Collusion or Collision? Turkey-Russia Relations Under Erdogan and Putin
By Foundation For Defense of Democracies
Foreword By Ambassador Eric S. Edelman U.S. relations with Turkey and Russia have soured over the last two decades. Once a staunch ally anchoring NATO’s southern flank, Turkey has increasingly drifted from the West. With Russia, post-Cold War hopes for strategic partnership between Moscow and the West have given way to renewed strategic competition and confrontation. Meanwhile, despite a long history of fraught relations dating back to the 16th century, Turkey and Russia have moved closer. This report serves as an indispensable guide to the relationship between Ankara and Moscow. To be sure, their differences are many, and mutual suspicion still runs deep. Yet the authors carefully document how the regimes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin have managed to compartmentalize their relationship, mixing competition with substantial — if transactional — cooperation across a range of areas. Many in Washington continue to see Turkey as a bulwark against Russia, yet this report capably demonstrates that such notions are fanciful, at least for as long as Erdogan remains in charge. Economic ties, particularly in the energy sector, drove Russian-Turkish rapprochement following the Soviet Union’s collapse. These ties remain a key pillar of their relationship, helping to buffer against growing Russian-Turkish geopolitical competition across multiple regions. But there are also broader and deeper forces at play. Erdogan and Putin both reject the post-Cold War liberal international order and view Turkish-Russian cooperation as a means of advancing their revisionist geopolitical agendas. Cultivating ties with Moscow helps Ankara achieve independence from the West. For the Kremlin, Turkey’s drift from the West supports Moscow’s longstanding efforts to undermine NATO, as seen with Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Turkey and Russia’s alignment also reflects domestic factors. Neither strongman chastises the other for his democratic shortcomings or kleptocracy. In both countries, large swathes of the elite reject liberalism and associated visions that root their country’s national identity and strategic vocation within the West. Indeed, Erdogan’s alliance with Turkey’s “Eurasianist” faction, which eschews the West and prioritizes relations with Russia and other non-Western powers, has helped fuel Ankara’s alignment with Moscow. For Putin, Russia’s “Eurasianist” thinkers have provided useful political cover for his authoritarian and kleptocratic regime. In Washington, both political parties have come to recognize that America and its allies face growing threats from authoritarian powers that seek to undermine the interests and values of free societies. This report is among the best works that show how such autocratic regimes are able to cooperate effectively despite their unresolved differences. For the United States and its allies, successfully navigating the Turkey-Russia relationship will require an accurate picture of today’s Turkey. Thankfully, the analysis here reflects a deep understanding of Turkish politics and the subtle ways in which ideology, strategy, and economic interests blend together to shape foreign policy. As the authors note, Ankara’s drift from the West reflects a fundamental shift in Turkish foreign policy: Although Erdogan does not seek to exit NATO, he seeks to balance between East and West, making Erdogan’s Turkey unlikely to reprise its former role as a stalwart transatlantic ally. The foreign policies of both Moscow and Ankara have deep domestic roots, and both Washington and its allies will need to develop a coordinated strategy to deal with the consequences of the Turkish-Russian entente. This monograph offers a nuanced set of policy recommendations to inform that effort. They deserve careful consideration by policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic. Ambassador Eric S. Edelman Former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Chairman, FDD’s Turkey Program; Senior Advisor, FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power
Illustration by Daniel Ackerman/FDD
Introduction When Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber over the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015, it was the first downing of a Russian military aircraft by a NATO member since 1952. Russian President Vladimir Putin decried the downing as a “stab in the back delivered by terrorists’ accomplices,” while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisted Ankara’s actions were “fully in line with Turkey’s rules of engagement.” Erdogan proceeded to demand that Russia “respect the right of Turkey to defend its borders.” Yet by August 2016 — less than a month after an abortive coup d’état by a faction within the Turkish military — the two leaders would meet in St. Petersburg to usher in a new era of rapprochement. A year later, an increasingly anti-Western Erdogan stunned Turkey’s NATO allies by announcing his plans to purchase Russia’s