The modern history of Russo-Turkish relations can rightly be considered extraordinary. Many historians would argue that the extent of fluctuations in the mood of the two countries' leaderships could not be compared to any Russo-Turkish war seen in history starting from 1568. Given that the two former empires have fought nearly twelve wars altogether, with the last major one having finished in 1918, it is probably not that difficult to imagine that the modern day geopolitical confrontation between Russia and Turkey would be quite logically inevitable - unless Mr. Putin ceases to be Mr. Putin or Mr. Erdogan ceases to be Mr. Erdogan.
Today it is fair to assume that the major obstacles in the bilateral relations of the two states are not ideological but rather civilizational and, as it has probably always been in the history of this rather important relationship for much of Eurasia, are of clearly geopolitical shade. Modern day Russia positions itself as the cradle of Christianity and, in fact, the world's guarantor against growing Islamic fundamentalism. Turkey is, in its turn, becoming more and more "Islamized" at its own risk and peril, slowly but gradually abandoning Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's legacy. Nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine the existence of a common Eurasian economic area without the smooth participation of both Moscow and Ankara and it should definitely be without any doubt that the regional security is dependent on this important relationship. Whether it was about the Turkish attempt to control the right-bank Ukraine, numerous raids of Crimean Tatars against the Grand Duchy of Moscow, Soviets in Afghanistan or the U.S. strategic defense initiatives, Russians and Turks have always been involved with each other through the prism of their imperial interests.
If Russia could be viewed today as a returning superpower, Turkey is, on the contrary, losing its global authority due to its inability to protect itself from an unprecedented level of terror attacks which can be directly attributed to the country's involvement in Syria and its obviously weakened security services responsible for protection and safety not only of the President himself but also the rest of the nation. This leaves Erdogan rather vulnerable to internal discontent, as well as to the deteriorating global security and economic indicators. Indeed, the Turkish President has paid a lot of attention to what seems to be the greatest cleansing in state institutions in decades as a result of a military coup attempt in July last year. Apparently, the country needs a little more than a couple of months to be able to fully recreate its security structures. In 2016 alone, Erdogan's Turkey was subjected to twenty-three terror attacks on its soil, including more recently the assassination of the Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov. Given that this is already the second diplomatic incident in a row between Moscow and Ankara involving Russian victims (downing of the Russian plane near the Syrian border has not been forgiven as easily), one may wonder as to what extent a fear of terrorism could actually be a uniting factor forcing cooperation between the two parties. If one remembers the Russian media reporting about "Erdogan having used ISIS to advance his Middle East policy and suppress the Kurds" and "the Turkish elite vibrant economic ties with the terror group", the prospects for peace and cooperation in Syria between the two powers seem difficult to reach per se if not impossible. And then there are nearby Azerbaijan, Iran, Israel, Ukraine, and others who, at some point, have displayed interest in regional economic integration, but where the attitude to geopolitical ambitions of either Moscow or Ankara is not straightforward at all. As Moscow is now clearly in a better position to determine the course of events in the region, it is unlikely that it will share its trophies with anyone, certainly not with troubled Ankara.
At the same time, it is not the Kurdish issue or the rights of Syrian Turkmens that, in the end of the day, constitute the actual priority for both Moscow and Ankara; and it is not about Crimean Tatars who had been continuously migrating from Crimea to Turkey during the Russo-Turkish wars and may again at some point view Ankara as protector. It is rather a question of who is going to lead Big Eurasia and rule over its massive resources, including in the Middle East. During the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum in June 2016, Putin announced the intention of Russia to create a single energy market of hydrocarbons by 2025 where Turkey could ideally play its role too. But what, exactly, should this role be? Turkey has strived to secure a status of a principal hub for East-West energy transit so presumably it could continue to deliver Russian gas to Europe. But if Erdogan chooses to compete with Putin's agenda in the Middle East, where the former reportedly wants to see a new gas pipeline stretching from Qatar via Syria to Turkey (and not from Iran for example), it is difficult to imagine how the two are going to agree on energy cooperation elsewhere. Is Erdogan going to accept the fact that the Russian henchman and Iranian ally in the region, President Bashar Assad, could stay around for probably a little longer than he imagined or will he continue pushing for Assad's removal? By supporting Assad, Russia, in its turn, hints to act as a guarantor for Middle Eastern regimes without asking for large concessions in their human rights and democracy record. On the other hand, Russia too is occasionally flirting with Kurds, and more openly with Armenians. Will Erdogan ever agree on opening borders with Armenia, which is a party to Putin's Eurasian project is another vexing question.
According to numerous reports, Russia is also willing to deploy elite Chechen battalions to Syria to defend its air base in Latakia and to fight the Islamic State. This should apparently be viewed as a message to everybody in the region that Russians are in solidarity with the terror torn Muslim world. However, the Russian act of good will constitutes a direct contrast to Erdogan's imperial ambitions and security potential in the region, since it was Erdogan who was trying on the role of all-powerful military commander in the Middle East. What his role will be in the region now remains an open question. This is especially true since the Turkish President has recently taken a more critical stance toward NATO pushing the allies to return hundreds of officers and soldiers who fled Turkey following the coup attempt in July. It is unclear how far Erdogan is going to take his criticism of Western allies, but as a NATO member Turkey has political responsibilities within the organization and has presumably been in contact with its members through security consultations.
One should hope that Moscow and Ankara would eventually reach agreement on these numerous issues but it is also useful to keep in mind that history has rarely seen the two agreeing much in the past. Heads of states come and go and, as recent events in Europe show, in a rapidly changing world, that seems to be the only opportunity for compromise and peaceful transition toward the new global realities. Yet if Erdogan would still manage to eat his cake and have it too, perhaps to everybody's surprise, he will be able to surpass Ataturk's legacy too.Suggest a correction