EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: In theory, Turkey’s relations with Russia have never been brighter. However, behind the nice façade lie a deep ideological divide, mutual mistrust, and diverging regional interests. Eight decades after Atatürk’s “transactional” Soviet initiative, Turkey’s Islamist leaders are ironically following a similar line. For Erdoğan, Russia is not just a strong trading partner and the top supplier of Turkey’s energy. It is also the eastern ground of his political acrobatics with the Western world.
Turkey’s Cold War history featured a staunch alliance with the Western bloc coupled with constant fears of a Russian invasion or of the export of Soviet communism. The past few years, by contrast, have been marked by more complex dynamics between Ankara and Moscow that are often blurred by Turkish zigzagging between its Russian and Western interests.
After the normalization of ties following the Turkish downing of a Russian Su-24 over Syrian skies, Ankara has committed itself to buying the Russian-made S-400 air and anti-missile defense systems and has opened talks for the acquisition of other air defense equipment from Moscow. Trade and tourism have flourished, and Russia has signed a $22 billion deal to build and operate Turkey’s first nuclear power plant. The Russian military allowed Turkish troops to cross the border into northwest Syria in an incursion that would bring domestic political gains to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (a popularity boost, particularly among nationalist voters, ahead of the June 24 presidential and parliamentary elections) rather than attain fluid foreign policy goals (cutting an emerging Kurdish belt stretching from northern Iraq to Turkey’s southwest border with Syria). In theory, Turkey’s relations with Russia have never been brighter. But behind the nice façade lie a deep ideological divide, mutual mistrust, and diverging regional interests.