A new chapter in the history of Russian-Turkish relationships opened after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the time elapsed since the end of the Cold War, Turkey’s image of Russia as a geopolitical opponent has largely disappeared. Russia has lost much of its global influence, as well as influence in its own neighborhood, and so poses less of a threat to Turkish interests and security. The result is that bilateral Russian-Turkish relations are on an upward trend. As Turkish-Russian Inter-Parliamentary Friendship Group Chairman Salih Kapusuz stated in March 2011 in anticipation of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Russia, “A high level of political trust that is unprecedented by historical standards has been attained.”1

In 2008, Russia displaced Germany to become Turkey’s largest trading partner with an annual trade volume totaling $38 billion; both countries have expressed a desire to see that trade volume grow to $100 billion. In 2009, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Ankara and concluded fifteen intergovernmental agreements and signed seven special protocols. During this visit, President Erdogan outlined the “strategic nature” of Russian-Turkish cooperation.2 In May 2010, during a visit to Turkey by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, Ankara and Moscow agreed to allow visa-free travel for trips up to thirty days. The two leaders also reached an agreement to build the first nuclear power plant in Turkey, at an estimated value of $20 billion.

Are increased bilateral contacts throughout the post-Cold War era based exclusively on reciprocal trust? No, for two reasons. First, relations between Moscow and Ankara over the span of two decades have followed a much more complicated path than suggested above. Second, despite growing collaboration and mutual understanding, Turkey and Russia still hold diverging views on how to deal with certain problems. Political scientist Igor Torbakov aptly described the present stage of Russian-Turkish relations as “political dualism,” meaning that they contain elements of both cooperation and rivalry.3 What follows offers insights into the dynamics and basic elements underlying such “competitive cooperation.” From 1991 through 2011, the two nations dealt with profound disagreements over a range of issues:

  • ethnopolitical developments (that is, separatist issues, such as Russia’s military campaigns in Chechnya and the Kurdish issue in Turkey);
  • transportation routes for hydrocarbon energy supplies (such as the Baku-Novorossiysk, Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan, and Nabucco pipelines);
  • the South Caucasus (the Russian-Armenian strategic partnership, including Russia’s military presence on Armenian territory; Turkey’s propensity to support the territorial integrity of Georgia and the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in favor of Azerbaijan; and Turkey’s readiness to accept the internationalization of peace processes, in contrast to Russia’s preference for retaining its exclusive role);
  • Iran (In the 1990s, Turkey viewed the Russian-Iranian partnership as a counterweight to Turkish influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia; in the early 2000s, Moscow showed signs of anxiety over the rapid improvement in Turkish-Iranian contacts);
  • Moscow’s mounting fears over Pan-Turkic sentiment and aspirations;
  • Ankara’s phobia about Russian arms export policies (for example, arms sales to the Republic of Cyprus);
  • the balance of military forces in the Black Sea, especially in light of the drastically waning capabilities of the former Soviet Black Sea Navy.

However, most of these controversies have been overcome, and the two sides have designed effective mechanisms to solve remaining problems. The management of conflict exemplifies the successful overhaul and modernization of a relationship that had been heavily burdened by history.4 This is no small accomplishment, given the historical burdens that could easily have weighed down relations.

Geopolitics and Security Concerns

With the end of the bipolar world order, Turkey confronted many new challenges and often found its interests clashing with those of Russia. Regional conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Chechnya, and the Balkans erupted on or near Turkish borders. The emergence of independent Turkic-language states (Azerbaijan and the Central Asian republics) forced Turkey to redefine its foreign policy strategy. Kemalist principles, which had always been interpreted as being somewhat isolationist, were no longer appropriate or sufficient. Internal political factors played a significant role in this process. Around 10 percent of Turkish residents (roughly seven million people) trace their ethnic origins back to the Caucasus (Circassian, Abkhaz, Azeri, Georgian, and Chechen communities) and the Black Sea area (Crimean Tartars). These ethnic groups retain negative attitudes toward Russia, based largely on the historical memory of Russian and Soviet mistreatment of their ancestors. All of these factors have generated tension between Turkey and post-Soviet Russia, especially since Russia, as the legal successor of the USSR and the most powerful nation (militarily and economically) in the post-Soviet territory, is eager to preserve its influence in that part of the world.

