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The Russo-Turkish Split: 2016 and Beyond

By Oleg Oshchepov

Comparing ties between Moscow and Ankara in January 2016 to those a year ago, relations between the two nations have deteriorated significantly in respect to international cooperation, trade & investment, and diverging national interests. The catalyst for the latest tensions is the downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber by a Turkish F-16 fighter. In the aftermath, Russia and Turkey both presented alternate accounts of the event. Moscow claimed its bomber was flying within Syrian airspace, under its military intervention campaign which Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad had requested from Russia. Ankara claims the Su-24 bomber had crossed into Turkish airspace for 17 seconds, and violated repeated messages to alter course, with the Turkish military forced to scramble fighters in response. Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted immediately afterwards with calling the downing a “a stab in the back” , warning of “serious consequences” to the Russian-Turkish relations.

Crimea – Tensions across the Sea

Prior to this latest impasse between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Turkey, the two countries had been at odds since spring 2014, following the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia on the 18th of March, 2014. This occurred after a questionable referendum held as a result of the Ukrainian Revolution of 2014, with the international community largely declaring the referendum and occupation of the peninsula illegal. From Ankara’s perspective, the waning of relations with Moscow began with a shift in the balance of power surrounding the Black Sea. With Russia asserting sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula, it had strengthened its presence in the region. This was not in favour to Turkey, which now neighbored Russia across the Black Sea.

Syria – Differing interests, similar paths

Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War on behalf of the Assad government is in conflict with Turkish aims in the Levant, directly threatening Ankara’s interests. With Turkey asserting power across its periphery, both nations are using political force to influence policy in the region. This is occurring when both Moscow and Ankara are beginning to exert their power upon nations which had once existed in the Turkish Empire and the former Soviet Union; asserting that those ‘Near Abroad’ nations are a rightful part of their sphere of influence.

A historical context to present day disputes

These tensions parallel rivalry between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, which for from the 16th to 20th centuries clashed over Caucasia, the Balkans, and the Black Sea. Moscow’s interests in the Middle East are primarily focused on the support of Bashar Al-Assad and his forces in the Syrian Civil War. Russia’s involvement in the civil war is in direct odds with Turkish interests; which are focused on ousting Assad and his Alawite-led government, and replacing it with a moderate Sunni-led coalition. The Tartus naval facility, which the Russian navy inherited from the USSR, is the nation’s only warm water port in the Mediterranean. Moscow’s stance on the Syrian Civil War is retaining the current Assad government, for the collapse of Assad would undoubtedly jeopardize Russian naval interests in the Mediterranean.

Russo-Turkish Split – Present Day Ties

Both Russia and Turkey have retained diplomatic relations with one another, though this has not stopped the introduction of sanctions between the two states. Russia introduced its first sanctions on the Turkish government shortly following the downing of the SU-24 bomber, with Turkey following suit with counter-sanctions against the Russian Federation. Moscow continued its political pressure by expanding its sanctions as recently as December 30th. This resulted in a decrease in the volume of trade between the nations, with Turkey suffering a disproportionate loss, as Moscow was the largest importer of Turkish goods and services by volume. Consequently, Turkey’s tourism sector has suffered, with Russian citizens once making up the largest portion of the country’s tourists. As of 2016, Turkey is reported to lose 3 billion dollars over the sanctions placed.

The stages of Russo-Turkish rivalries

In other regions of conflicting interests, Moscow may see a partial geopolitical advantage over Ankara. In Central Asia, with nations such as Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan having large Turkic majorities, there has been a challenge of interests from both Russia and Turkey. However, with the Central Asian states once being part of the former Soviet Union, Moscow’s foreign policy towards these nations may undermine Turkish interests in fostering Pan-Turkic relations across Asia. Nations in the region with majority or significant Turkic populations are divided in either retaining ties with Moscow, or with following a foreign policy of Pan-Turkic relations between themselves and the Republic of Turkey.

Turkey & Russia – 2016 onwards

In 2016, it is likely that both nations will refocus their geopolitical aims in the Middle East, and reassert a higher degree of involvement in the Iraq-Syria battle-zone. For Moscow, it is in its interest to appear as a stabilizing force in the region, which will be accomplished by the continuation of their military intervention campaign in Syria. Should the air support for the Syrian Army group troops prove effective, Russia will achieve its goal of being seen as a reliable military partner for neighbouring nations. It is believed that Moscow wishes to conduct strikes on ISIS held territories in Iraq, and successfully bolstering Assad would provide the neighbouring nation an alternative partner from the US-led coalition in the conflict against separatist forces within its own borders. Turkey is likely to increase its military involvement in the Syrian civil war likewise. As a result of 18% of Turkish population being Kurdish, Ankara’s chief objective is prevention of Syrian Kurdish separatists (Rojava) from joining their westernmost enclave with a land border to its heartland. With a unified Kurdish separatist movement in Syria, nation-building may begin for the Kurdish people, threatening Turkey with the fear of its own Kurdish separatist movement. It is likely Turkey will intervene with a ground campaign in securing its southern border with Syria as well as providing a humanitarian corridor out of the battle space. This would not only secure Turkey’s national border by providing a militarized buffer, it would undermine Kurdish separatism in Syria and abroad politically.

Closing Remarks

The cooling of relations between Russia and Turkey is not unique compared in the larger context of tensions between them previously. However, unlike previous engagements, when the Ottoman state stretched over the Levant, Mesopotamia and the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey can only project its political influence from its foothold in Asia Minor and Anatolia. What remains however, is the regions in which these nations’ interests conflict, and with the addition of Syria as a geopolitical centrifuge in which interests from all major nations in the world have been focused on, it is difficult to foresee a future in which either Ankara or Moscow are willing to make concessions in their self-interests to promote stability of the region.


Oleh is a first year student at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus

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