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Fresh Russia-Türkiye Spat Endangers Long-Term Ties

Moscow’s anger over Turkish arms supplies to Kyiv and compliance with U.S. sanctions threatens a rift between the on-off allies.  

Published on July 3, 2024

The ever-turbulent relationship between Russia and Türkiye is on the brink of a new crisis. In early June, Russian President Vladimir Putin openly reproached Ankara for providing military aid to Kyiv, and also complained about its cooperation with Western financial institutions over sanctions.

There was no official response from the Turkish authorities, but given the repeated postponement of Putin’s visit to Türkiye, falling trade figures, and Ankara’s growing military cooperation with the United States, it’s clear that the relationship is worsening dramatically. This time, the rift could be far more serious and longer-lasting than previous headline-grabbing but brief disagreements.

Ahead of Türkiye’s presidential and parliamentary elections in May 2023, Moscow lent both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) a helping hand by sending Ankara $20 billion for the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, as well as deferring payment for another $20 billion worth of Russian natural gas supplied in 2022.

The Kremlin was clearly counting on Erdoğan to repay the favor upon reelection. Instead, amid difficult economic conditions at home, the Turkish president has adopted a much more pro-Western course than Moscow had anticipated. Erdoğan has begun calling on Brussels to restart negotiations on Türkiye’s accession to the European Union. And when Ankara lifted its objections to Sweden joining NATO in January, Washington greenlit the export of modernized F-16 fighters to Ankara (signaling the death knell for Turkish plans to buy Su-35 or Su-57 fighters from Russia instead).

Putin was initially due to visit Türkiye in February; then the visit was postponed to either after Russia’s presidential election in mid-March, or after Turkish municipal elections at the end of March. But there’s still no clarity about whether the visit will actually take place. These difficulties are evidently more than just scheduling problems.

One of the main irritants for the Kremlin is Ankara’s position on the war in Ukraine. While Turkish statements in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity have never been to Moscow’s liking, they have not prompted a backlash. However, Moscow is actively concerned about Türkiye supplying arms to Kyiv. At the beginning of February, it emerged that Turkish defense company Baykar had begun the construction of a factory near Kyiv that will manufacture Bayraktar TB2 or TB3 drones. About 500 people are expected to be employed by the plant.

Putin revealed Moscow’s dissatisfaction in conversation with the heads of major news agencies at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June, where he said that “Türkiye is cooperating with Ukraine in some spheres,” and alleged that, nevertheless, gas pipelines delivering Russian gas to Türkiye were actually being attacked with Turkish-made drones. “I am not hyping it up or inventing things; this is a fact. Please tell our friend, President Erdoğan, about the situation on the ground,” Putin told the editor in chief of Turkish news agency Anadolu.

Russia’s irritation has been growing for months. Another revealing moment was the visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Istanbul in July 2023, which resulted in Türkiye handing over five captured commanders of Ukraine’s Azov battalion who had been taken prisoner by Russia and transferred to Türkiye with assurances they would not return to Ukraine until the war ends. Erdoğan also used the occasion to express support for Ukraine joining NATO.

Türkiye additionally raised eyebrows in Moscow when it sent a delegation to the Ukrainian peace summit in Switzerland in mid-June that Russia had labeled an “absurd gathering.” Not only was the delegation led by Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, but Türkiye signed the final communique (unlike countries including India, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates).

Against this backdrop, it’s clear Putin doesn’t think an official visit to Türkiye is appropriate. If Erdoğan himself doesn’t come to Russia (as he did in September 2023), then the most Putin is likely to agree to is a meeting in a third country—such as at the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Kazakhstan’s Astana.

Whenever the two leaders eventually meet, Ukraine will not be the only topic of conversation: Putin has also expressed his frustration over Türkiye’s observance of Western sanctions. From the beginning of this year, Turkish banks have stopped carrying out financial transactions with Russia because of the risks of U.S. secondary sanctions. Despite regular statements from Moscow and Ankara that the problem is being resolved, no solution has yet been found.

As a result, the volume of trade between Russia and Türkiye is falling steadily. In February, Turkish exports to Russia were down 33 percent compared with the same month a year earlier, and in April, China displaced Russia as the main supplier of goods and services to the Turkish market.

It’s clear that Moscow expects more from Ankara, including when it comes to the construction of a gas hub—a massive project that would allow Russia to reroute gas exports following the loss of direct access to most of the European market. The Turkish authorities regularly reassure Russia that building work is about to get under way, but there is still no sign of any progress.

At the same time, there are some restraining factors. Joint projects like the Akkuyu nuclear plant help limit the impact of angry words. Ankara’s international support is also extremely important for Moscow, since they have similar positions on a range of issues, including the war in Gaza. Moscow was recently supportive of Ankara’s wish to join the BRICS group of emerging market nations, while Fidan’s presence at a BRICS foreign ministers’ meeting in the Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod in June was helpful for the Kremlin as it attempts to refute suggestions of isolation on the world stage.

Nevertheless, there are undoubtedly new cracks in the relationship. While the Kremlin has traditionally been wary of being seen to engage with the Turkish opposition, the situation might now be changing—both because Putin believes Erdoğan was not grateful enough for Russian support for his reelection in 2023, and because the AKP suffered its first defeat in twenty-two years in the March municipal elections. 

Firstly, Özgür Özel, the leader of Türkiye’s Republican People’s Party, which was successful in those elections, has announced that he will soon be visiting Moscow. Secondly, the Republican People’s Party is preparing to open a representative office in the Russian capital. The party says there is great interest among the Russian elite in talking with Özel and other prominent party figures, including Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu. All this would have been difficult to imagine under the party’s previous leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who accused Russia of interfering in Turkish elections just a year ago. 

The opposition’s changing attitude has been matched by a qualitative shift in Moscow’s position. In May, for example, there was a meeting in Ankara between Özel and the Russian ambassador to Türkiye. While it may be too early to write off the Russian-Turkish relationship, the special personal partnership between Putin and Erdoğan is deteriorating rapidly.