Vol. 2, No. 23 (December 01, 2009)

The sources of Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey

Fariz Rzayev
Postgraduate Studies in International Politics
(Europe, Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding)
Universite Libre de Bruxelles
Since late 1980s the world has experienced a number of processes the significance of which is sometimes described as geopolitical earthquakes.  These worldwide events in turn have triggered many regional changes, including Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey, that have so far garnered fewer headlines but are increasingly the subject of discussion in diplomatic and academic circles.  

Participants in these discussions generally fall into two camps.  The first, which might be called “the sceptics,” do not deny that there has been a strengthening of relations between Russia and Turkey observed since 1990s, but they argue that these ties lack a strategic foundation, are opportunistic in nature, and thus are subject to change in the future.  The second, for which there is no obvious single term, argue that the Russia-Turkey rapprochement is in fact a strategic process based on a commonality of interests, with some stressing the positive nature of this development and others focusing on its negative implications for the broader region’s integration with the Euro-Atlantic area. [1] Indeed, some of the latter are expressing serious concern about a possible “reorientation” of Turkish foreign policy. [2] 

In order to evaluate the adequacy of these various positions, it is useful both to consider the history of the relationship between the two countries and the way in which specific recent changes have had an impact on it.

Russia and Turkey are old neighbours and traditional adversaries whose competition has involved broader European interests.  Indeed and especially relevant to the current context, on at least two occasions – in 1853-56 and again in 1877-78 – the Russian Empire found itself at odds with the European powers precisely because of its drive towards the control of the Black Sea Straits at the expense of the Ottoman Empire.  And this opposition led the two empires to take their places in opposing camps during World War I. 

That war exhausted both empires and led to the formation of two new states: Soviet Russia (latterly the USSR) and the Republic of Turkey.  Because both were isolated, they not surprisingly moved quickly to recognize one another and establish friendly relations.  In 1921, the two concluded important treaties that dealt, among other things, with the delimitation of borders.  And during this period, the Soviet government extended much-needed financial and military assistance to the nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.  

But after the end of the World War II, the Soviet Union made a number of claims on Turkey which had the effect of pushing Turkey into the arms of the West and ultimately leading Ankara to join NATO in 1952 (Leffler 1985; Mark 2005), an arrangement which meant that during the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Turkey were once again on the frontlines of a confrontation. 

When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union disintegrated, the relations between Moscow and Ankara did not immediately change.  A major reason was that the Russian Federation viewed Turkish activities in the post-Soviet space with concern or even alarm.  Moscow viewed Turkey’s activities in the South Caucasus and Central Asia as a form of “infiltration” intended to supplant Russia’s role there.  During that period, the Russian press routinely accused Ankara of pan-Turanist and pan-Turkic designs.  And these Russian fears were exacerbated by a sense that Turkey was in fact serving as a proxy of NATO and the United States in these activities (Hill & Taspinar 2006a, p. 4).  That was especially true whenever Turkey was involved in pipeline projects designed to bypass Russia. 

At the same time, Ankara had its own concerns, including worries that Russia would continue to support the Kurdish separatist movement in south-eastern regions of Turkey.  The Turkish military also closely followed the 1996 talks on weapons supply between Russia and the Republic of Cyprus.  And Turkish commentators noted that Russia and Turkey held opposite positions on a variety of issues including the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo.  And during this period, Turkish governments put integration with the European Union at the top of their agendas, reducing interest in changing relations with Russia. 

In short, each government had reasons for seeing the other as a rival and competitor, but during the second half of the 1990s, the two entered a new phase in which each had reasons for viewing the position of the other in a different light.  Starting from the mid-1990s, however, the two countries entered a new stage of relations.  Among the areas where Ankara and Moscow found new common ground were counter-terrorist operations, military supplies to Cyprus, and especially economic ties.

Turkish business in the early 1990s entered the Russian market on a massive scale, particularly in the field of construction.  Later as the Russian economy recovered, Russian tourists chose Turkish resorts as a favorite destination for summer vacations due to affordable prices, geographic proximity, warm climate and a liberal visa regime.  As a result, by 2004, Russia had become Turkey’s second-largest trade partner, with an annual turnover of about USD 10 billion (CSIS 2009, p. 64).  Since then, bilateral trade has continued to expand (Turkish Daily News 2008). 

