The Opportunistic Relationship Between Putin and Erdogan

Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan see their partnership as crucial to counterbalance the power of the West. NATO and the West are not fond of the growing bond between Ankara and Moscow. Indeed: to the alliance’s dismay, Turkey only recently bought Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, and Russia and Turkey also seem to be at least partially concordant on various key geopolitical matters.

The Relationship Between Turkey and Russia Remains Complex

The recent war over Nagorno-Karabakh has re-exposed the strong divisions that still exist between Ankara and Moscow. Although both Putin and Erdogan tend to oppose Western ideals and visions, significant differences of opinion between the two have persisted and the national interests of Russia and Turkey are far from fully aligned.

In 2004, Putin was the first Russian president to visit Turkey to reach agreements on defense and energy cooperation. Russia has long been Turkey’s leading supplier of natural gas and is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. For the Kremlin, Turkey is of strategic importance in terms of energy policy through the TurkStream pipeline project, which is practically the southern equivalent of the Nord Stream project through the Baltic Sea.

The pipeline recently went into operation. For Erdogan, the cooperation with Putin offers the opportunity to implement his ideas of an independent foreign policy. He can ignore objections from traditional partners in Europe and America as he has found a powerful non-Western ally in Putin.

Turkey and Russia are at Odds Over Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh

However, Erdogan and Putin are on different sides in Libya. Turkey, which seeks to expand its influence in the Mediterranean region, supports the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, while Russia supports General Khalifa Haftar of the Libyan National Army (LNA).

The fall of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was a severe financial blow for Russia. Moscow had granted the dictator a $4.5 billion USD loan for concessions to extract oil and gas and build a railway line. After the change of power, Turkey completed similar contracts with the new rulers and Russia was suddenly left out. That is why the Kremlin supported former Gaddafi General Haftar. Above all, mercenaries from the notorious Wagner Group were used, with which Moscow officially denies any connection.

However, when one of these units got into trouble in the summer, the Russian Air Force intervened.

When Russia entered the Syrian war in September of 2015, Putin and Erdogan found themselves on different sides as well. Moscow’s goal was to keep the Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad in power. Ankara, on the other hand, sought to overthrow Assad.

The confrontation escalated quickly: the Turkish air force shot down a Russian fighter plane in November. It then took a long time for Erdogan and Putin to come to terms. Erdogan was concerned with his second important goal: to break the Kurdish autonomous zone along the southern Turkish border. Putin saw the opportunity to oust the US from Syria. With the Kremlin’s consent, Turkey has conducted three military interventions against the Syrian Kurds since 2016.

In the last Syrian rebel bastion, Idlib, Erdogan, and Putin are having increasing difficulties reconciling their conflicting interests. While Putin supports the recapture of the province by Assad, Erdogan braces himself against the offensive as he fears a new wave of refugees to Turkey. In October, Putin sent Erdogan a signal of his dissatisfaction when Russian fighter jets bombed militias allied with the Turkish military.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh region, Erdogan supported Azerbaijan in the war against Armenia but enraged Putin by asking him to include Turkey in negotiations on a ceasefire. Nothing came of Turkish troop deployment to monitor the ceasefire: Moscow only allowed Turkey to station a few officers in an Azerbaijan joint command center.

Regardless of these serious geopolitical conflicts of interest, Russia and Turkey repeatedly manage to maintain an astonishingly high and stable level of cooperation, with their most significant commonality being the common desire to create a counterweight to the geopolitical sway of Western states and NATO.