Monday, 21 November 2011

Turkey Falls Out With Russia: Another Sign of a Foreign Policy in Crisis

Published in Articles

By Stephen Blank (vol. 4, no. 22 of the Turkey Analyst)

Wherever one looks, Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy is fading.  Although  Turco-Russian relations have not received the publicity of Turkey’s quarrels with Israel, those relations represent the latest example of this policy’s difficulties. The clash of Turkish-Russian interests are part of a larger theme. They underline that the core idea of Turkish foreign policy during the last years, the notion that Turkey can truly manage to have no problems with all of its neighbors and serenely navigate along the complex shoals of  Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucasus and gain leverage throughout these zones, has proven to be unustainable. 

BACKGROUND: On October 1, Turkey announced that it would not renew the purchase of Russian gas delivered through the Western pipeline route through the Balkans after 2012.  The official reason was the high price of Russian gas.  Russian papers immediately claimed this was part of a  concerted anti-Russian attack by Eruope and Turkey on Rusisan gas policy.  But the truth is rather different and casts a critical light on both states’ policies.

Turkey already imports about 60 percent of its gas from Russia and  worries about strategic over-dependence as a reuslt.  Second, Gazprom has rebuffed Turkey’s requests for easing the oneerous take or pay clauses in their contract that raises Turkish payments even as imports contract.  Russia has also generally refused to accede to other customers’ requests for price cuts.  So Turkey sent a clear signal that it would no longer depend exclusively on Russian gas and that it had other options.  Furthermore, Ankara is replying to domestic critics who complain about the primacy of the state company BOTAS, by allowing private importers to take over the contracts with Gazprom in search of better prices.  Turkey also hopes for contracts with  Egypt,  Iraq, the ITGI interconnector from Azerbaijan, and Turkmenistan (through the projected Nabucco pipeline) and possibly hopes to force its way into the newly discovered Eastern Mediterranean gas fields.  Turkey may also be hoping to gain more U.S. support,  as it already has moved to accept to participate in NATO’s missile defense shield against Iran.

Even though both Turkish and Russian media habitually view international politics as a conspiracy directed against or  revolving around their countries, and although this situation is no different,Turkey’s moves against Gazprom and Moscow have apparently been  in the works for some time.  Russian sources see Russia’s recent deals with the EU over the projected South Stream pipeline and Turkey’s desire to join the EU as motivating forces while Turkish media see Turkey aligning with the U.S. and the EU aligning with Russia.

What is clear is that as Russian pressure on Ukraine to hand over its gas pipeline network to Moscow grows, Turkey’s dependence on Russian gas becomes more of a liability especially as Moscow thinks it can disregard Turkish economic interests, as suggested above.  Indeed, an article in Moskovskiy Komsomolets observed that because Gazprom refuses to lower its prices, an anti-Gazprom “movement” of sorts is developing among  European customers who are relying on the appearance of Qatari and Algerian LNG.  Therefore Moscow must hope to restore the cuts in deliveries by making deals with private Turkish importers who are ready to negotiate terms.  But it is unlikely they will accept the onerous take or pay clauses and high prices that feature so prominently in Gazprom’s contracts.

IMPLICATIONS: These are not the only problems in Russo-Turkish relatoins.  A Russian strike team of eight agents killed three Chechens in Istanbul on September 16 execution-style in broad daylight, an event that obviously irritated Turkish officials, not just because there are many sympathizers with the Chechens and other North Caucasus insurgents in Turkey, but because of the blatant disregard for Turkish sovereignty.  Similarly, Moscow cannot be happy with Turkey’s decision to  accept the components of the NATO missile defense sysem against which it has been campaigining for over five years.  Turkey has also clearly lost any hope that the Assad regime in Syria can or should be preserved, whereas Moscow stands fully behind it. And finally, Turkey’s opposition to Cyprus’ drilling for gas in the Easterm Mediterranean and threats directed against it – and for that matter against Israel which has already found a huge amont of gas there – have caused concern in Russia.

The Russian government reccently organized a large loan to Cyprus to sustain it against  a crisis should Greece default.  Moscow did so because so many Russian accounts are held in Cypriot banks and then reinvested in Russia or used to launder  the elite’s money by cycling it out of Russia into the global banking system.  Clearly, Moscow cannot allow Cyprus to go under.  Turkish threats are therefore deeply disturbing to  both the Cypriot and the Russian governments.

