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Putin’s Subtle Grip on Turkey

It is part of human nature to suppress and ignore various uncomfortable indicators. The belief that life as we know it, will continue more or less in the same direction even with clear signs showing the opposite, is very hard to counter with rational thoughts and acts until the change becomes too obvious. This tendency has caused people to become too relaxed with general knowledge and, consequently, surprised by some major global developments.

Recently, the International Republican Institute (IRI) organized a closed-for-public discussion in Turkey about US-Turkey relations from the perspective of NATO membership, in the wake of the Kremlin’s resurgence. Participants included political decision makers from Turkey, representatives of international organizations, media, and NATO. Much of the focus was put on the encouraging news about functional and for the most part constructive partnership between the two countries under the NATO umbrella and how this partnership could be best utilized in countering Putin’s security threat. However, probably the most uncomfortable topic of the discussion was the question of Russia’s growing influence in Turkey and Turkey’s dependency on it.

Following the ending of Russia’s sanctions against Turkey which had been imposed after Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian military plane in November 2015, and the rapprochement between the two countries, the normalization of the relations quickly turned into a progressive chain of cooperation points. Russian tourists returned and again constituted the largest tourist group in Turkey in 2017. Turkish exports to Russia were almost fully restored. The construction of the “Turkish Stream” natural gas pipeline has continued and is progressing at a faster than expected pace. The construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in southern Turkey is almost finished by the Russian state-owned nuclear energy conglomerate Rosatom. Finally, Turkey recently announced the purchase arrangement and made the down payment for the S-400 missile system from Russia.

Naturally, this increase in partner relations comes with tangible and valuable benefits for Turkey. Tourism, exports and energy cooperation in particular play an important role in maintaining Turkey’s economic stability even in very turbulent times for the country’s democracy. These benefits are recognized by the mainstream public in Turkey which may be reserved about getting too close to its traditional opponent and even enemy, but sees Russia as currently the most desirable partner in building a stronger economy and foreign policy.

However, the part that is concerning is the level of dependency and at least declarative political coziness which the current establishment in Turkey is building with Putin. Russia’s mentioned sanctions against Turkey showed how vulnerable Turkey’s economy can be. In only a matter of months, Russia’s actions significantly hurt Turkey’s economy to the point where Turkish public quickly felt the negative effects of the sanctions in their personal lives, and asked for a swift reconciliation.

One would expect that following the rapprochement, the Turkish government would do everything to lower its dependency on any international factor, particularly the one which has proven it can and will exploit this dependency when needed. However, the response of Turkish authorities seemed to have been just the opposite. Everything from tourism (Russians constitute roughly 20 percent of the total number of visitors), energy (around 45 percent of natural gas needs come from Russia, and the energy dependency will exponentially grow with the mentioned “Turkish Stream” and Akkuyu nuclear power plant), and following the S-400 deal, a potential defense dependency, make Putin’s Russia more influential than ever. The S-400 deal particularly raised concerns in the Western circles about the strategic security determination of the current establishment in Turkey and the ability to continue to be fully integrated in NATO’s air defense system.

Moreover, the concrete points of cooperation have been followed by somewhat ambiguous political messages from the political leadership in Turkey. President Erdogan, while addressing strenuous and suffering relations between Turkey and some of its Western partners, has hinted at a possibility of Turkey exploring the “alternative” forms of integration, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, known as the, Shanghai Five. The criticism of NATO became a frequent thing in Turkey’s domestic political communication, and a vast majority in IRI’s public opinion polling in Turkey does not believe that NATO would be helpful in the case of any security challenge Turkey might face.

Throughout history, Turkish and Russian societies have never been culturally close. On number of occasions, they were even on opposing sides of history. It is hard to imagine that any kind of strong and genuine bond could be built and Turkey’s strategic direction could be permanently shifted towards the East. The biggest part of Turkey’s society still recognizes itself as a part of the Western family. However, the level of dependency that Turkey is allowing to be built on Putin’s Russia is concerning. Creating a disruption of any sort within NATO is one of Putin’s main strategic goals, and It would be reasonable to assume that he sees Turkey as “the weakest link in the NATO.”  On the other hand, regardless of multiple problems Turkey is experiencing with the West, it is still not easy to imagine that such a dramatic disruption of strong relations between Turkey and its strategic partners and traditional allies could be instigated by Putin’s Russia. However, recent dramatic global developments teach us that neglecting real, concrete and measurable negative indicators and focusing too much on traditional, what seems to be a “hardly-changeable”, big picture, frequently leads to an array of unpleasant surprises.