International commentary has been quick and, in the case of the US and EU, sometimes misleading. In part, that’s due to the news cycle’s demand for rapid responses. But there’s another reason as well: when it comes to the relationship between Moscow and Ankara, many observers put the cart before the horse and start by asking the wrong question.
Whenever Russia and Turkey cooperate efficiently – which is quite often the case nowadays – much bewildered head-scratching ensues. With all too few exceptions, an eternally bewildered ‘How can they?!’ is the essence of the habitual step-one reaction, usually followed by a dull litany of putative reasons why they shouldn’t be able to work together – from the Ottoman-Tsarist wars via Turkey’s membership of NATO to currently diverging policies regarding several countries and crises.
Then, in step two, equally mistaken, this apparent contradiction is resolved by speculating, about three things: first, how Turkey and Russia relate – no, not to each other, but to the US and the EU, as if their cooperation were merely an indirect result of these other relationships; second, the characters of their leaders, Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, and their personal ‘chemistry’; and third, the alleged affinities between their actually very different political systems. All of this leads to mind-numbing rituals of ideological thinking, detached from reality but satisfyingly unsurprising.
In reality, however, the question of how on earth Turkey and Russia can possibly find so much common ground is simply not a good starting point. Instead, let’s begin with two simple facts.
First, our world is shaped by the failure of the US as a leader and partner and, at the same time, the emergence of a multipolar international system against the protestations of those focused only on what happens between the shores of the Atlantic. The US may or may not manage to stay as militarily powerful as it seeks to while declining politically and in terms of simple, basic efficiency. What seems clear already is that it won’t soon, if ever, be ‘back’ as a power that can be trusted or at least treated as largely predictable – and this is relatively new – even by its allies.
Second, it really isn’t astonishing that Russia and Turkey have found common ground. In fact, the cooperation between Ankara and Moscow makes so much sense that it would be odd if it did not take place. The interesting question to ask is not why the relationship is cooperative – instead, three other questions are much more productive. First how does that cooperation work and what are its limits and potentials? Second, what can others learn from it? Because, even if the thought might feel unusual to some outside observers analytically impeded by their prejudices, there are aspects of the Turkish-Russian relationship that they should learn to emulate. Third, why is it so hard for many of them to take an unbiased look at cooperation between Ankara and Moscow in the first place?
Regarding the first question, perhaps the single most urgent issue on the table at the meeting in the southern Russian city of Sochi has highlighted a key feature of the Turkish-Russian relationship: the ability to work together despite serious, ongoing disagreement. With respect to the Syrian city of Idlib and Syria in general, for instance, Russia and Turkey support different sides in a civil war. For Russia, the aim is to keep in power a regional ally; for Turkey, it is to secure its southern border and, in particular, to prevent another major wave of refugees while it is already hosting some four million. The stakes, clearly, are substantial.
Idlib, moreover, is not the only issue over which Turkey and Russia explicitly disagree. In Libya, as well, the two countries support opposing sides in a civil war – a war triggered, by the way, by reckless Western intervention led by the US. Regarding Crimea, Turkey does not recognize it as part of Russia and has recently criticized the fact that its voters have taken part in the Russian Duma elections. Moreover, Russia is generally unhappy about the export of Turkish arms to Ukraine. Finally, Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan against Armenia in their conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh complicates Russia’s policies, too. Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh were discussed in Sochi, in addition to the situation in Afghanistan, while the disagreement over Crimea was set aside after Turkey had made clear its position in advance of the meeting.
This is typical of a key pattern: both countries, while they cannot always agree on solutions, as far as problems are concerned, proceed from the assumption that the existence of even strongly diverging interests is no reason not to talk and negotiate as much as possible, rather than to grandstand and condemn. What is even more important, both sides know this about the other, and – this is the clincher – they also know that, as a rule, they can almost always rely on the other showing this degree of rationality. The 2015 crisis over the downing of a Russian jet may look like an exception to this rule. Yet, in the end, it also demonstrated that the relationship can be preserved even despite severe stress. That is take-away point number one.
Sochi did not serve only as an opportunity to talk about Syria and other problems – at the same time, it offered a set of important opportunities, in particular with respect to defense cooperation and energy. Regarding defense, as a minimum, the supply of fighter jets and submarines are now being discussed.