S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Russian and Turkish interests still collide — sometimes violently — from the Middle East and North Africa to the Black Sea, from the Caucasus to Caspian energy supplies to Europe. Mutual suspicion runs deep, informed by centuries of war and mistrust. Russian-Turkish competition has intensified in recent years amid increased adventurism by both Moscow and Ankara. Nevertheless, the two powers have achieved close, if transactional, cooperation in the economic, diplomatic, and even security spheres. Both Putin and Erdogan have learned to manage their differences. Economic cooperation, particularly in the energy sector, constitutes both the main historical driver of Turkish-Russian relations as well as a buffer against geopolitical tensions. In January 2020, Russia and Turkey inaugurated the TurkStream natural gas pipeline. Earlier this year, Putin and Erdogan began construction on the third unit of Turkey’s Russian-built $20 billion Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant project. Shared antipathy toward the West is another driver of the Russian-Turkish relationship. For Erdogan, ties with Russia facilitate independence from the West. For Putin, Turkey’s willingness to break with Washington and other NATO allies fits well with Moscow’s campaign to erode U.S. influence and undermine the transatlantic alliance. Ankara received two S-400 batteries in 2019 and conducted a firing test in 2020, becoming the first and only NATO member to earn U.S. sanctions for buying Russian arms. Earlier this year, Russia reiterated its readiness to sell advanced fighter jets to Turkey following Ankara’s ejection from the U.S.-led Joint Strike Fighter program. Moscow and Ankara also cooperate in various non-Western international organizations. Putin and Erdogan have a close working relationship; since 2016, they have spoken by phone more times than with any other world leader. Neither criticizes the other’s autocratic behavior, while both face frequent opprobrium from the West. Both are populist, nationalistic strongmen who champion conservative values and contrast themselves with a decadent West. Russia and Turkey’s various geopolitical disputes have continually tested this relationship, requiring the two leaders to take “manual” control, as the Russians say, to hammer out a deal. “No matter how tough President Erdogan’s stance may look, I know that … finding a common language with him is possible,” Putin said in October 2020, even as Russian-Turkish tensions mounted over Ankara’s involvement in last year’s Armenia-Azerbaijan war. Putin then praised Erdogan for sticking with TurkStream and the S-400 purchase despite Western pressure, contrasting Erdogan’s reliability with Europe’s inability “to show enough basic independence or sovereignty to implement” Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. “Working with such a partner is not only pleasant but also safe.” However, while Putin and Erdogan’s outsized roles enhance predictability and flexibility in bilateral negotiations, they may also inhibit a deeper and more durable partnership. Some institutional ties do exist, including frequent contacts at the intergovernmental, military-to-military, special services, inter-parliamentary, corporate, people-to-people, and expert levels. The relative popularity of pro-Russia propaganda outlets in Turkey provides Moscow another lever to influence Russian-Turkish relations. Ultimately, though, the trajectory of Russian-Turkish relations still hinges on direct negotiations between the two strongmen, particularly during crises. In Washington, some still believe Ankara remains a bulwark against Russian expansionism on NATO’s southeastern flank. While areas of fruitful cooperation with Turkey do still exist, this report demonstrates that under Erdogan, Turkey’s drift from the West and tilt toward Russia reflect a fundamental transformation of Ankara’s foreign and security policy. Just as Moscow and Ankara will not soon become stalwart allies, Erdogan’s Turkey is equally unlikely to be a steadfast member of the Western alliance. Rather, Ankara likely will aim to leverage the two camps against one another. Washington and its transatlantic allies therefore must take urgent and coordinated action to clarify their strategy toward Turkey. The West should pursue cooperation with Turkey where interests align, such as countering Russia in the Black Sea region and promoting alternatives to Russian energy supplies. But the West should also seek to contain challenges from Turkey by imposing firm consequences for further aligning with Russia or otherwise undermining NATO, while providing incentives if Ankara does the right thing. Given that Erdogan is unlikely to fundamentally change course, the West should also mitigate against risks such as the loss of access to Turkish military bases and further Turkish destabilization in the Eastern Mediterranean. Finally, Washington and its allies should lay the groundwork to bring Turkey back into the Western fold in a post-Erdogan era, by engaging with the Turkish people and supporting democratic institutions in Turkey.
