‘Putin considers Erdogan a real man’: Why Russia maintains friendly relations with one of NATO’s key members
Five years ago, Türkiye’s Operation Olive Branch started off with massive airstrikes, columns of armored vehicles, tanks with infantry support, and special forces clearing up Syrian territories. The Turkish military entered a region where Russian troops had been stationed just a day earlier. The incident severely strained relations between Moscow and Ankara.
Despite this, Russia and Türkiye didn’t break off ties. Amidst conflicts in Syria, the Caucasus, and Ukraine, both sides resorted to compromise and continued holding a constructive, mutually beneficial dialogue. In this article, Russian turkologists explore how Moscow’s former enemy and one of NATO’s oldest member states became one of Russia’s most stable partners.
The Turkish army began Operation Olive Branch on January 20, 2018, as a response to the shelling of border territories from the Syrian side. The operation took place in Afrin, the north-western region of Syria inhabited mainly by Kurds. It was directed against detachments of Kurdish People's Defense Forces and the Democratic Union Party founded by the Kurds.
By doing so, Türkiye affected the interests of the Russian Armed Forces officially stationed in Syria at the request of the Syrian government. A year before the start of Operation Olive Branch, Russia introduced into Afrin a group from the Center for Reconciliation of Opposing Sides and the presence of the Russian military became a sort of security guarantee for the Kurds. At the start of the operation, for security reasons, the Russian armed forces were transferred to the southeastern part of the province – particularly, to the Tell Rifaat area on the road to Aleppo.
The Kurds assumed that Russia had given the green light for the attack. Ankara’s operation began with the massive bombing of Afrin. Although the S-400 missile defense systems located at the Russian Khmeimim Air Base could have prevented this, Russia clearly had no intention of using them against Türkiye. “It is difficult to imagine a conflict between Russia and Türkiye, which is part of NATO. Should Russia have shot down Turkish planes? That’s just not possible,” said military expert Vladimir Evseev at the international media group Rossiya Segodnya round table.
Following the conclusion of Operation Olive Branch, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Türkiye would continue conducting military operations throughout “a large part of north Syria.” What this practically meant was that the Syrian issue would jeopardize Russian-Turkish relations on more than one occasion.
One of the critical moments came in January 2020 when, backed by the Turkish army, the militants tried to break through the positions of the Syrian government army. The attack was repulsed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops with the help of Russian Aerospace Forces. This critically strained the relations between Russia and Türkiye. World politicians were alarmed by the situation and the likelihood of a real military conflict between the two external powers. However, negotiations between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan eventually put an end to the tensions.
The Caucasian issue
Contradictions between Moscow and Ankara aren’t limited to Syria. A painful issue for both sides has recently sprung up in the Caucasus where, for several decades, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been engaged in an armed dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Turkish leadership has openly supported the Azerbaijani side, while Russia is trying to preserve peace in the region through mediation and diplomatic negotiations.
Yet, even in such circumstances, there’s space for dialogue between Moscow and Ankara. A striking example is the work of the joint Russian-Turkish Monitoring Center, which has been monitoring the ceasefire regime in Nagorno-Karabakh following the end of the 44-day war in 2020.
The Center isn’t always successful at preventing tensions. For example, the conflict flared up once again in March 2022, when, according to Yerevan, villages on the territory of Karabakh were fired at by the Azerbaijani military.
However, the situation in the region is so fragile that it can be aggravated without a single shot. In mid-December, an Azerbaijani group that called themselves environmental activists blocked the Lachin corridor, which is under the control of Russian peacekeepers. The protesters stated that they oppose the illegal extraction of natural resources by the Armenian authorities on the territory of the unrecognized republic and require Azerbaijani officials to inspect the local mines.
The corridor blocked by the activists is the only road connecting Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia, which de facto places the unrecognized republic under blockade.
Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan haven’t yet discussed the issue. Their last discussion on the topic of Nagorno-Karabakh took place on November 1, 2022. The Russian president then informed his Turkish counterpart about the results of his trilateral meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan.
