By Lili Bayer
Summary Turkey and Russia are rivals with diverging priorities in the Black Sea, Caucasus and Syria. Nevertheless, both sides have an interest in avoiding a confrontation with each other in the short to medium term.
When Turkish forces shot down a Russian military jet on Nov. 24, relations between Ankara and Moscow seemingly entered a crisis. Harsh words were exchanged. Russia imposed sanctions, the country’s travel agencies stopped selling packages to Turkey, planes stopped flying to Turkish tourist destinations and a visa regime was reintroduced. Turkey created delays for Russian ships entering the Bosporus. However, it is important to look beyond immediate gestures and at the strategic goals and challenges facing both countries. Geography has made Russia and Turkey rivals, and they have different objectives in the Caucasus, Syria and beyond, but right now it is not in either country’s interest to engage in a conflict.
Geography Creates Competitors
The geography of Russia and Turkey has made them traditional rivals, with Russia situated to the north of the Black Sea and Turkey to the south. In order to boost trade opportunities and achieve security goals, both powers have historically attempted to gain control, directly or indirectly, over lands around the shores of the Black Sea. Over the course of three centuries, starting in the 1600s, as Russia attempted to expand its reach southward, the Russian and Ottoman empires fought about a dozen conflicts – in modern-day Russia, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, the Caucasus and Anatolia itself. For the Russian Empire, the conflict with the Ottomans was about gaining control of new agricultural lands, boosting influence in strategic areas like the Balkans and Caucasus, and perhaps most important, controlling the Black Sea and surrounding areas. By the 19th century, Russia was a major agricultural exporter, and in the mid-1800s Odessa, on the coast of the Black Sea, became the world’s largest grain exporting port. Moreover, Russia needed a warm water port, which its military could use year-round, and the Black Sea afforded that opportunity.
Turkey has a strong political and military relationship with Azerbaijan, while Russia is formally Armenia’s chief ally. Turkey is a NATO member and thus its activities in the Black Sea, along with those of fellow NATO allies Romania and Bulgaria, are generally regarded with suspicion in Moscow. Furthermore, Turkey opposes the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Russian ally. Today, Turkey and Russia remain rivals in the Black Sea region. Turkey controls the Russian navy’s ability to exit the Black Sea and enter the Mediterranean, and the two countries continue to fall on different sides of regional conflicts, from Syria to the Caucasus.
Nevertheless, for both Turkey and Russia, immediate geopolitical priorities lay elsewhere. Turkey’s regime is primarily concerned with ensuring domestic stability and undermining the Kurds. The disintegration of Iraq and Syria has provided opportunities for Kurdish groups to assert themselves, and Ankara is prioritizing combating Kurdish secessionism. Turkey is largely focused on internal security, and as a result – despite its interest in defeating Assad in Syria – it does not want to launch a costly ground intervention in Syria.
Similarly, Russia’s top priorities and national security threats largely do not involve Turkey. Russia’s primary challenge is ensuring that Ukraine, a critical buffer area, remains militarily neutral. For Moscow, concerns revolve around U.S. involvement and increased military presence in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region. Russia’s involvement in Syria was not chiefly intended to protect the Assad regime, although Moscow does support his government. The goal of the intervention was to show off Russian abilities and put Moscow in a position to be Washington’s partner – and thus boost Russia’s negotiating position on issues like Ukraine. With their top priorities focused in different areas, the impetus for significant conflict is reduced.
On March 28, a Russian military assessment team arrived for a three-day visit to the Marine Amphibious Infantry Brigade Command in the Aegean province of İzmir, the first official Russian military visit to Turkey after the November downing of the Russian jet. A week later, in a speech to the Turkish parliament, Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Mahir Ünal said that he believes 2.5 million Russians will visit Turkey this year as “relations with Russia have already begun to recover.” While measures imposed following the November incident formally remain in place, Russia and Turkey are both signaling that relations may be improving, as Ankara and Moscow focus on other rivalries and geopolitical threats.
The reactions of both Russia and Turkey after heavy fighting broke out in Nagorno-Karabakh on April 2 reflects this dynamic. Ankara and Moscow are competing for influence in the region, but a large-scale armed conflict, potentially pitting Russia and Turkey on opposing sides, does not serve their interests. Following the onset of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Russia was taking sides in the conflict and that Turkey would “support Azerbaijan to the end.” But beyond the rhetoric, Turkey has largely stayed out of the crisis, while the Russian leadership quickly moved to mediate between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The Caucasus is an explosive region, and while both Turkey and Russia see it as a highly strategic area, with both Ankara and Moscow facing a host of challenges elsewhere, neither wants to see a full-scale war in the region at this moment.
Due to their geography, Turkey and Russia are natural competitors. We have outlined that, in the long run, Turkey will likely begin asserting itself more in the region. In the short to medium term, however, Moscow and Ankara are not concerned with each other, but rather with other geopolitical challenges. As the response to the crisis in Nagorno-Karabakh has demonstrated, when their allies clashed, both Russia and Turkey acted with restraint and avoided confrontation with one another. Since November, only a small Russian military delegation has visited Turkey, but it is possible that, behind the scenes, more steps are being taken to quietly ease tensions. Neither Turkey nor Russia wants a conflict with one another, and while their interests will continue to diverge, the two Black Sea powers will not clash in the near term.