The Russian-Turkish “Co-opetition” in Eurasia and Beyond
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pictured during a joint press conference in Moscow, March 5, 2020 (Photo: Official website of the President of Russia)
By Yeghia Tashjian
“Co-opetition” was a term coined by Adam M. Brandenburger and Barry Nalebuff to describe a paradoxical strategy of cooperation among competitors, enabling them to collectively achieve mutual gains. It’s a relatively new term in international relations and used occasionally in international trade. Nevertheless, I will be using co-opetition to explain the current status of Russian-Turkish relations.
In foreign policymaking and geopolitical self-perception, Russia and Turkey resemble each other in many ways. Throughout the course of events in the Middle East and South Caucasus, as the West failed to engage with regional developments to resolve conflicts, other regional states such as Iran, Turkey and Russia filled the political vacuum. Hence, the Turkish-Russian interaction in the Middle East and beyond has been partially facilitated by the military and political withdrawal of the US and the European Union’s absence from the region.
Both Turkey and Russia are redefining their regional and international objectives almost at the same time. From Libya to Syria, from Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh and beyond, Turkey is pursuing a proactive interventionist foreign policy. Moreover, given the weakness of the institutional agency in current Russian-Turkish relations, it is not clear in which direction these relations would go in the post-Putin/Erdogan era. Since the current relationship between both countries is shaped by the personal interests of both leaders, they have a track record in keeping this relationship manageable against many crises and challenges. A major issue in this relationship is the thin line between the asymmetric and hierarchical nature of this interaction where for now, Ankara is geopolitically and economically (energy security) dependent on Moscow.
Domestically, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tend to consolidate power and decision-making. Foreign policymaking in both countries is a highly personalized and centralized affair. Both leaders make anti-Western nationalist rhetoric as part of their domestic consumption campaign. Both countries are seeking greater autonomy from the US dominant world order and are seeking a privileged role in their post-imperial space. Such ambitions motivate both leaders to portray themselves as bridges connecting Europe with Asia and rising powers that use civilizational discourse to buttress their claims to great power status. Interestingly, both countries use their history and religion to legitimize their foreign policy actions. Moreover, both leaders—despite often employing idealist (ideology-oriented) claims to achieve their goals—are practical realists who believe in the balance of power as an organizing element of international relations.
For now, Russia and Turkey view one another as indispensable partners in managing conflicts in Eurasia. They are able to maximize shared interests while keeping conflicts in check. Despite the mutually beneficial nature of this relation, the future may bring disruptive change as any change of leadership in either country would bring a high degree of uncertainty into the bilateral relations. To highlight this cooperative rivalry, I will compare the cases in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh where both countries have used tit-for-tat tactics and a divide-and-rule approach to contain conflict in their neighborhoods.
Libya: From Competition to Cooperation?
Before the ousting of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, Turkish and Russian companies were highly active in Libya. After the toppling of Qaddafi’s regime, many contracts and payments were frozen, making the question of who controls the Libyan capital of Tripoli decisive.
Turkey and Russia took opposite sides in Libya. Ankara supported the Tripoli-based government, the Government of National Accord (GNA), while Russia, alongside France and the UAE, supported the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar. Turkey viewed the Libyan conflict as part of a broader power play and geopolitical rivalry in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara realized that a new regional order based on energy security was emerging in the Eastern Mediterranean with the support of France, Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt, from which Turkey was excluded. Hence, with its Libyan policy, Turkey sought to undermine this emerging axis.
In April 2019, Haftar launched an offensive to capture Tripoli and topple the GNA. Faced with the possible fall of its proxy government which would remove Turkey from the Libyan scene and threaten Turkish interests in the Eastern Mediterranean, Ankara directly intervened in the conflict and deployed its Bayraktar TB2 drones against the Russian defense structures and hammered Haftar’s supply lines. As Turkey stepped in, the balance of power on the ground shifted towards the GNA.
This was a major victory for Turkey, as General Haftar was significantly weakened and all hopes to capture Tripoli by the LNA were dashed. The tide on the ground had turned and now it was the GNA advancing forward. Fearing Haftar’s complete defeat, Moscow deployed MiG29s and Su24s to deter any Turkish advancement toward LNA’s stronghold. Realizing it would not be able to solve the Libyan crisis militarily, Moscow was clever enough to come to terms in August 2020 with Turkey and agree on a ceasefire agreement between GNA and LNA, which is still in place for now.
However, it should not be surprising if Turkey experiences a significant gap in results between its military and political gains as the Turkish-backed Libyan government doesn’t enjoy enough regional and international support. The outcome of the Libyan presidential elections on December 24, 2021 will determine in which direction the country is heading and whether Turkey and Russia will continue cooperating or clashing in Libya.