In the mid-to-late 1990s, however, Moscow and Ankara succeeded in realistically reframing their respective concerns as a result of several factors. First, Russia’s fears of Pan-Turkic sentiment and aspirations in Turkey proved inflated. The most notable attempt to foment Pan-Turkic sentiment in the region occurred in Azerbaijan during the presidency of Abulfaz Elchibey (1992-1993), but the effort never took root and was subsumed in the president’s many other political and military failures; it was abandoned entirely when President Heydar Aliyev took power in Azerbaijan in 1993. Moreover, the Turkish political establishment (as well the ruling elites of the Central Asian republics) had no interest in the “Turkic brotherhood” concept. Instead, Turkey’s leaders elected to confine cooperation with the Central Asian republics to economic and socio-cultural programs, with a primary focus on education. The Turkish-Azerbaijani partnership thus never went beyond those “red lines” that might have angered Moscow and caused strain in the Russian-Turkish relationship. Turkey also refrained from directly involving itself in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict (although it closed a 30-kilometer stretch of its border with Armenia in 1993). After the conflict’s most violent phase ended, Turkey sought diplomatic mechanisms to resolve the conflict. As Moscow’s suspicions that Ankara entertained Pan-Turkic ambitions subsided, relations continued to improve. In 2010-2011, President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Kazan, the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan (the largest Turkic language republic within the Russian Federation). In addition, contracts between Turkish businessmen and entrepreneurs from Tatarstan increased considerably; in 2008, trade between Turkey and Tatarstan exceeded $3 billion.

Second, Moscow and Ankara are both averse to exploiting separatist movements on the other’s soil as a foreign policy weapon. Despite the fact that some Turkish Ministers (Abdulhaluk Cay, Devlet Bahceli) have voiced sharp criticism of Russian policies in Chechnya, at the official level Turkey has always supported the territorial integrity of Russia. (It is symbolic that then-Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit articulated this stance during an official visit to Russia at the height of the second Chechen anti-separatist campaign in November 1999.) In Moscow, the Russian authorities have flatly and explicitly declined to acknowledge any and all contacts with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, condemned its terrorist activities, and refused political asylum to the group’s leader, Abdullah Ocalan.

Third, Moscow and Ankara have developed a common position on the role of non-regional players in the Black Sea, an area in which both nations play a decisive role. Both Turkey and Russia are interested in the preservation of the letter and spirit of the 1936 Montreux Convention, which governs Turkish control over maritime traffic in the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits.

Fourth, Turkish policies have never sought to “un-freeze” the ethno-political conflicts in the region. In contrast to other NATO member states, Turkey has pursued its own policies with regard to the disputed Abkhazia region in Georgia. Turkish officials have visited the enclave, promoting non-official contacts with Turkish business circles and public organizations; de facto Abkhaz President Sergey Bagapsh and his ministers have in turn visited Turkey. Turkey also did not lobby for Georgian and Ukrainian membership in NATO in the 2000s. This accounts for the Russian leadership’s positive response to Erdogan’s August 2008 plan entitled “Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform.” At the time of the Russian-Georgian standoff in 2008, Turkey distanced itself from a sharply critical campaign launched against Russia by other NATO allies and partners.