Part I: Turkey’s Drift From the Western World CENTURIES OF RIVALRY Turkey and Russia have a centuries-old relationship defined mostly by strategic competition and war. Between the 16th and early 20th centuries, the Ottoman Empire lost territory spanning from Crimea to Circassia after fighting 12 major wars against Russian armies, almost all of which Russia instigated and won. This legacy of mutual enmity and distrust always lingers. Russia remains the only neighboring country Turkey truly fears. Periods of cooperation between Russia and Turkey were typically short-lived and geared toward countering a common foe. In the aftermath of World War I, the ascendant Turkish nationalists and Russia’s communist government shared perceived enemies in the West. The two powers signed treaties settling their territorial disputes. The Bolsheviks were the first to formally recognize the new administration in Ankara and provided aid that the Kemalists used to consolidate power. This relative harmony evaporated in the 1930s and 1940s, however, as Joseph Stalin pursued greater control over Turkey and particularly the Turkish Straits. From World War II until Stalin’s death in 1953, Ankara lived in constant fear of Soviet invasion, leading Turkey to join NATO in 1952. In return for significant U.S. military investments in Turkey, Ankara hosted a variety of U.S. military and intelligence assets, including Jupiter nuclear-armed medium-range ballistic missiles, B61 nuclear gravity bombs, and nuclear artillery. Moscow continued the tsarist-era practice of using the Kurds to weaken and gain leverage over Turkey, including by supporting the Marxist-Leninist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant Kurdish group established in the 1970s. Despite Turkey’s NATO membership, diplomatic crises with Washington throughout the 1960s and 1970s led Turkish leaders to question the arrangement. The U.S. withdrawal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey to resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis worried Ankara. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson warned that America might not defend Turkey from a potential Soviet attack if Ankara invaded Cyprus. When Turkey did intervene in 1974, the United States imposed a crippling arms embargo, which Washington lifted in 1978 to arrest Turkey’s tilt toward Moscow. Thereafter, Ankara chose to remain in the Western alliance. FROM THE END OF THE COLD WAR TO THE ARAB SPRING Despite expectations that Turkey would draw closer to the West, the breakdown of Ankara’s bid for EU membership, as well as U.S.-Turkish tensions over the two wars in Iraq, spurred a new turn to Moscow. Shared resentment toward the West has helped fuel Russian-Turkish rapprochement, forming what some analysts have termed an “Axis of the Excluded.” The First Gulf War strained U.S.-Turkish relations. Baghdad’s loss of control over northern Iraq allowed the outlawed PKK, which had fought Ankara since the 1980s, to train militants and stage operations against Turkey. Ankara also felt frustrated with Washington’s support for the Iraqi Kurds and perceived insensitivity to Turkish interests. These concerns helped drive Ankara’s failure to let the U.S. military use Turkish bases and airspace during the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. That rift undermined U.S.-Turkish trust. Ankara’s opposition to the U.S. invasion also provided a point of consensus with Moscow, which applauded Turkey’s break with the United States. The gradual breakdown of Turkey’s EU accession process exacerbated Turkish dissatisfaction with the West. So did increasing EU criticism of Turkey’s democratic deficiencies, particularly relating to Ankara’s treatment of the Kurds. Turkey resented the European Union’s perceived double-standard in excluding Turkey while including the former Warsaw Pact states, whose democratic credentials Ankara saw as no better than its own. In 2004, pushed by Turkey’s rival Greece, Brussels granted membership to the Republic of Cyprus even after Greek Cypriots rejected a UN-sponsored effort to reconcile Nicosia with the island’s self-declared Turkish Cypriot state. This not only provoked an anti-EU nationalist backlash in Turkey, but also gave Nicosia a veto over Turkish accession. Accession talks launched in 2005 quickly stalled as Berlin and Paris began suggesting a “privileged partnership” with Turkey rather than full membership. With Turkey’s EU membership process all but dead, most Turks today see EU accession as unrealistic or even undesirable. Although Erdogan was more interested in exploiting the accession process to undermine Turkey’s secular establishment and consolidate his own power, he has leveraged the deadlock to foment anti-Western sentiment. In a 2017 survey, 68 percent of Turkish respondents said their country’s relationship with the West was “breaking,” while almost 72 percent believed Turkey should forge “a political, economic, and security alliance with Russia.” This anti-Western trend helped fuel the rise of Turkish Eurasianism, a contradictory blend of Kemalism, Turkish nationalism, socialism, and radical secularism. Although Turkey’s Eurasianst camp comprises a variety of strains, there are three core elements: an anti-imperialist aversion to the West and globalization; a conspiratorial belief that Western powers threaten Turkey’s unity and borders; and the notion that Turkey’s future lies with the Eastern bloc, especially as the West’s relative global influence declines. Despite traditionally constituting a marginal force in Turkish politics, the Eurasianist camp has gained sway in Turkish domestic and foreign policy, helping drive Ankara’s pivot toward Russia. In 2002, the then-secretary-general of Turkey’s National