Indeed, after Turkey issued what amounted to a threat against Cyprus, after the Cypriot government signed an agreement with the Texas based firm Noble Energy, that is also a partner with Israel in developing Israel’s maritime gas fields, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly backed Cyprus’ right to develop its Mediterranean gas.  Cyprus in turn labelled Moscow “a shield against any threats by Turkey.” 

As a result, some Russian media, like Pravda, now accuse Ankara of a neo-Ottoman  policy to revive the Ottoman empire.  Others have also noticed that Russia attacked Turkey’s quest for influence among the Bosnians, a point that inflames Russia due to its traditional support for the Serbs. According to Israel’s former UN Ambassador Dore Gold, when Russia looks at Turkey it sees signs of a pan-Islamic policy which seeks to mobilize support from the Arabs and from the Muslim communities in the Balkans, and this naturally is antipathetic to Moscow’s courtship of the Orthodox Serbs.

In fact, the clash of Turkish-Russian interests are part of a larger theme.  They underline that the core idea of Turkish foreign policy during the last years, the notion that Turkey can truly manage to have no problems with all of its neighbors and serenely navigate along the complex shoals of Mediterranean Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucasus and gain leverage throughout these zones, has proven to be unustainable.  There are too many issues, some new and some very old, that make it impossible to uphold this posture while everyone else is pursuing their own national interests that Turkey lacks the power to control.

At the same time, the refusal of neighboring states like Syria, Russia, and Iran to heed Turkish interests clearly betokens the failure of the Turkish government’s policy to increase Turkey’s standing and leverage among its neighbors espcecially when the issues involved are central to the government’s economic and political objectives. 

Turkey’s recent foreign policy moves have estranged Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Russia, Syria and Iran; Ankara’s anti-Israeli stance has certainly been a headache for U.S. policymakers. Although Russian threats in the Caucasus and bullying tactics regarding energy in Southeastern Eruope have added fuel to the fire, it is clear that the fundamental concept of Turkish foreign policy of the last several years has been weighed in the balance and found wanting.  So it is not surprisng that Turkey is now lashing out and thrashing around, trying to assert itself in forceful rhetoric which, however, may not be possible to sustain by equally forceful deeds.

CONCLUSIONS: It remains to be seen how Ankara will be able to extricate itself from its current foreign policy troubles, and how the consequences of going from seeking “zero problems” with all neighbors to having “many problems” with most of them will be managed. Turkey possesses considerable economic assets and strategic importance.  Nonetheless, it seems to have overreached and based its foreign policy on unwarranted and unsustainable presuppositions.  But since greater powers than Turkey have failed to secure lasting influence and navigate the rapids of Southeastern European and Middle Eastern policies, Ankara’s inability to supplant them should come as less of a surprise.

Certainly, Turkey alone cannot resist Russian encroachments in the Caucasus and Europe, impose a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, ensure good governance in Syria and uphold its security against Iran all by itself. Upon sober reflection, Ankara may come to better appreciate its need for Western friends and parters.

The fact that Turkey decided to join the NATO’s missile defense is a telltale sign of such a sobering.  This might even augur a return to the historic Kemalist, Westward orientation of Turkey that has been so antithetical to the ruling AKP’s ideology, though not necessarliy to all of its practice.

To be sure, that quest for partnerhsip with Europe has presently run aground, as Turkey’s bid for EU membership is met with the strong resistance of key EU countries, and as the AKP government’s enthusiasm for pursuing the bid has cooled significantly since 2005. But  a carefully prepared and a more limited objective may be within reach, especially concerning Turkish-European cooperation on energy policy as well as defense policy.

The cumulative foreign policy failures of Turkey in all directions – the troubles with Russia, the clash with Cyprus, the denoument of the partnership with Syria – ultimately speak of the persistence of national interests and political differences that can not always be reconciled. Turkey’s recent strategic rapprochment with the U.S. – exemplified by the crucial decision to join the NATO’s missile defense shield against Iran – on the other hand, suggests that Ankara has indeed awakened to this sobering reality. As its disappointing expriences in its neighborhood have revealed the limits of what can accomplished with a “Neo-Ottoman” approach, Turkey may in fact be rediscovering the virtues of classical republican foreign policy.

Professor Stephen Blank, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed here do not represent those of the U.S. Army, Defense Department, or the U.S. Government.

© Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center, 2010. This article may be reprinted provided that the following sentence be included: "This article was first published in the Turkey Analyst (, a biweekly publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program Joint Center".

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The Turkey Analyst is a publication of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Joint Center, designed to bring authoritative analysis and news on the rapidly developing domestic and foreign policy issues in Turkey. It includes topical analysis, as well as a summary of the Turkish media debate.


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