But however important these factors are, they do not explain the changed geopolitical environment in which the two countries find themselves and which has pushed them to revise their historical relationship.  By the end of the 1990s, both countries found themselves in strikingly similar geopolitical situations.  Russia felt excluded from the European security architecture and felt her interests were threatened by EU and NATO enlargement. [3] Moreover, Moscow accused the West of engineering “color revolutions” in the former Soviet space, an area in which the Russian government insisted it has privileged interests. 

At the same time, Turkey was extremely disappointed with the lack of progress in the EU accession talks, especially after the EU admitted the Republic of Cyprus in 2004.  Ankara’s ties with Washington deteriorated as a result of the Bush Administration’s unilateral decision to invade Iraq.  Thus, both countries viewed themselves, in some ways as they had in the early 1920s, as having been excluded from institutions and arrangements in which they felt they had a right to take part and as having their immediate interests continuingly placed at risk by others. [4]

Both Moscow and Ankara have been upset as well by the way in which EU and NATO have expanded toward the shoes of the Black Sea, an area where neither Russia nor Turkey believes there is a threat or challenge to justify such actions.  They are especially annoyed by attempts to create new mechanisms for cooperation among and the presence of non-littoral states there, and the two have moved to create their own institutions, including, in 2001, the Black Sea Naval Cooperation Task Force known as BLACKSEAFOR.  Moreover, both objected to steps by Western institutions that they felt would erode their dominant positions regarding the straits as established in the 1936 Montreux Convention, especially after some littoral states proposed that US and NATO ships could bypass the restrictions of the convention by flying the flags of a littoral country. [5]

In early 2006, the Romanian Government put forward an initiative to launch the Black Sea Forum for Partnership and Dialogue.  This initiative was supposed to provide a platform for discussion and further cooperation on the whole range of issues, including the unresolved conflicts.  Moscow and Ankara, however, convinced that this particular initiative was in fact being promoted by the US, NATO and EU, and thus represented yet another channel to increase their influence and presence in regional affairs, opposed the establishment of the Black Sea Forum.  At a summit of this organization held in Bucharest on 4-6 June 2006, Turkey sent only a state minister, while Russia sent only an ambassador, and as a result of the principled opposition from these two regional powers, since June 2006, the Black Sea Forum has not held another summit. 

The most recent example of a joint Russian-Turkish effort to maintain control over the Black Sea occurred in the aftermath of the August 2008 Georgia crisis.  At that time, Ankara denied a US request to allow the transit through the Straits of two hospital ships that exceeded the Montreux Convention weight limits, but the Turkish government did approve the passage of three smaller US military vessels to provide humanitarian relief to Georgia.  Subsequently, both Ankara and Moscow underscored the importance of the Convention’s 21-day limit for non-littoral vessels in the Black Sea while the heads of both countries’ navies met on a Turkish warship on 1 September 2008 (CSIS 2009, p. 67). 

The developments following the war in Georgia form a special chapter in the growing partnership between Russia and Turkey.  While the international community was in shock and had no clear vision of how exactly to react to the ongoing crisis in the South Caucasus, Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey launched an initiative to establish a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP) – a new mechanism to discuss and cooperate on the issues of regional concern, including the protracted conflicts.  Significantly, he made this announcement during a visit to Moscow on August 13, 2008, without consulting Turkey’s NATO partners, the EU or any state in the South Caucasus (Today’s Zaman 2008).  And equally significantly, Moscow reacted positively both in statements in Ankara and in the Russian media especially because it was immediately obvious that Moscow would be a key player in the Turkish project. 

The rapprochement between Turkey and Russia has also been reflected in energy questions.  In December 1997, the two concluded an agreement to construct a direct underwater pipeline to carry Russian natural gas to Turkey through the Black Sea.  Operated since November 2005 and not passing through any third transit country, the Blue Stream became the first major project promoted by Russia as a part of its energy strategy in the post-Soviet era with a view to getting a direct access to the international gas markets.  As a result, Turkey is now dependent on Russia for about 65% of its natural gas imports and nearly 40% of its oil imports.  Imports of Russian gas are set to increase from 24 billion cubic meters (bcm) in 2007 to 30 bcm in 2010 (CSIS 2009, p. 65).   

While Turkey’s dependence on Russia has been traditionally assessed as a problem about which Ankara is unhappy, it is worth noting that at least some, including Brenda Shaffer, believe that “…relying primarily on Russia can have enormous benefits for Turkey in cementing the very vital and positive economic and political relationship that has been developing between Turkey and Russia over the last decade.”  In support of that contention, Shaffer has drawn a parallel with the situation in Europe: “Germany … by granting Russia a long-term predominant role in its energy market succeeded in fortifying a special relationship with Moscow that reflects on a variety of spheres of cooperation.  In this light, Ankara must weigh the benefits and costs of playing a role in the EU’s energy diversity policies, which would be aimed at building alternatives to Europe’s dependence on Russia (Shaffer 2006, pp. 102-103).  