Security Committee, General Tuncer Kilinc, argued Turkey should abandon the European Union in favor of Russia and Iran. Although few observers at the time paid serious heed, like-minded officers gained a more prominent position within the Turkish military following the failed coup d’état of July 2016. An ensuing purge eliminated many pro-Western officers, creating a vacuum quickly filled by Eurasianists. Purges in universities, bureaucracy, and judiciary have similarly enabled the Eurasianists to consolidate power and shape state policies. Turkey’s souring relations with the West helped fuel rapprochement with Russia. Turkey and Russia expanded economic ties, with energy as their cornerstone, even though Ankara also championed the Western-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, an alternative to Russian export routes. Turkey became the first NATO member to import Russian arms. From 1992 to 1996, Moscow provided Turkey with transport helicopters and armored personnel carriers, among other armaments. The two concluded an agreement in 1994 on military-technical and defense-industrial cooperation. In 1998, they signed a memorandum of understanding on boosting military cooperation. Ankara invited Russia into Turkish-initiated economic and security institutions focused on the Black Sea region. To be sure, Russia and Turkey’s rivalry and mutual suspicion persisted. Ankara’s pan-Turkic aspirations and (largely unsuccessful) efforts to exploit Russia’s post-Soviet retreat in the Caucasus and Central Asia worried Moscow. In response to Turkey’s covert support for the Chechen rebels during Russia’s humiliating First Chechen War, Moscow increased ties with the PKK. Ankara also backed Azerbaijan against Armenia during their war in the early 1990s, while Moscow leaned toward Yerevan. The two powers also differed over the Bosnia and Kosovo wars. Russian plans to provide S-300s to Cyprus triggered a crisis ultimately defused by a U.S.-brokered compromise. Nevertheless, Russian-Turkish relations continued to deepen, thanks to mutual efforts to mitigate conflict, coupled with Ankara’s comparatively limited influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia and a focus on domestic woes in both countries. Moscow and Ankara eventually found common ground on a range of divisive issues. Most notably, Ankara agreed not to sell arms to the Chechens or allow volunteers to fight in Chechnya, while Moscow promised not to allow any Kurdish activities in Russia directed at Turkey. Although Moscow continued to complain that Turkey harbored Chechens, Turkey did clamp down on Chechen émigré networks. In 1999, during Russia’s more successful Second Chechen War, then-Prime Minister Putin signed a joint counterterrorism declaration with his Turkish counterpart, who told Turkish media that Chechnya was Russia’s internal affair. Moscow, for its part, scaled back support for the PKK. Following the turbulence of the 1990s, Russian-Turkish relations blossomed in the 2000s thanks both to burgeoning economic ties and to each country’s deteriorating relations with the West. Bilateral trade boomed. Russia became Turkey’s top trading partner, while Turkey became a key market for Russian gas exports. In 2001, they signed a Joint Action Plan for Cooperation in Eurasia and established a bilateral commission on military-technical cooperation. The Blue Stream natural gas pipeline came online in 2003, establishing Russia’s first direct route to Turkey. Putin visited Turkey in 2004, the first bilateral visit by a Russian leader in over 30 years. The two powers signed six agreements, covering energy, finance, and security, and pledged to boost relations comprehensively, including through counterterrorism (anti-separatist) cooperation. Erdogan reciprocated with visits to Moscow in 2005 and 2010. The two leaders signed a deal for South Stream (TurkStream’s predecessor) in 2009. A 2010 visit by Putin’s presidential placeholder, Dmitry Medvedev, yielded agreements on visa-free tourism, the $20 billion Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, and the establishment of a High-Level Cooperation Council, among other things. Russia sold Turkey anti-tank missile systems from 2008 to 2010, and Russian and Turkish companies jointly developed the PMADS-IGLA short-range air defense system. RUSSIA, TURKEY, AND THE WAR IN SYRIA U.S.-Turkey ties once again deteriorated following the 2011 Arab uprisings. Above all, Ankara severely overestimated Washington’s commitment to overthrowing the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Toppling Assad suited Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, with the goal of installing a regime aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s Syria policy pitted it against Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers. Ankara’s support for Islamists during the Arab Spring caused concern in Moscow, which feared the uprisings would erode Russian influence and empower extremists, potentially spilling over into Central Asia and even Russia’s own restive Muslim regions. More broadly, the Kremlin saw the Arab Spring as part of a longstanding Western campaign to foment regime change, fueling Kremlin suspicions that a “Russian spring” might be next. Russian and Turkish interests clashed most violently in Syria. Moscow sought to prevent “another Libya,” where Russia had acquiesced to a limited NATO intervention in 2011 — only for it to lead to the overthrow and killing of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In September 2015, Russia shocked the West by launching an air campaign to rescue the Assad regime from collapse. Though Moscow and Ankara had thus far managed to compartmentalize their differences over Syria, Russian-Turkish relations