Fifth, as bilateral collaboration and interdependence expanded, many acute problems between the two nations appeared to become de-politicized. For example, Turkey relaxed its attitude toward Russian arms supplies to the Republic of Cyprus (by way of illustration, it is worth comparing public statements made by Ankara in 1996, in 2004, and then again in 2009). Ankara was also conciliatory about Russia’s decision to extend its presence at a military base in Gyumry, Armenia. Moscow has responded to these gestures in kind: it supported the process of normalizing Armenian-Turkish relations and Russian diplomacy, alongside U.S. efforts, played a positive role in bringing about the October 2009 signing of the Zurich Protocols between Armenia and Turkey. These actions ran contrary to the widely held view among American and European experts that further efforts toward Armenian-Turkish normalization would undermine Moscow’s position in the Caucasus.

Economic Cooperation: Energy Priorities

Unlike the geopolitical relationship, which has historically been fraught, the economic relationship between Russia and Turkey has long served as an instrument to foster and advance bilateral political contacts. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union assumed the role of aid donor and Turkey the role of aid recipient. The supply of natural gas from the USSR to Turkey along the trans-Balkan pipeline, beginning in 1987, represented an evolution of the traditional relationship: The technical and economic assistance provided by the Soviet Union to Turkey in the 1960s and 1970s gave way to a supplier/consumer relationship in which Turkey received preferential terms.

The next stage in the economic relationship came with the agreement to build the Blue Stream gas pipeline, which increased the amount of gas that Russia supplied to Turkey. This agreement was executed despite multiple complications in the political relations between the two sides. The primary causes of renewed tensions were restrictions imposed by Turkey on the transit of sea vessels through the Black Sea Straits, as well as Turkey’s explicit goal of expanding its influence across Central Asia and in the Southern Caucasus, including efforts to win the “hearts and minds” of the Muslims residing on Russian territory. In the face of these tensions, Russia hoped to normalize relations by consolidating economic interdependency.

Two factors have shaped the current phase of economic interaction between the two countries: Turkey’s newfound willingness to take advantage of its geographic location and its dependence on foreign energy. Turkey has cast itself as a bridge for the international transit of energy raw materials from Russia, Transcaucasia, the Caspian Sea area, and potentially the Arab states to Europe and Israel. In 2002, Russia showed interest in implementing a Blue Stream-2 project, which would have included construction of a second pipeline laid across Turkish territory, with additional outlets to countries on Turkey’s southern and western borders.

However, Turkey’s concern that the project would be incompatible with the distinctly European orientation of its foreign policy led to Blue Stream-2’s replacement by the South Stream project.5 South Stream bypasses Turkey but passes through its economic zone in the Black Sea, thus also requiring a bilateral agreement between Russia and Turkey. If Turkey fulfills its promise to support Russia on the South Stream project, then Turkey can expect in return: construction of the Samsoon-Ceyhan oil pipeline, which will ensure transport of Russian crude oil across its territory; gas price negotiations that could revise the price of Russian gas in Turkey’s favor; and the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant under extremely profitable conditions (albeit with a Russian workforce).

Ultimately, the place of the Turkish-Russian relationship within the Euro-Atlantic system is determined not despite the energy component, but to a large extent because of it. The complicated politics surrounding the European-Russian energy relationship (with U.S. input), however, can put Turkey in a difficult position. Turkey faces difficult choices between competing and mutually exclusive energy supply routes. Some routes serve Western Europe’s interest in reducing its dependency on Russian gas, while others will help Russia strengthen its position as the main energy producer for European and Turkish markets.

These complications notwithstanding, the current state of relations also offers Turkey some measure of maneuverability in its relations with both Russia and the European Union. Since Turkey has not yet invested in any of the pipeline projects, it may be able to leverage its decision in a way that secures more accommodation and certain privileges from each of the interested parties. The uncertainty of the situation means Russia and Turkey will likely continue to demonstrate goodwill toward one another as long as Turkey remains undecided. However, once a pipeline route is chosen, this phase will come to an end. For Turkey, this result will entail consolidation of its friendly ties with one party and increased tensions with the other.

