns, but Onhan argues that it was a feeling of being spurned by the West more than affinity for Russia that drives these decisions.

“Turks of different political convictions which rarely agree on anything, are of the same opinion that Turkey’s moves are not out of love for Russia but a consequence of the negative treatment of its Western Allies and partners," according to Onhan. 

In the end, Onhan believes that Turkish-Russian relations will remain governed by pragmatism but it will require “a lot of patience” and “looking the other way” to maintain cooperation as long as possible.


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