However, the leaders of Russia and Türkiye maintain regular contact on another conflict, which for Moscow is currently the most pressing issue.
The Ukrainian crisis
This, of course, is the conflict in Ukraine. The President of Türkiye is almost the only mediator in the conflict, at least in the matter of prisoner exchanges between Russia and Ukraine, which take place with the direct participation of Ankara.
It’s worth noting that Erdogan asked Putin to assign Ankara the status of an official mediator in the Ukrainian crisis even before the start of the Russian military operation.
“We support the establishment of peace in the region, especially in the matter regarding the Crimean Turks. We have repeatedly discussed these issues with our Russian friends and especially with President Putin. We don’t want the region to be a territory dominated by war,” the President of Türkiye said at the end of last year.
However, Moscow hardly sees Ankara as a mediator after its participation in the anti-Russian “Crimea Platform” summit organized by Kiev and the supply of military drones to Ukraine – actions that clearly deprived it of neutrality.
A solid relationship
Despite the many contradictions between Russia and Türkiye, the two countries have managed to maintain a constructive dialogue and friendly relations. One of the major factors is the economic interdependence of Moscow and Ankara, which has grown rapidly over the past few years. Between January-September of last year, the trade turnover between Russia and Türkiye topped $47 billion, which is twice as much as in the first nine months of 2021. This is mainly down to Moscow using Ankara to replace official imports from Western states.
“The dialogue between Russia and Türkiye is based on an extremely high level of cooperation in trade and economics. This is a key aspect. Türkiye has set a record in export this year, and a significant amount of goods has been exported to Russia. Lacking this, the Turkish economy would be in a much more unfortunate state than it is now,” Viktor Nadein-Rayevsky, senior researcher at The Institute of World Economy and International Relations, told RT.
Moreover, Türkiye is dependent on Russian energy resources. Despite the Anadolu News Agency reporting that Ankara started substituting Russian gas and turning to other suppliers (as per the monthly report of the Energy Market Regulation Authority), the Russian Federation still retained a leading position in this field.
Nadein-Rayevsky also considers Russia’s construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in Türkiye an important factor in the relations between the two countries. The plant is being built on the southern coast, in the Mersin Province. This is the first nuclear power plant built in the republic, and the first project in the global nuclear industry implemented according to the ‘build-own-operate’ model. The corresponding agreement between Russia and Türkiye was signed in May 2010. Project costs are estimated at about $20 billion.
“The construction costs are covered by Russia, without the investment of Turkish capital. The debt will be paid off through the supply of electricity, paid by Turkish consumers at pre-agreed prices. This model is quite profitable for Russia. We are turning Türkiye into a gas hub which will supply Europe with gas. This is a great opportunity for Türkiye, since as a distributor of resources, it will have a word in determining prices. And the Turks definitely won’t sell themselves short,” the expert said.
In addition to economic cooperation, Russia and Türkiye managed to build trusting relations and constructive dialogue thanks to mutual respect, says Amur Gajiyev, a member of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
“Both countries respect each other's policies and interests and have developed a mechanism for mutually respectful interaction. The conversation between them isn’t on the same level as between Türkiye and NATO or Türkiye and other Western countries – it’s not a conversation with a vassal state, but a dialogue between two equal powers. That’s the secret behind effective bilateral cooperation,” the expert told RT.
Personal relations between the two leaders also play an important role, adds Nadein-Rayevskiy.
“Putin considers Erdogan a ‘real man’ who keeps his word. This is a new characteristic for the president of Türkiye, but Erdogan has demonstrated loyalty to his obligations,” he said.
According to Amur Gajiyev, another important aspect is that both sides comply with their obligations under binding mutual agreements. This was evident in the framework of the Syrian settlement, the agreements on Karabakh, and other issues in the context of bilateral cooperation such as regional problems, trade, economic, and energy cooperation, as well as cultural and humanitarian ties.
“As long as there’s mutual trust and all sides observe their obligations under existing agreements, there will be no obstacles to the mutually beneficial cooperation of the two countries in the future,” said Amur Gajiyev.