grew increasingly tense following Russia’s intervention, particularly as Russia intensified its air campaign against Ankara-backed Turkmen rebels. Tensions peaked on November 24, 2015, when Turkish forces shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber. One of the Russian pilots and another Russian servicemember sent to rescue them were then killed by Ankara-backed Turkmen rebels, marking Russia’s first combat casualties of the war. Couching the shoot-down in personal terms, Putin demanded an apology for the “stab in the back delivered by terrorists’ accomplices.” He accused Turkey of aiding the Islamic State through illicit hydrocarbon purchases, later charging that the shoot-down was rooted in Ankara’s “domestic policy of quite conscious Islamicisation.” Moscow broke off military contacts with Turkey and deployed S-400 batteries and other military assets to Syria, effectively closing Syrian airspace to Turkey. Russia intensified its air campaign against Turkey-backed Syrian rebel groups, reportedly even striking a Turkish aid convoy. A multi-language Russian propaganda campaign amplified criticism of Turkey. Surveys conducted the following May by Russia’s leading independent polling agency showed Turkey as Russia’s third-biggest enemy, behind only America and Ukraine, up dramatically from 2015. Until the shootdown, the two sides had managed to insulate economics from their geopolitical disagreements. But afterward, Moscow suspended the TurkStream and Akkuyu projects and imposed harsh sanctions against Turkey, while Russia’s Federal Security Service harassed Turkish banks and businesspeople in Russia. Ankara, for its part, blocked dozens of Russian ships from transiting the Turkish Straits after accusing Moscow of detaining Turkish vessels at Russian ports. In his December 2015 address to Russia’s Federal Assembly, Putin declared that Russia’s retaliation would go beyond sanctions, vowing to make Ankara rue its “heinous war crime.” Days later, a Russian soldier drew Turkish outrage when he brandished a shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft launcher while transiting the Bosporus Strait. Russian warships harassed Turkish civilian vessels the following week. Shortly thereafter, Turkey suffered cyberattacks suspected to be the work of Russian hackers. Moscow also increased political and military support for the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Forces (YPG), which Ankara views as an affiliate of the outlawed PKK. In downing the Su-24, Erdogan had sought to demonstrate not only that Turkey was a major power in the region, but also that it could invoke NATO’s support if Russia retaliated. Immediately after the incident, a panicked Erdogan called an emergency meeting of the alliance. To his surprise and dismay, however, Washington and other Western capitals issued a tepid, equivocal response, reflecting their reluctance to risk conflict with Moscow. Likewise, Washington and Berlin rejected Ankara’s request to cancel a planned withdrawal of Patriot surface-to-air missile systems from the Syrian-Turkish border, exacerbating Turkish distrust of NATO. Washington’s backing of the YPG as the primary Syrian ground force against the Islamic State also alarmed Erdogan, who argued America had chosen to partner with one terrorist organization to defeat another. While Washington prioritized defeating the Islamic State, Ankara’s priority was overthrowing Assad. Seeing the West as unreliable, Erdogan concluded he could not afford to alienate Russia. In June 2016, seeking to break his diplomatic isolation and secure Moscow’s blessing for operations against the YPG, which Ankara had come to see as a higher priority than toppling Assad, Erdogan sent Putin an ambiguously worded letter expressing regret over the Su-24 incident and stressing his desire to improve relations. The letter followed months of public and private Turkish diplomatic efforts to ease tensions, largely rebuffed by Moscow. Likely seeing Erdogan’s overture as an opportunity to negotiate from strength, Putin accepted Erdogan’s letter as an apology and agreed to restore relations. Erdogan and Putin meet in St. Petersburg, Russia, on August 9, 2016. A Turkish military faction’s attempted coup d’état in July 2016 cemented Erdogan’s turn Eastward. Following the failed putsch, the Turkish leader complained about delayed and lukewarm Western pledges of support. He was also infuriated by Washington’s refusal to extradite his former ally-turned-archnemesis, Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based Turkish cleric who many Turks believe orchestrated the coup. Western criticism of Erdogan’s subsequent domestic crackdown fueled further tensions. Putin seized the opportunity to bolster ties with Turkey and sow division within the Western alliance. He was among the first world leaders to call Erdogan and condemn the coup; unnamed Turkish sources reportedly said Putin even offered the assistance of nearby Russian military forces. Two weeks later, Erdogan traveled to St. Petersburg for his first post-coup foreign visit, during which he and Putin agreed to normalize relations. Erdogan expressed gratitude for Putin’s “psychological support.” Russian media fanned the flames of Turkish anti-Western sentiments while encouraging Russian-Turkish reconciliation, running conspiratorial articles alleging U.S. involvement in the coup. The two sides moved quickly to restore their partnership, agreeing to work together in Syria, resurrect the TurkStream and Akkuyu projects, expand trade and investment, and cooperate in the defense industry. Even when a Turkish gunman assassinated the Russian ambassador in December 2016, Putin kept Russian-Turkish ties on track by deflecting blame away from Ankara.