To prevent a choice that thaws one relationship while it freezes the other, the problem should be taken up in open negotiations with Russia, Turkey, and the European Union. Such a discussion would require certain conditions (some of which are already in place):

  • willingness on the part of major European companies to participate in multiple pipeline projects, assuming they are commercially viable;
  • agreement among the parties that they would not harm Turkey’s interests if competing projects are implemented simultaneously (This is not a major source of concern in Turkey, as the construction of multiple routes would reinforce Turkey’s goal of becoming a regional energy transit hub and the attendant political status this would bring);
  • recognition by all parties of the need to take Russian national interests into account—namely, its wish to remain the principal natural gas supplier for both Turkey and Europe.

The difficulty in achieving this goal is organically integrating Russia into the international fabric of Europe’s energy supply needs at a time when Europe is unwilling to contemplate further dependence on Russian gas. One possible remedy for this impasse would be the creation of a unified energy space between Russia and the European Union, which would take account of Russian interests by adopting a principle of “equal access for partners to the energy base, distribution, and transmission networks.”

Russian-Turkish Relations: Between East and West

In attempting to forecast the future development of relations between Turkey and Russia, and also between Turkey and the West, we have to consider and reevaluate conspicuous changes in the current Turkish government’s foreign policy. Of late, that policy has been more dynamic and vigorous than ever before, reflecting a more multi-vectored approach than that pursued by previous administrations. Turkey has been acting more freely and less predictably in its interactions with its traditional allies, and it has been working to strengthen relations in the region—including relations with a large group of Arab states. This change in behavior is most vividly on display in Turkey’s relations with Syria and Iran, its facilitation of dialogue with Pakistan (a state that has not recognized Armenia), its sharp resentment over the actions of long-time partner Israel, and its active efforts in Kosovo, Bosnia, and Bulgaria in support of its compatriots and co-religionists.

The main question is whether Turkey will retreat from its recent foreign policy activism (and the tensions it has created with its traditional allies), or whether it is going to further distance itself from the West and seek rapprochement with the East. Close examination of the current situation, along with a review of the foreign policies Turkey has pursued in the past, suggests that Turkey is likely to continue to attempt to balance itself between the two poles—the West (the United States and the European Union) and the Muslim East (Iran and the Middle Eastern states)—rather than move decisively toward either one.

As the global context resettles into defined poles of controversy, Turkey has been able to restructure its foreign policy priorities in a more intelligible manner for the first time since the end of the Cold War. The fundamental approach underlying Turkey’s order of priorities is the Turkish-Ottoman principle of maximizing benefits while maintaining at least some level of interaction with each of the parties involved. Turkey’s strategic goals do not include an excessive weakening of ties with the West. Similarly, further “Islamic radicalization” of the regime (assuming that the moderate Islamic Justice and Development Party continues to head the government) is not desirable. Turkey can only gain traction as long as it keeps the West on tenterhooks enough to extract accommodation, but not to the point of complete disillusionment and frustration about Turkey as a partner.


Sergey Markedonov is a visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Russia and Eurasia program) in Washington, D.C.

Natalya Ulchenko is the head of the Turkish Issues Group of the Middle East Countries Studies Center in the Oriental Studies Institute of the Russian Academy of Science in Moscow.


1  Stanislav Tarasov, “Visit by Erdogan to Moscow—a Challenging Dialogue Ahead,” (Russian), http://prim.regnum.ru/news/1383660.html.
2  “Turkey and Russia on way to strategic partnership,” Hurriyet, January 13, 2010, available at http://republicbroadcasting.org/?p=6159.
3  Igor Torbakov, “Turkey-Russia: Competition and Cooperation,” Eurasianet, December 26, 2002, www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav122702.shtml.
4  Those historical burdens are not associated with the Cold War period alone. The predecessors of modern Russia and Turkey—the Russian and Ottoman Empires—fought eleven wars that lasted for forty-four years. This cannot have failed to affect the two sides’ perceptions of one another.
5  For the EU member states, a more preferable project is Nabucco, which is expected to ensure the transport of gas from suppliers other than Russia through Turkish territory.