This analysis has focused on recent statements and actions, but a longer term assessment needs to include an examination of the works of Ahmet Davutoğlu (in 2002-2009 Chief Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister and the President of Turkey, since May 2009 Minister of Foreign Affairs) on the doctrine of the strategic depth as well as the writings of Russian political scientist Alexander Dugin on Eurasianism. [6] 

At present, it is almost certainly premature to speak of a Russian-Turkish axis or entente – there are simply too many areas in which Ankara and Moscow diverge – but it is important to recognize that the two now find, on the basis of Realpolitik traditions an increasing number of reasons to cooperate.  More to the point, there is no reason to think that this kind of cooperation will not expand in the future.


[1] A good coverage of arguments of these two groups is provided, respectively, by Torbakov & Ojanen (2009) [skeptical view] and by Kiniklioglu (2006) [positive view].

[2] For further reference on this issue, see CSIS (2009), as well as materials of the hearing on the “US and Turkey: a Model Partnership” held by the Subcommittee on European Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives, on 14 May 2009.

[3] A detailed account of Russia’s concerns and the Western reaction is given by former senior officials in the Clinton administration – Strobe Talbott in Talbott (2003) and Ronald D. Asmus in Asmus (2004). 

[4] For a good analysis of this thesis, see Hill & Taspinar (2006b).  

[5] For a good overview of the existing regional arrangements in the Black Sea, and positions held by Russia and Turkey, see Asmus (2006).  

[6] For a detailed account of these issues, see Davutoglu (2001) and Laruelle (2008). 


Asmus, Ronald D. (2004) Opening NATO’s Door: How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era, Columbia University Press.

Asmus, Ronald, ed. (2006) Next Steps in Forging a Euroatlantic Strategy for the Wider Black Sea (Washington, DC: The German Marshall Fund of the United States).

CSIS (2009) Turkey’s Evolving Dynamics: Strategic Choices for US-Turkey Relations, US-Turkey Strategic Initiative, Final Report, March (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies). 

Davutoğlu, Ahmet (2001) Stratejik Derinlik: Türkiyenin Uluslarası Konumu [Strategic Depth: Turkey’s International Standing] (Istanbul: Küre Yayınları). 

Hill, Fiona & Taspinar, Ömer (2006a) Russia and Turkey in the Caucasus: Moving Together to Preserve the Status Quo? (Paris: Institut Francais des Relations Internationales, IFRI).  

Hill, Fiona & Taspinar, Ömer (2006b) “Turkey and Russia: Axis of the Excluded”, Survival, Vol. 48, No. 1, Spring, pp. 81-92.

Kiniklioglu, Suat (2006) The Anatomy of Turkish-Russian Relations, March (Ankara: German Marshall Fund of the United States).  

Laruelle, Marlene (2008) Russo-Turkish Rapprochement through the Idea of Eurasia: Alexander Dugin’s networks in Turkey, April (Washington, DC: Jamestown Foundation).

Leffler, Melvyn P., ed. (2005) Origins of the Cold War, New York: Routledge, pp.112-133. 

Leffler, Melvyn P. (1985) “Strategy, Diplomacy and the Cold War: The United States, Turkey and NATO, 1945-1952”, Journal of American History 71, March, pp. 807-825. 

Mark, Eduard (2005) “Turkish War Scare of 1946”, in Leffler, ed. (2005), pp. 112-133.  

Shaffer, Brenda (2006) “Turkey’s Energy Policies in a Tight Global Energy Market”, Insight Turkey, April-June, Vol. 8, Number 2. 

Talbott, Strobe (2003) The Russia Hand: A Memoir of Presidential Diplomacy, Random House Trade. 

Today’s Zaman (2008) “Turkey’s Caucasus Boat Likely to Sail”, Today’s Zaman, 24 August. 

Torbakov, Igor & Hanna Ojanen (2009) “Looking for a New Strategic Identity: Is Turkey Emerging as an Independent Regional Power?”, Briefing Paper, May, No. 30 (Helsinki: Finnish Institute of International Affairs).  

Turkish Daily News (2008) “Diplomats Seek Exit from Row with Russia”, Turkish Daily News, 2 September.