Part II: Enduring Geopolitical Competition With Russia Despite Russia and Turkey’s rapprochement, their interests and ambitions diverge or clash in many arenas, from Syria, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean to the Balkans, Black Sea, Caucasus, and Central Asia. Turkey’s desire to remain in NATO, though useful for Moscow as a divisive force within the alliance, also limits the long-term potential for Russian-Turkish relations. Nevertheless, Putin and Erdogan have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to navigate disagreements and crises and negotiate pragmatic understandings, often at the West’s expense. The worse Ankara’s tensions with Washington and Brussels, the stronger Moscow’s leverage to coerce or induce Turkey to advance Russian interests. At the same time, Turkey’s increasing geopolitical adventurism has led to greater competition with Russia in recent years. This trend looks likely to continue, potentially offering opportunities for Washington and its Western allies to exploit the additional strain on Russian-Turkish relations. SYRIA Syria remains a pivotal theater in Russian-Turkish relations. Despite continuing disagreements, Moscow and Ankara have cooperated to expand their diplomatic and military footprints at the West’s expense. They have established an alternative to the Western-led peace process and struck deals over thorny issues, such as the fate of northeastern Syria and Idlib province. As prominent pro-Kremlin analyst Fyodor Lukyanov explains, Russia and Turkey’s “partnership” in Syria is based not on common goals or trust, but on an “understanding that without interaction, neither party can achieve anything on its own.” Critically, Erdogan’s initial plans to replace the Assad regime with a Muslim Brotherhood-led government under Ankara’s tutelage shifted to preventing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish statelet on Turkey’s southern border. Moscow supported this effort by acquiescing to Turkish military operations against the YPG in 2016 and in 2018, for which Ankara needed Russian permission to use Syrian airspace. In return, Ankara leveraged its influence with Syria’s opposition to help broker a pair of December 2016 deals to clear rebels from Aleppo and establish a nationwide cease-fire. Peace talks backed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran began the next month in Astana (now called Nur-Sultan), sidelining Washington. The talks yielded four so-called “de-escalation zones” across Syria that ultimately facilitated the return of regime control to rebel-held areas. America’s inconstant Syria policy has empowered Russia, increasing Moscow’s importance for Turkey. This proved particularly true in October 2019, when then-President Donald Trump withdrew U.S. troops from northeastern Syria ahead of a Turkish military operation against the YPG. The withdrawal forced the Kurds to accept a Russian-brokered deal that returned regime control to several key Kurdish towns Russian forces took over abandoned U.S. military base and began patrolling the line of contact between Syrian and Turkish forces Moscow, however, worried the Turkish incursion could disrupt Russia’s peace process in Syria, allow a resurgence of the Islamic State, and lead to a permanent Turkish presence in Syria. Moscow’s warnings to Ankara, initially muted, intensified as Turkey’s operation against the YPG continued, culminating in a trip by Erdogan to Sochi later that month. Intense negotiations yielded an agreement that protected each side’s core interests, enforced by joint Russian-Turkish patrols. Ankara agreed to freeze its advances and not to permanently occupy captured territory. Turkey also committed to support the Astana process and Constitutional Committee and signaled potential openness to a Russian-facilitated reconciliation with Damascus. Moscow, meanwhile, pledged to remove YPG forces from the Turkish-Syrian border and facilitate the return of Syrian refugees from Turkey. While still officially opposed to Assad, Ankara has come to tacitly accept his rule. Russia, for its part, is still keen to facilitate dialogue between Turkey and the Assad regime. Moscow has encouraged Turkey and Syria to resolve their disputes over border and Kurdish issues by reviving the 1998 Adana Agreement, under which Damascus and Ankara resolved bilateral tensions by cracking down on the PKK.