Syria and Conflict Management
Syria is central to the current shaping of Turkish-Russian relations. It exemplifies partnership and conflict management in a situation where their interests compete. The Syrian context is also unique and unlikely to be replicated elsewhere due to the structural constraints and geopolitical situation in the Middle East.
After the downing of the Russian Su-24 jet near the Turkish border in 2015 with a Turkish missile, Moscow slapped Turkey with economic sanctions and forced Erdogan to publicly apologize to Putin. According to economist Erhan Aslanogluto, Turkey lost around $3.5 billion annually in income from Russian tourists and another $4.5 billion a year through the cancellation of construction projects until 2017 when the sanctions were finally lifted.
With the direct Russian military intervention in Syria on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in September 2015, the military tide on the ground changed in favor of the state. The Syrian army with its allies kept advancing and pushing the pro-Turkish rebels toward the north, mainly Idlib. Turkey and Russia engaged in proxy and sometimes direct confrontation with each other on Syrian soil until 2020 where they reached a common ceasefire agreement.
In December 2019, the Syrian army with its local, regional and international allies launched the Northwestern offensive to retake Idlib. This operation was partially successful as the Turkish side once again deployed the Bayraktar TB2 drones, and the Turkish armed forces together with its Syrian armed opposition fighters clashed with the Syrian army and its allies. In late February 2020, after intermittent deadly clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces, Turkey formally intervened in the offensive and announced the beginning of Operation Spring Shield intending to push Syrian government forces back to pre-offensive frontlines. To stop further Syrian losses and prevent Turkish advancement, on March 5, 2020, a meeting took place between Erdogan and Putin in which they agreed on a ceasefire that established a six-kilometer secure corridor along the M4 Highway. The ceasefire also called for joint Turkish–Russian patrols along the highway beginning on March 15. However, this didn’t prevent the Russian side from bombing the pro-Turkish militias around the Turkish-occupied zones.
In time, the Syrian crisis became a model for both countries to cooperate and confront their main opponent. Russia’s facilitation of Turkey’s re-entry into the Syrian scene, thereby enabling Ankara to accomplish its operational and strategic goals by weakening and eliminating the Kurdish forces in northern Syria, helped achieve its objectives and incentivized Turkey to take part in the Russian-engineered process in Syria. As both countries aimed to decrease the American influence in Syria by targeting the Kurds, US’ main ally in the region, it was clear that Moscow facilitated Turkey’s two military operations (Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016 and Olive Branch in 2018) against the Kurdish forces in Syria.
For now, Turkey attained some of its major goals, particularly vis-à-vis the Syrian Kurds, and Russia emerged as the primary power broker in Syria. This co-opetition helped both sides achieve some of their goals. In return, this cooperative rivalry decreased the western (mainly US) influence in Syria. Moreover, the Russian-led Astana peace process to find a resolution to the Syrian crisis, alongside Turkey and Iran, has replaced the Geneva process, which was a western initiative to resolve the Syrian crisis. Viewed from Moscow, Turkey’s participation in the Russian-led diplomatic and military initiatives in Syria also reduced the diplomatic and military burden of the Syrian war from Moscow’s shoulders. However, the main question is to what extent the status of Idlib will be frozen and what if the Kurds engage with Damascus to settle their scores and move toward the Syrian-occupied territories controlled by the Turkish forces and its proxies. This could be a scenario Russia might be preparing against Turkey if the latter tried to pressure Moscow elsewhere. However, for now, both Moscow and Ankara have to force the Americans to leave northeastern Syria.
Nagorno-Karabakh: A Confrontation in Russia’s Backyard
While both countries “understand” each other in Libya and Syria, Turkey’s aspiration to play a greater role in the South Caucasus puts this relationship to the test. With the outbreak of the war, Turkey saw a historical opportunity to exert its influence in its immediate neighborhood—the South Caucasus. Unlike Syria and Libya, the region has been Russia’s backyard and within Moscow’s sphere of influence. To challenge Russia, Turkey threw its full active military and diplomatic support behind Azerbaijan in its war against the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Turkey’s direct military support in the war caught the surprise of many parties. Turkey not only used its Bayraktar TB2 drones, but also the F-16 warplanes stationed in Ganja and transferred hundreds of Syrian mercenaries to fight alongside the Azerbaijani army. These two factors were a threat to Russia’s national security in the region.