Concerning aviation, the likely object of such cooperation would be the Russian Checkmate fighter, enabling Turkey to compensate for the fact that, despite Ankara’s participation in development and protests, the US has unilaterally decided to withhold from it the F-35. Submarines make sense, as well, for a country with long coastlines and special national interests in both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. The fact that France and Greece, both often less than friendly toward Turkey, have just announced a navy deal of their own, can only further incentivize Ankara to stay alert.
Add cooperation in space, which was apparently also broached in Sochi, longstanding projects such as the natural gas pipeline TurkStream, the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power station, and the S-400 air defense system that Turkey has already ordered from Russia, and you find a substantial and growing domain of effective and, according to the Turkish president, irreversible cooperation.
So, here is take-away point number two: Russia and Turkey have found a modus operandi that routinely deals with conflicting interests (i.e., problems) and potentially converging interests (i.e., opportunities of cooperation) at – this is crucial – one and the same time. Not for Ankara and Moscow the odd habit, now so common in the US and the EU, to threaten to suspend the search for those opportunities every time a serious problem shows up.
This simultaneity of conflict management and cooperation exploitation is characteristic of pragmatism. In fact, it used to be a standard tool of diplomacy, before that old art of survival fell under the influence of ‘idealists’ who, ironically, tend to spread war, deadlock, and state breakdown where they can. This pragmatism also implies an at least preliminary answer to the question about the potential and limits of the current relationship between Turkey and Russia: Its potential is open-ended and, at the same time, flexible. Open-ended in that both sides can continually suggest further discrete as well as inter-related fields of cooperation, which can be developed if and where they agree, yet flexible in the sense that the relationship does not necessarily need to grow all the time to stay viable.
Its limits are set by their respective national interests. Neither Moscow nor Ankara pretends that it would sacrifice self-advancement for some higher purpose. The Turkish president, for instance, has been clear that NATO membership remains part of Turkey’s national interest – even if sovereignty comes first.. The relationship between the two is not about short-term advantages – though those are welcome, too, of course – but long-term benefits. Pragmatism is not the same as mere opportunism. Hence, take-away point number three: do not mistake pragmatism for short-sightedness. On the contrary, this is a case of strategic pragmatism.
What about our second main question, then? What could other countries learn from the Russian-Turkish way of getting things done? In short, to put the piece-by-piece yet strategically informed solving of problems and pursuit of opportunities above differences, setting the latter aside or finding compromises that may not resolve them but are sufficient to contain them.
And finally, why is it so hard for many outside observers to let go of tired clichés and focus instead on the pragmatic reality of the Moscow-Ankara relationship? A certain intellectual laziness and analytical conformism, and, last but not least, the language barriers are certainly part of the explanation. But there may also be another, more complex bias: Many observers in the US and EU seem constitutionally unable to imagine either Turkish or Russian action in any other way than with constant reference to the US, NATO, and the EU. Here, as well, the response to the Sochi meeting has been typical. Take the New York Times, for instance: According to its writers, Putin’s aim in all of this is to “undermine NATO” (again…), while they put great stress on Erdogan’s (very plausible) disappointment at not meeting US president Joe Biden during his recent trip to the US.
Yet while it is true that Turkey would have bought the American Patriot air defense system instead of the Russian S-400, had the US not been so shortsighted about selling it, the overall pattern of cooperation between Ankara and Moscow cannot be reduced to a default response. Rather, it has its own substantial dynamic, as recently shown in an exceptionally smart paper produced at the German think tank Stiftung für Wissenschaft und Politik. That dynamic would exist even if the US had sold the Patriot or abstained from plastering its Turkish ally with deeply unfriendly sanctions.
There is much talk of the need for “resilience” now. In a world where crisis will be the new normal for – if we’re lucky – at least a generation, wise voices warn us not to “break” but “bend,” or, to use a different metaphor, to learn to live with the fact that our planet as a whole now resembles a boat going through turbulent rapids. We can’t wish the tossing and tumbling away, but if we paddle and steer well enough, we may manage not to drown.
The kind of strategic pragmatism on display between Turkey and Russia could be a key element of such resilience in the international politics between states, because it doesn’t matter if you like or dislike every single policy outcome of such a relationship – what matters is that the relationship can mitigate conflict and drive cooperation, even under conditions of tension.
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