In January 2020, Russia facilitated a Moscow meeting between the Syrian and Turkish intelligence chiefs, their first since the Syrian war began. Still, the situation along the Syrian-Turkish border remains unstable. Idlib, in particular, is a flashpoint. Moscow wants eventually to return the Turkey-backed Islamist stronghold to regime control. But Ankara fears additional refugee flows into Turkey, which already hosts over 3.6 million displaced Syrians. Under a September 2018 deal Putin and Erdogan struck in Sochi, Turkey temporarily averted a Russia-backed regime offensive against Idlib. In return, Ankara promised to establish and jointly enforce a demilitarized buffer zone, clear the area of “radical” rebel fighters and heavy weaponry, and open two strategic highways. Following Turkey’s perceived failure to implement the agreement, a renewed regime offensive against Idlib began in May 2019, backed by Russian air support. By January 2020, regime advances had sent almost a million refugees fleeing toward Turkey’s border, while threatening Turkish military observers in the area. Ankara deployed thousands of troops to prevent the fall of Idlib. Fearing a conflict with Russia, Ankara called for NATO support and requested a U.S. Patriot deployment. Washington declined to provide more than rhetorical support. The crisis climaxed when Russian-Syrian airstrikes killed dozens of Turkish soldiers. Ankara requested an emergency NATO meeting, while Russia deployed two Kalibr-armed frigates and several amphibious assault ships to the region. Choosing to publicly blame the strikes on the Assad regime rather than Russia, Ankara launched a massive counteroffensive that decimated pro-regime forces. Russia stepped aside for Turkey’s face-saving counteroffensive, likely reflecting both a recognition of Turkey’s local military advantage and Putin’s reluctance to risk broader Russian-Turkish relations. After Russia-backed pro-regime forces reversed Turkey’s territorial gains, Putin and Erdogan again took “manual” control with face-to-face talks in Moscow on March 5, 2020. Tough negotiations produced an additional protocol to the 2018 Sochi deal, stipulating a cease-fire, a “security corridor” around the strategic M4 highway, and joint Russian-Turkish patrols. While that deal averted a larger crisis, the Idlib problem persists. Both sides continue to accuse the other of not implementing their agreements on Idlib, and Assad is eager to retake the province. Turkey, however, has deployed reinforcements to prevent further regime advances, including south of the still-closed M4 highway, whose opening would likely be the objective of a renewed Russian-Syrian offensive. A September 2021 Erdogan-Putin meeting in Sochi, held amid intensifying Russian and Assad regime strikes in and around Idlib, produced no apparent breakthroughs. Russian-Syrian attacks have continued as part of an apparent effort to pressure Ankara. The Idlib problem will thus continue to test the Russian-Turkish relationship, while giving Moscow leverage through the threat of renewed refugee flows into Turkey. Meanwhile, Ankara is beating the drums of war northern and northeastern Syria. Turkey complains that Russia has failed to clear out YPG fighters, whom Ankara frequently accuses of attacking Turkey and Turkish-controlled areas in Syria. After a pair of alleged Kurdish attacks in mid-October, Erdogan declared he has “no patience left.” Turkish officials later explicitly threatened another offensive against Kurdish strongholds in northern and northeastern Syria. Ankara has since poured reinforcements into Turkish-controlled parts of Syria, mobilized its Syrian proxy fighters, and stepped up artillery and drone attacks against YPG positions. In response, Russia and the Assad regime have bolstered their military posture in northern and northeastern Syria and conducted continual military exercises there. Meanwhile, Russian diplomats reportedly are working to contain the escalation. Some reports claim Ankara hopes to secure Moscow’s blessing for the offensive by trading territory near the M4 highway in Idlib, though the prospects for such a deal remain unclear. In an interview published on November 9, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said Moscow had assured them that it “had told the Turks that [Russia] would not accept an attack.” The Russian and Turkish defense ministers discussed Syria via phone on November 15 but offered no details on their conversation. LIBYA Erdogan and Putin have extended their pattern of competition and transactional cooperation to Libya. Despite having divergent — though not irreconcilable — interests, Moscow and Ankara facilitated a recent peace agreement in Libya that has cooled tensions. But if the deal falls apart, as Libya’s previous agreements have, Russian-Turkish competition could heat up again. For Turkey, which seeks to restore its Ottoman-era influence across the Eastern Mediterranean, Libya is a battleground for competition not only with Russia but also with the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, which bitterly oppose Ankara’s support for political Islam. Ankara also seeks to preserve a maritime delimitation agreement with Libya’s erstwhile UN-recognized government, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), designed to bolster Turkey’s efforts