On a diplomatic level, Turkey tried to launch an “Astana style” diplomatic track to gain primacy on the OSCE Minsk Group. This process was welcomed by its ally Azerbaijan who noted the failure of the traditional diplomatic track processed by the OSCE. However, given the fact that the conflict was taking place in post-Soviet space, Russia was not very encouraged to engage in a bilateral track with Turkey in the form of a new “Astana style” process where Turkey and Russia were going to be equal partners arranging a conflict in Russia’s backyard. An “Astana style” scenario would have legitimized Turkey’s intervention and presence in the region. Hence, Moscow preferred to play the “big brother” role and forced a ceasefire on both sides.
According to Maxim Suchkov, a senior fellow and associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, if Russia took a backseat while Azerbaijan continued advancing, Turkey’s gambit would pay off as Baku would be forever grateful for Ankara, and Turkey’s influence in the region would grow. Moreover, if Baku took control over Stepanakert and Nagorno-Karabakh was annexed to Azerbaijan, Armenians would have blamed their failure on Russia and anti-Russian sentiments would have risen in Yerevan. By losing its only ally, Russia would have lost the region.
However, what would have happened if Moscow had directly intervened? Galip Dalay, an associate fellow from the Chatham House, argues that if Russia had stepped in and supported its ally, then it would have risked alienating Azerbaijan and pushing Baku further into Turkish hands. For Moscow, the best-case scenario was a limited victory for Azerbaijan, once again freezing the conflict to have leverage on both Yerevan and Baku. But Turkey’s efforts to unfreeze the conflict and tarnish the status-quo pushed Russia on the defensive and secured its interests at the expense of the Armenians who were the weaker side. For Dalay, this conflict put Turkish-Russian relations to the test and placed Russia in an uncomfortable position.
For Turkey, this was not a complete victory, as Ankara pushed for complete Azerbaijani victory, pushing Russia out of the region by instigating enmity between Yerevan and Moscow or at least asking for the deployment of Turkish “peacekeepers” in Nagorno-Karabakh alongside Russian forces. It is worth mentioning that Turkey has not been a signatory to the November 9, 2020 trilateral statement. Also, there have not been Turkish-Russian joint patrols in Nagorno-Karabakh unlike in Idlib; Turkey only shared an observation post with Russia to monitor the ceasefire process in Aghdam. Hence, all demands of deployment of Turkish troops alongside the Russians in Nagorno-Karabakh were rejected by Moscow.
Many observers didn’t notice that while Russia was defensive in its backyard, it was in an offensive in Syria and the Russian air force was bombing Turkish positions in Idlib. On October 26, 2020, 80 pro-Turkish Syrian militias were killed by Russian bombings near the Turkish border. By putting pressure on Ankara through Syria, Russia was trying to balance its vulnerabilities with Turkey. However, Turkey also had other plans in the South Caucasus where in November 2020, the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) was inaugurated, bringing the Caspian gas to South Europe through Turkey. The geopolitical nature of this project was to decrease Europe’s gas dependency from Moscow. Hence, despite the fact that Russia has shown dissatisfaction with Turkish intervention in its area of the traditional sphere of influence and drew “red lines,” Russia has recognized Turkey as a junior player in the region, but it doesn’t tend to share parity in the post-conflict regional order.
Thus, the relationship between both countries in the South Caucasus has been hierarchical. Both sides succeeded in sidelining the Western influence from the diplomatic process in the region, especially the Americans and French (co-chairs of the OSCE Minsk Group alongside Russia). Turkey’s growing influence in the South Caucasus didn’t come only at the expense of the West, but also at the cost of Russia’s influence as well. This is why Russia resisted any further diplomatic attempts by Turkey. Turkey, unhappy with the diplomatic outcome and its modest role as an ordinary member of OSCE, initiated the “3+3 regional security platform” in the Caucasus. This security format in the Caucasus comprises the three Caucasian states – Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia – and their three “big neighbors” – Russia, Turkey and Iran. For now, Russia is pushing this format as it sidelines the West but is opposed by both Armenia and Georgia. Hence, the future of Turkish-Russian relations is shaped by current relations between Russia and the West. The more tense these relations, the more Moscow will need Ankara to contain the western influence. This process is making Turkey a regional power but also increasing its dependency on Russia.
Conclusion: The limits of Russian-Turkish “Co-opetition”
In an interview with Arif Asalioglu, general director of the International Institute of the Development of Science Cooperation (MIRNAS), the analyst argued that Turkey and Russia have developed a creative cooperation model. The summary of this cooperation model is as follows: “the two countries have divided their relations into compartments. Thus, things that go wrong in one compartment should not adversely affect good relationships in the other compartment where the relationships are successfully occurring.” This model has been successful so far. The events in Nagorno-Karabakh, for example, have not or had limited effect on the developments in Libya and Syria. This may also change if Turkey continues provoking Russia in areas traditionally under the Russian sphere of influence.
