“Turkey has shown one more time that it follows an independent foreign policy and is our trusted ally,” Russian leader Vladimir Putin said while referring to the second natural gas pipeline project at the beginning of his meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a G20 summit in Buenos Aires on Dec. 1.
This statement attests to the fact that the Russian leader perceives Turkey as following an independent foreign policy even if Turkey remains within the Western system.
As we prepare leaving behind 2018 we can say that the most apparent trend marking Turkey’s foreign policy is the “rapprochement process” between Turkey and Russia as it is reflected in Putin’s statements.
The second natural gas pipeline from the Black Sea that reached the shores of Turkey last November was the peak of economic cooperation between the two countries in 2018.
Yet it is the political relations and especially the cooperation on the field over Syria that creates the real “rapprochement” effect between Ankara and Moscow.
The fundamental axis of this cooperation is the Astana agreement that began in 2017 between Turkey, Russia and Iran to cooperate on Syria.
This trilateral mechanism shaped the developments in Syria in 2018, outpacing the international process under the auspices of United Nations.
Despite all the difficulties in the implementation, the agreement between Erdoğan and Putin in September on Idlib continues to receive appreciation from the international public opinion for restraining Bashar al-Assad’s regime from entering Idlib and thus averting a human tragedy.
Another critical factor that pushes Turkey and Russia’s rapprochement is the close relations and military cooperation that the United States forged with the PKK’s Syria wing YPG/PYD in east Euphrates.
The two countries met on a common threat evaluation in 2018 that the United States has embarked upon a search for an independent Kurdish state.
This threat perception about U.S. intentions has pushed Turkey and Russia into full solidarity on Syria by also taking Iran on their sides. The U.S. decision to pull out its soldiers from Syria looks set for this factor to subside for now.
An important strategic analysis also plays a role in Putin’s rapprochement toward Turkey. This rapprochement comes at a time when Turkey’s relations with the United States spirals from one crisis to another and relations with the European Union have become truly blurred.
While Russia strengthens a cooperation based on trust with NATO member Turkey, it is also probably calculating the fact that this is facilitating a divide within the Western defense system.
The fact that Turkey’s Western orbit has taken a debatable nature in Turkey’s strategic identity will be seen undoubtedly by Kremlin as a situation in favor of its interests.
At this stage we can say that a threshold was crossed by Erdoğan’s decision to purchase the S400 air defense system from Russia. With this decision, Erdoğan gave Kremlin a strong message that when required he can afford to come into contention with the West for Russia.
We can see the traces of the S400 decision behind Putin’s “Turkey pursues an independent foreign policy” rhetoric.
When we add up all this it will be an objective factual statement to say that at least in terms of the year we leave behind Russia, not the U.S., as Turkey’s strategic partner.
The trend in developments in Syria and especially whether or not Putin will maintain the balance he set up between Turkey and the Assad regime will determine if this partnership will continue in 2019.
The spotlights will turn toward Ankara also in terms of balances. Let’s not forget that while approaching Russia, in the subtitles of this policy Erdoğan was making the West feel that its trump cards were not that weak.
It will be an important challenge for Erdoğan how he will maintain the balance with Russia along with the surprising improvement in relations with the U.S. that started at the end of the year.
In sum, the working relationship based on close dialogue that consolidated in 2018 between Putin and Erdoğan is faced by serious challenges in the coming year.
Finally, there are two important points in terms of relations with Russia.
First, it is to the interest of Turkey to strengthen relations with our northern neighbor in all fields and should be supported.
Yet the balance while managing this relation should not slide in a line that will weaken Turkey’s hands against Russia.
The second is about our place in the world. For decades Turkey’s orbit around the West has been an expression of a preference not just based on security needs and economic interests but one that aspires for values like the rule of law and democracy.
Let’s not forget that despite all its gains in the political and economic fields, rapprochement with Russia will not support this perspective.