A Russia-Turkey partnership is in the offer, and with increasing domestic and international political pressure the two countries seem to be headed for a significant diplomatic relationship in the near future.
A new Cold War continues to hurt Russia both politically and economically due to falling oil prices and Western sanctions. The instability and uncertainty have resulted in growing capital flight making the Russian ruble take a nosedive by almost 60 per cent against the U.S. dollar over the course of 2014.
President Putin may have economic options to counter the currency war, but so far remains content with maintaining a political strategy. As part of that political strategy, Russia’s outreach to Turkey is an interesting policy decision on many levels.
The advent of a “Turkish Stream”
Putin turned heads of the international community by calling off the South Stream pipeline that was to deliver 63 billion cubic meters of gas annually to Europe starting in 2016. Given European Council opposition and Bulgaria’s mixed messages as a transit state, Putin announced the cancellation of South Stream and the advent of a similar pipeline transiting through Turkey.
The West may regard this as a sign of Russian capitulation in the face of heavy opposition while the Russians see it as a winning alternative, but the truth lies somewhere in between.
Given the reality of low oil prices, Western sanctions, and a falling currency, funding and building a pipeline of significant magnitude by next year is a losing proposition. This is where the U.S. was successful in persuading the EU to oppose South Stream and thereby its dependence on Russia.
The Russians, however, have targeted a NATO ally in Turkey that is also gravitating towards the East after years of trying to integrate into Europe. The duo of Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and President Recep Erdogan have been vocal about turning Turkey into an eventual energy hub that will transport energy from the East to Europe.
Russia also understands that Turkey still remains an asset for NATO with its current opposition to Bashir Al-Assad in Syria. By bringing Turkey closer to its sphere of influence, Russia only stands to gain with little to lose given its current economic situation.
NATO ally or Ottoman maverick?
For Turkey, the situation is not as clear-cut. By throwing a lifeline to Russia, Turkey has neutralized NATOs attempts to alienate Russia and potentially increased its own dependence on Russia, as it already provides Turkey with close to 60 percent of its natural gas requirements.
With Turkey also in discussions with Russia not only to build one but potentially three nuclear power plants, this has raised concerns in some quarters about the possibility of Turkey trying to acquire nuclear weapons under the guise of a nuclear program being provided by a hostile power. Although such a scenario is unlikely, the perception alone is damaging from an international standpoint.
A potential pipeline from Russia through Turkey also works directly against the Western-supported Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic pipelines of the Southern Corridor.
Since the Shah Deniz gas field from Azerbaijan is only able to supply Europe with 20 billion cubic (energy needs of only 7 million households), the introduction of a pipeline able to supply 63 billion cubic metres brings into question the relevance of the Southern Corridor.
Western media have already begun questioning whether Turkey is in fact a productive ally and not least how this would alter Turkey’s relationship with its allies in Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan who are continually fighting Russian influence. The states of the Gulf Cooperative Council may also see Turkey’s outreach to Russia as indecision on Syria and the ousting of Al-Assad.
On the other hand, the West may see this as an opportunity for a NATO ally to put pressure on Russia given the current energy context. The West may realize that although the AKP party may not be the best-case scenario, few alternatives are in place that will bring the same stability Turkey has had for the past decade. If Bashir Al-Assad is to be toppled in Syria, a stable, friendly Turkey will be required along with a potential back channel to Russia.
From Turkey’s perspective this would mean an additional pipeline traversing through its territory carrying significant capacity to Europe, a dialogue opportunity with Russia on the plight of Crimean Tatars, a potential Muslim Brotherhood government in Syria and the much-ballyhooed role of energy hub between East and West.
This all depends on whether Turkey is overestimating its position vis-à-vis the West, sees greater payoff by aligning with Russia and if establishing an independent and previous “zero problems” foreign policy does not raise the ire of its NATO allies.