Despite the growing areas of cooperation and “conflict management” between the two states, whenever a disagreement has emerged, Moscow has been able to secure its interests and push Turkey slowly back. Unlike many who believe that Moscow and Ankara have “brotherly relations,” these relations are characterized by mistrust and geopolitical rivalries. What makes this relationship unique is that both sides have tried to minimize the western influence, and Putin has found an authoritarian partner like Erdogan who wants to crush any democratic movement in and around Turkey.
Moreover, what makes this relationship special is that one side is dependent on the other, at least for now. For example, when it comes to trade, Turkey exports Russian vegetables, textiles and other goods. But in return, Russia provides Turkey with natural gas, oil, nuclear reactors, military equipment and millions of tourists. Hence, in the event of a breakdown of relations, Russia can easily replace Turkey, and Turkish interests would be harmed.
Moscow has used its energy policy to win leverage over Turkey. In December 2014, six months after the start of the war in eastern Ukraine, Russia announced its new Turkstream pipeline deal to deliver gas from Russia to the Balkans through Turkey, bypassing the pre-existing pipelines that flow through Ukraine, Belarus and Poland to Central Europe. TurkStream became operational in 2020 and has given Turkey and Russia greater influence over Europe as they have a direct route into southern Europe and control over the flow of gas into the region. However, Turkey took steps to diversify its energy resources.
In line with this trend, during the first half of 2020, Turkey’s natural gas imports from Iran and Russia declined by 44.8 percent and 41.5 percent respectively, compared to the same period in 2019. In contrast, Azerbaijan’s gas exports to Turkey increased by 23.4 percent during the same period. Azerbaijan now occupies the largest share of Turkey’s natural gas market. As long-term gas contracts between Turkey and Russia are due for renewal towards the end of 2021, with Turkey’s decreasing dependency on Russian gas, coupled with the diversification of its gas import sources and the availability of competitive prices, Turkey will have a better negotiation position than before. Hence Turkey’s “dependency reduction” on Russia would have implications on the future of Russian-Turkish relations. As Ankara is trying to reduce its strategic vulnerabilities and energy dependency on Russia, it is becoming an autonomous power in the region.
Thus, the more Turkey becomes an independent player in the region, the more it will test Russia’s “red lines” in its backyard. For this reason, Russia is trying its best to increase its influence on Turkey and bring Ankara closer to its orbit. Russia’s selling of the S-400 missile system and talks with Turkey to design its fifth-generation fighter jets should be viewed within this context. From Moscow’s perspective, these arms sales would deepen splits between Turkey and its NATO allies and weaken the internal cohesion of the alliance. Moreover, weapons trading establishes a long-term relationship between the producer and the client. Thus for Moscow, these trades would make Turkey more dependent on Russia, endowing Moscow with additional leverage. For Turkey, such partnerships will be very costly in the future as Moscow will not lose any opportunity to exploit them.
Finally, there is no informal alliance between both countries. Russia regards alliances as an attribute of great power. Russia’s alliances are asymmetric in nature and provide Russia with a bigger regional role where Moscow can speak on behalf of its allies (CSTO). For this reason, Russia does not engage in formal alliances with rising international and regional powers such as China and Turkey. On the other hand, Turkey—a NATO member—relies on its security guarantees and cannot abandon its duties and obligations as it would risk exposing its vulnerabilities and becoming marginalized.
Meanwhile, Moscow views Turkey’s autonomy from NATO as a positive development. While Turkey believes that by cooperating with Russia on various issues, its standing in NATO will increase as it will be the only NATO member to be able to deal with Moscow and keep the Russian influence in check in NATO’s eastern neighborhood. Furthermore, NATO needs Turkey to check the Russian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean and Ukraine. Russia’s growing influence in the Eastern Mediterranean is reducing Turkey’s strategic autonomy and room for maneuver there. It is inevitable that Turkey will be disturbed by Russia’s strong military presence in its neighborhood; in the future, Turkey may reshift its policy toward the West to challenge Russia’s influence. Take Ukraine for example; that’s where Turkey is cooperating with its NATO allies to reverse the status quo and push Russia out.
Both economically and geopolitically, Turkish-Russian relations are asymmetric in favor of Moscow. Ankara, conscious of this asymmetry and the unbalanced power structure, is trying to reduce its dependency on Moscow and carefully challenge her. As Russia wants to maintain the political “status quo” in the region and prevent Ankara from taking any revisionist actions, the interest of both countries may clash again. Unlike 2015, this clash may not take a direct form, but rather indirect and in the form of proxy wars.