Russian and Turkish military cooperation is deepening as Ankara’s relationship with Washington deteriorates. Recent joint naval exercises between Russia and Turkey, and increasing military cooperation in Syria, come as NATO allies question Turkey’s allegiance to the Western defense alliance.
A joint naval drill last Friday was part of a broader Turkish national military exercise. While the drills involved only a few ships, analysts have described its political implications as far more significant.
“The realization of the Russian-Turkish common military exercises is a message both for the West and for the region of the Middle East that two sides cooperate,” said Zaur Gasimov, an Istanbul-based analyst for the Max Weber Foundation.
The choice of the Black Sea for the joint exercise also is heavy on political symbolism, given that it is a focal point of tensions between NATO and Russian forces, and it sends a message that likely will not be lost on Turkey’s NATO members, other analysts say.
“This is another confirmation that Turkey is the odd man in the room when it comes to the NATO membership; nearly all people think Turkey is only a member on paper,” said political scientist Cengiz Aktar, adding, “And how successful Moscow has been to cut Turkey from NATO.”
“This is a trend thus far, from being temporary or tactical; this is a long-term strategy of Russia,” added Aktar.
Moscow has been quick to exploit bilateral tensions between Ankara and Washington over myriad differences.
“The unprecedented amelioration of Turkish-Russian cooperation at present should be seen in the context of the unprecedented aggravation of the ties between Ankara and Washington,” Gasimov said.
Washington’s backing of Syrian YPG Kurdish forces in the fight against Islamic State has driven bilateral ties between the U.S. and Turkey, a NATO ally, to the breaking point. Ankara has designated the YPG as terrorists linked to the PKK, which has been waging a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey.
Moscow’s sale of its S-400 missiles to Ankara has further ratcheted up Turkish-U.S. tensions. Washington is warning of sanctions if the purchase is completed, saying the weapons threaten NATO defense systems.
Russians believe that Turkey will buy the S-400 and, for Moscow, the deal has a political impact, Gasimov said. “The entire process of sell and buy of S-400 poisoned the shaky ties between Ankara and Washington.”
While U.S.-Turkish divisions deepen, Ankara and Moscow are increasing cooperation in Syria. Russia and Turkey back rival sides in the civil war but increasingly are working together along with Iran to end the conflict, under the auspices of the so-called “Astana Process.”
This month saw Turkish and Russian forces begin coordinating military patrols in the last Syrian rebel enclave of Idlib. The patrols are part of a more comprehensive agreement hammered out between the Russian and Turkish presidents, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The agreement averted a Syrian regime offensive into the province of Idlib which would have likely triggered a refugee exodus into neighboring Turkey.
However, analysts are questioning the sustainability of Turkish-Russian cooperation in Idlib. “Russians sooner or later will clear Idlib, which is filled with tens of thousands of terrorists,” Aktar said, “and this, the first and foremost point of disagreement between Ankara and Moscow.”
The Turkish-Russian patrols in Idlib came in response to Moscow voicing frustration with Ankara over what Moscow claimed was the failure by Turkey’s armed forces to rein in radical groups in Idlib.
For now, however, it appears Moscow’s priority is deepening cooperation with Ankara. Local Turkish media reported Tuesday that Russian and Turkish forces are planning joint patrols in Tel Rifaat, an area controlled by the YPG Kurdish militia. The patrols aim to reduce tensions with the YPG and Turkish troops, which continually skirmish.
Moscow, like Washington, has developed a good relationship with the YPG. The PYD, the political wing of the YPG, has offices in Moscow. Russia, unlike Turkey’s Western allies, has not designated the PKK a terrorist organization. Ankara voices little public criticism of Moscow’s PKK stance, while at the same time castigating its European and American allies for not cracking down enough on the PKK, even though they do categorize the militants as terrorists.
Turkey’s growing alienation from its traditional Western allies seems set to continue given Ankara’s deepening ties with Moscow, and analysts warn of inescapable historical diplomatic realities.
“Historically speaking, since Peter the Great [Russian 18th century leader), Turks and Russians never had any joint strategic objective, never, this is for 300 years,” Aktar said. “Also, it’s not possible now that they start to kiss each other and have joint strategic objectives; these countries will always be regional rivals. Unfortunately, Ankara thinks they can play Russian and Americans against each other; it won’t work.”