Turkish-Russian Relations and Eurasia’s Geopolitics

Global Politician, NY
Feb 14 2005

Turkish-Russian Relations and Eurasia’s Geopolitics


By Dr. Bulent Aras

As a result of its geography, Turkey maintains a multi-dimensional
and dynamic foreign policy. Turkish foreign policymakers are
carefully analyzing their foreign policy options in light of the 9/11
attacks and the war in Iraq. Within this set of complex links,
Turkish-Russian relations appear rather perplexing. Historically,
there have been many wars between these two states up until the end
of WWI. Both countries have imperial legacies and have experienced a
post-imperial traumatic loneliness. Great imperial legacies and the
feelings of isolation after the collapse of the previous empires are
important factors that shape the national memory of these countries.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey in December
of last year, Turkey’s prime minister paid a one day official visit
to Russia on January 10, 2005. It is relevant to analyze current
factors that determine the relations between these two states.
Domestic politics in Russia is often the result of competing views of
Westerners, anti-Westerners, Eurasianists, ultra-nationalists and
nostalgic communists. Russian foreign policy is generally determined
along the line of domestic political preferences. There is a symbolic
pendulum in Russian foreign policy that vacillates between Europe and
Asia depending on the political balances currently at play. Russian
foreign policy is today more critical of the West and follows a more
Eurasian-oriented path.

For Moscow, the existence of such national memory and geopolitical
orientation makes it difficult to determine a fixed and
well-functioning foreign policy towards Turkey. Like Russia, Turkey
has Caucasian, Balkan, Middle Eastern and European identities and
different interests at stake in all of these regions. Another
significant factor is that both countries are going through dynamic
domestic and economic transformations. The change in the early four
years of the current decade is surely dramatic at both societal and
state levels.

Issues at Stake

More specifically, the future of Turkish-Russian relations will be a
product of bilateral, regional and international developments.
High-level mutual visits in the recent period underline a number of
important issues between the two states. Although observers seem to
have an optimistic perception of the relations both in Moscow and
Ankara, there are issues of contention between the two states.

The issues of bilateral relations will be trade, investments by
Turkish and Russian businessmen, tourism, natural gas purchases,
Russian oil tankers transiting the straits, future pipeline projects
that may pass through the Trace or Anatolia, the Chechen question,
Russian arms sales, and the actions of Kurdish separatists on Russian
soil. A major recent development is the Russian leader’s statement
that the Turkish society in Northern Cyprus deserves better treatment
from the international community, since the Turkish Cypriots voted in
favor of the U.N. plan designed to put an end to the division of the

Although there is much talk about the convergence of interests
between Turkey and Russia, one should also point out the conflicting
ones. Both countries favor improving their current relations and
adopting a more pragmatic stance on the international arena.
Officials on both sides signed a number of agreements, which will
surely facilitate the establishment of constructive relations.

The volume of bilateral trade reached $10 billion in 2004, and both
sides aim to increase this volume to $25 billion by 2007. Turkey’s
construction sector is active in Moscow and is increasing its market
share in Russia. Russian businessmen closely follow Turkey’s
privatization process and want to take part in energy projects in
Turkey. Another major cooperation area is Russian arms sales to
Turkey. Considering the Iraq crisis and potential instability in Iran
and Syria, Ankara pays serious attention to military modernization
projects and has an interest in Russian arms supplies. Finally,
Russian tourists increasingly prefer Turkey’s Mediterranean coast for
their vacations.

At another level, the mutual agenda is set around Russia’s energy
geopolitics, its near abroad policies, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan
(B.T.C.) oil pipeline, ethnic secessionist movements in the Caucasus,
the reduction of Russian military forces in the region in accordance
with international agreements, and the problems emerging after the
Iraq war. Russia dislikes the B.T.C. pipeline, which is expected to
transit Azeri and Kazak oil to the West. Moscow regards this pipeline
as a challenge to its status in the Caspian basin and an obstacle to
its oil trade. Although the major conflict surrounding the B.T.C.
pipeline was between Russia and a number of former Soviet states, it
indirectly influenced Turkish-Russian relations. However, the Blue
Stream project — a natural gas pipeline that runs from Russia to
Turkey via the Black Sea — and several other Turkish-Russian oil
pipeline projects have led to the emergence of a “low profile” policy
concerning oil politics on the part of Russia. Although it is
speculative at the moment, the head of British Petroleum Company in
Azerbaijan recently floated the possibility of carrying Russian oil
through the B.T.C.

According to the official Turkish policy line, the Chechen question
is a Russian internal problem. Turkish officials frequently declare
that Russian security measures should not violate human rights in
Chechnya. However, a large Chechen diaspora in Turkey follows a
different line and tries its best to assist Chechen guerrillas,
creating significant tensions between the Turkish and Russian
governments. In return, Turkish officials have expressed discontent
about the Kurdistan Workers Party’s — a separatist Kurdish armed
movement — activities in Russian territories. For the time being,
both sides extend considerable vigor in order not to sever their
relations on account of trans-boundary ethnic problems.

Toward a New Geopolitics

Russia has a regional profile and is sensitive about losing its
influence in ex-Soviet territories. Since 1991, Turkey has emerged as
a significant regional player, pursuing a special relationship with
the E.U. and paying serious attention to building good relations in
the Caucasus and Central Asia. How closer Turkish-Russian relations
will be interpreted in Brussels and Washington is another important

The U.S. military deployment in different parts of Eurasia, the
pro-Western change in domestic landscapes of Georgia and Ukraine, the
U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are, among others, the developments
that have paved the way for the emergence of a new geopolitics in
Eurasia. The European and U.S. expansion into former Soviet
territories influences Russian policymakers to seek new alliances in
Asia. Russian rapprochement with Iran, China and India are examples
of this new policy. In this sense, the new developments in the
aftermath of the 9/11 attacks are bringing together the policies of
not only Russia and other major Asian powers, but also of some
critical European states such as France and Germany.

After receiving a negotiation date for E.U. membership, Turkey is
emerging as a European actor in the region. However, Turkey’s new
orientation was tested during the subsequent domestic transformations
of Georgia and Ukraine. Turkey adopted a low-profile attitude toward
the Russian policies vis-à-vis Ukraine and Georgia, and sensitively
displayed a constructive outlook by pointing to the relevant
international norms and agreements as the way to resolve the crises.
Ankara tries to avoid taking sides in any “Russia versus the West”
struggles, while developing its own relations with Moscow.

One other important area of contention is Turkish-Armenian relations,
which are held hostage to historical enmities and Turkey’s
pro-Azerbaijan policies in the Caucasus. Currently, Russia is the
main ally of Armenia, and possible Russian mediation between Turkey
and Armenia on a number of issues can be expected. Following recent
positive developments on this front, there may be Russian-Turkish
joint attempts to solve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict.


By looking at the current developments, it can be concluded that
Turkish-Russian relations will improve in the political, economic and
security realms. However, the relations are not free from a number of
serious problems that could threaten to derail these growing ties;
both countries have converging and conflicting interests in
neighboring regions, and this status makes Turkish-Russian relations
promising yet difficult. Turkey and Russia are two influential actors
in the Eurasian geopolitics and their relations have implications for
the whole Eurasian region. Because of this, internal and external
players in Eurasian geopolitical gambling will keep an eye on this
growing relationship.

Dr. Bulent Aras is an independent political consultant on Eurasian
and Middle Eastern affairs and an Associate Professor of
International Relations at Fatih University in Istanbul. Email:
[email protected]