to expand its maritime borders. Both Turkey and Russia also hope to secure lucrative energy and construction contracts in a restabilized Libya, having lost billions of dollars’ worth of deals following the 2011 NATO-backed toppling of Muammar Gaddafi. For Russia, Libya also offers inroads for regional influence, potential port access in the Eastern Mediterranean, and diplomatic leverage in Europe thanks to Libya’s role in migrant and hydrocarbon flows. Working with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, Moscow provided diplomatic, political, financial, military, and military-technical support to Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), the main adversary of the GNA. Haftar’s forces controlled most of Libya, including its major energy assets. Yet backing Haftar was always a tactical bet for Russia, which also cultivated ties with the GNA and other power brokers, including Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Qaddafi and the speaker of Libya’s Tobruk-based House of Representatives. This multi-vector strategy, coupled with Russia’s lower stakes in Libya relative to Turkey, has afforded Moscow a greater degree of flexibility. In April 2019, Haftar launched a campaign to overthrow the Tripoli-based GNA. Seeing an opportunity to increase its influence, Russia deployed Wagner Group contractors who numbered as many as 1,400 by late 2019, providing what UN monitors called “an effective force multiplier for” Haftar. Turkey, meanwhile, supplied arms to shore up the GNA and allied militias. When LNA forces began a decisive battle to take Tripoli in December 2019, Erdogan doubled down, sending Turkish military advisors, armed drones, heavy weapons, and thousands of Turkey’s Syrian proxy forces. Russia responded by deploying additional Wagner as well as Syrian contractors. Ankara, wary of slipping into a proxy war with Moscow, reportedly also reached out to Moscow “to avoid a confrontation.” While inaugurating the TurkStream pipeline in January 2020, Putin and Erdogan released a joint statement calling for a cease-fire and political settlement in Libya. Days later, the warring parties, under Russian and Turkish pressure, forged a shaky truce before peace talks began in Moscow and Berlin, where Turkey and Russia pushed for a lasting cease-fire, but to no avail. In May 2020, following a Putin-Erdogan phone call in which they called for a truce and renewed peace talks, Russia abandoned Haftar’s failing offensive, and Ankara and Tripoli allowed Wagner and Russian-backed Syrian forces to redeploy safely. With the LNA on the run, Turkish-backed forces began retaking territory, marching toward strategically important Sirte and Al-Jufra Airbase. To prevent their fall, which would undercut Moscow’s diplomatic leverage, Russia deployed over a dozen unmarked Mig-29s and Su-24s (likely Wagner-flown) along with additional Wagner and Syrian contractors, forcing a stalemate. With Russian and Turkish support, an October 2020 cease-fire led to a February 2021 agreement to establish an interim executive authority before elections in December 2021. Yet although the cease-fire agreement called for the withdrawal of all foreign forces within three months, Russia and Turkey continued to fly contractors into Libya even after the cease-fire. Ankara demands that any withdrawal deal must exclude Turkish military advisors, while Moscow insists it must cover all foreign forces and not alter Libya’s current military balance. In mid-September, following talks aimed at normalizing relations with Egypt, Turkey reportedly withdrew an unspecified number of Syrian contractors from Watya airbase southwest of Tripoli. In return, Ankara reportedly asked Cairo to help ensure Wagner forces also leave Libya. Later that month, Wagner operatives reportedly began redeploying from the Jufra and Ghardabiya airbases toward eastern Libya. On October 8, Libya’s Joint Military Commission announced an action plan for a UN-monitored “withdrawal of all mercenaries, foreign fighters and foreign forces … in a phased, balanced and synchronized manner,” but offered no further details or timeline. A commission member said the plan consists of two stages: The first, hopefully begun before the elections, would involve the gradual removal of Wagner, Sudanese, and Syrian fighters on the front lines, while the second would involve Russian, Turkish, Gulf Arab, and European military forces. The commission is now seeking domestic and international buy-in. Ankara, however, wants to retain its military presence in Libya, and Turkey’s Syrian proxy force there reportedly remains largely intact. Meanwhile, Libya’s fragile peace looks increasingly precarious as the country heads toward presidential elections on December 24. Fundamental issues such as the unification of Libya’s armed forces and the regional allocation of the national budget remain unresolved. Haftar is running despite protests by his opponents, including Ankara, thanks to a controversial new law rammed through Libya’s eastern-based parliament in September. Moscow, for its part, argues Libya’s political settlement should incorporate “all forces of Libyan society,” including Haftar and Saif al-Qaddafi, another presidential candidate. Haftar’s opponents are allegedly angling to postpone the presidential election, fearing a loss of power, and the