With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey, Moscow and Ankara are expected to discuss future bilateral relations and common economic interests. Will they be able to team up politically?

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (right) and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan review a guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, December 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Dec. 1 visit to Turkey has crucial importance at a time when Russia faces serious confrontation with the West as a result of the Ukrainian crisis. The annexation of Crimea and the conflict in Eastern Ukraine has been followed by damaging sanctions that impact trade between Russia and Europe and could affect the Russian economy.

Some experts see this tension as a new Cold War, while others express the idea that the unipolar world order is ending and a multipolar one is about to be formed. In the latter case, Russia sees itself as one of the central players and stakeholders, together with China.

Meanwhile, Turkey, as a regional power and NATO member, is also facing difficulties in establishing harmonious relations with the West. The EU accession process is almost halted and there is a clear divergence of interests with the U.S. over the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) after the events in Syria’s besieged town of Kobani, which has become the focus of the Western-backed war against Islamic State insurgents.

[The Kobani siege, which ISIS started in September, is still going on not far from the Turkish frontier, with about 200,000 fleeing from Kobani to Turkey. The failure of Turkey to help defend the town sparked riots among Turkish Kurds in which 40 people died. – editor’s note]

Deteriorating relations of Moscow with the West and Turkish suspicion about the policies of its Western allies in the Middle East make Putin’s visit to Ankara very significant, given the Russian President’s plans to open “new horizons” with Turkey. More importantly, taking into consideration the fact that the Turkish position may affect the current balance of power between the U.S. and Russia, a vital question arises: Can these two Eurasian countries team up to withstand the West’s influence? Can such a scenario lead to a new era in Turkish-Russian relations?

Nevertheless, one could observe that, despite the discourse about a “strategic” partnership between Russia and Turkey, economic issues matter first for parties with a pragmatic viewpoint on foreign affairs. After all, Turkish and Russian foreign policies diverge over a rank of international issues  from the Balkans to Ukraine and the Caucasus  in how Turkey joins its Western allies. Besides, in the Syrian civil war, the two have supported different sides from the beginning. Thus, by calculating the Turkish position as inevitably under the Western sphere of influence and, given the current turmoil in Turkish domestic politics, Moscow focuses on potential economic gains from Ankara rather than a new political alignment.

Annual trade volume between the two is $33 billion, of which Russian exports (mainly energy) constitute more than $26 billion of the total. For Russian energy firms, Turkey is seen as a profitable market. As the Turkish economy continues to grow, so will its energy imports. Although Gazprom faces declining demand from Europe, Turkey is the only country that has increased its imports from Gazprom. Turkey’s import dependency on Russian gas is close to 60 percent and the volume of gas to be imported from Russia will exceed 29 billion cubic meters (bcm) by the end of the year, making the country the second-biggest customer of Gazprom after Germany.

Moreover, Gazprom benefits the most from gas market liberalization in Turkey by becoming active in Turkish downstream operations through its subsidiaries and partnerships. The parties even agreed to increase the capacity of the Blue Stream gas pipeline from the current level of 16 bcm to 19 bcm. As a result, gas price negotiations will become the most important pillar of this visit.

In addition, the parties are also interested in the increase of Russian coal and oil exports to Turkish market. Furthermore, Russia’s Rosatom will build and operate the first nuclear power plant in Turkey, a project expected to be worth $21 billion. In return, Moscow asks for tax incentives for the feasibility of the investment. On the other hand, Ankara hopes to boost its exports, mainly textile machinery and food, to the Russian market by replacing European producers that have been impacted by Russian counter-sanctions.

Basically, Putin’s visit to Ankara is expected to repeat the outcome of his previous meetings: Economic gains will prevail over political discussions. Under the current circumstances, because of the limits of imposing political influence over Turkey, a NATO ally, Moscow seeks new, expanded economic opportunities from the Turkish side.

Moscow is also well aware of the fact that the domestic political situation is fragile in Turkey, and that the territorial integrity of the country is being challenged because of the wars in Iraq and Syria. In that sense, the state’s authority in Turkey is declining and taking decisions at a strategic level is highly unlikely for Ankara.

It’s important to note that there is a common misperception about the similarities between Russian President Putin and his Turkish counterpart Erdogan. Despite their similar style of governing, their policies are actually quite different.

Erdogan’s policy is reminiscent of the one implemented by Russia’s first President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s: Ambitious liberalization of the economy, implementation of privatization programs, takeover of main assets by Western capital, proliferation of social injustice, decline of public authority and the start of peace process with separatist groups. In contrast, Putin has been going in the other direction, in a policy course opposite to Yeltsin’s. Whether Erdogan will be capable to change this Yeltsin-like course remains to be seen.

For this reason, one could basically argue that the Turkish side is not capable of taking a high-level decision independent of the West in order to form a strategic alliance with Russia. The Russian side is not interested in such a strategic alliance. In order to foster such a kind of strategic decision, the counterpart of Russia’s Putin needs to be a ‘Turkish Putin,’ not a ‘Turkish Yeltsin.’

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