The recent warming of relations between Moscow and Ankara does not necessarily mean that the two will work together to form a new alliance. Deep geopolitical differences between the countries still exist, and even economic agreements are unlikely to prevent future clashes of national interests.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Istambul, Oct. 10, 2016. Photo: Kremlin

The pendulum of Russian-Turkish relations is once again on the upswing, after a difficult year. The recent meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul, which resulted in the signing of an agreement on the Turkish Stream pipeline, only confirmed this.

Western politicians have expressed concern over the newly patched-up relations between Putin and Erdogan. Both leaders are known for their complicated personalities and their commitment to defending their respective national interests, even in the face of open confrontation. But the rapprochement does not necessarily mean that a new Russo-Turkish alliance is emerging in Eurasia. Russian-Turkish relations have a long history of ups and downs.

Perhaps the recent developments would not have attracted so much attention if they had not been preceded by a serious confrontation. In November 2015, a Turkish air force jet shot down a Russian bomber along the Turkish-Syrian border, which led to a sharp downturn in relations between Moscow and Ankara. Russia accused Turkey of supporting terrorists, banned visa-free travel by Turkish citizens and blocked the import of Turkish fruits and vegetables. At the time, experts analyzing the situation speculated that possible fallout could influence Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and even Crimea.

Before the deterioration of relations last November, however, Russia and Turkey had enjoyed years of effective cooperation, which leaders of both states had called strategic. In 2014, Turkey was the only member of NATO to abstain from sanctioning Russia, although it did not go so far as to recognize Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. On more than one occasion, Turkish representatives criticized the behavior of the United States and its allies on the international stage.

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A long history of ups and downs

Taking a look at the development of Russian-Turkish relations over the past 25 years, it becomes clear that ups and downs are hallmark of the relationship, which developed as both countries struggled to find their place in the new world order that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

The dismantling of both these nations involved difficult ethno-political conflicts in which both Russia and Turkey had vested interests. The countries disagreed about the conflicts in both the North and South Caucasus and Bosnia, and had different perspectives on Iran and Cyprus. Additionally, they found themselves competing for the transportation routes for newly discovered oil and gas deposits, such as the Baku-Novorossiysk and the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan projects.

In 1992, the then-commander of the military forces of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and Marshall of Air Forces Evgeniy Shaposhnikov reacted to the gathering of Turkish troops on the border of Armenia by stating that if a third player joins in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, then the world may find itself on the brink of World War III. After this, a number of Turkish ministers compared Russia’s actions in Chechnya with the politics of the Holocaust, equating Russia’s policies towards the Chechens with Germany’s treatment of Jews.

In the 1990s, Russian and Turkish diplomats gained a lot of experience in “crisis management” in relation to each other. A massive confrontation between the two countries was avoided in large part due to the fact that neither side wanted one, but at the same time, both countries built their foreign policies around spheres of influence and particular national interests. The geopolitical interactions between these two nations can be viewed in many different ways, but the refusal of Moscow to support the Kurdish Workers’ Party (the PKK), which Turkey views as a terrorist organization, caused Turkey to reassess its attitude towards the situation in the North Caucasus, and led to a de-facto admission by Turkey that the entire region of South Caucasus with the exception of Azerbaijan and Nagorno-Karabakh was under Russia’s sphere of influence. The proof of this was Turkey’s response to the Five-Day War between Russia and Georgia in 2008, and its attitude towards Georgia’s ambitions to join NATO. It was this exchange of foreign policy moves that allowed the two countries to move from confrontation to strategic cooperation.

For many years, the development and strengthening of bilateral trade and business covered up geopolitical differences. These issues did not come to light as long as informal agreements on spheres of influences were not clearly violated.

Reassessing recent developments

The situation began to change with the Arab spring. Moscow and Ankara had very different views on the events of early 2011. For Russia, the revolutions in the Middle East were associated with the rise of radical Islam and raise the possibility of its export to the post-Soviet space, including Russia’s North Caucasus; for Turkey, the same developments opened up an opportunity to expand its influence in the countries of North Africa and the Arabian peninsula. The relationship became more fractured just a few years later. For Moscow, the events in Crimea were a signal to protect the “Russian world,” while for Ankara, the war in Syria was a signal to support the “Turkish world” in its own near abroad. Moscow began operations in Syria against this background. When Russian jets began hitting ISIS targets in Syria, Moscow considered the action proactive and preemptive, de-facto continuing the North Caucasus anti-terrorist operations on foreign soil. Turkey saw the Russian action differently.

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Russia did hold diplomatic talks with Israel and Saudi Arabia before the operation began, but not with Turkey. There were probably three main factors at play here. First, the strength of the personal relationship between Putin and Erdogan was overestimated. Second, Moscow was confident that economic factors would keep Turkey from enacting harsh anti-Russian policies. Third, Russia was convinced that any serious agreement had to be approved by United States rather than Turkey, and that the effectiveness of any operation in the region would be determined by reaching compromise with Washington.

Once the confrontation between Moscow and Ankara accelerated, however, both sides quickly realized that neither of them stood to gain from it. On the contrary, this stand-off was likely to harm both countries’ interests, and allow third countries to use it against them. Therefore, a move to revive cooperation was natural. Again, just like in the 1990s, the countries moved from the exchange of harsh rhetoric to crisis management, first and foremost, through agreeing on the spheres of each others’ influence. This allowed both sides to minimize the present confrontation and begin to look for pragmatic solutions.

Despite this warming of relations, it would be naïve to think that new conflicts will not appear. No matter how solid the energy contracts may be, or how many agreements are signed, they will not eliminate the differences that still exist between Russia and Turkey on Nagorno-Karabakh, Crimea or Syria. But generally any sense of peace is better than conflict. And a modus vivendi between these two Eurasian powers should be viewed as an important step towards resolving the chaos of the Middle East and improving the international political system as a whole.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.