For the past year or so, relations between Russia and Turkey have been through a roller-coaster ride. Mere weeks before the Su-24 incident in November 2015, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the guest of honor at the opening of a sumptuous mosque in Moscow, said to be one of Europe’s largest—if not the largest. Not long thereafter, he turned into the favorite punching bag of the Kremlin’s propaganda regime, the perfidious friend who had stabbed Russia in the back and colluded with Syria’s jihadists. But as of this past summer, in yet another dramatic turnaround, Putin and Erdoğan managed to patch things up. To be sure, a gradual rapprochement was not inconceivable, even back in November. But who would have thought that, in October 2016, Putin would be the headliner of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul, talking up the benefits of Russo-Turkish economic cooperation and praising Erdoğan on his handling of the failed military coup?
For all the positive vibes between Moscow and Ankara, Putin would not have bothered to come to the Bosphorus had it not been for TurkStream. Back in December 2014, he put forward the idea of a new gas pipeline as an alternative to the South Stream, blocked by the European Commission over non-compliance with the EU’s competition rules. His Turkish hosts were taken by surprise, as reportedly was the Gazprom management. What followed were the real negotiations where Turks drove a hard bargain on the discount on Russian gas, to be contracted by the Turkish state-owned utility BOTAŞ. The downing of the Su-24 fighter jet brought the talks to a premature end, with the Russians calling off the project—before it had even started in earnest. What we finally have now is a legally binding agreement signed by the two Energy Ministers, Berat Albayrak (who happens to be Erdoğan’s son-in-law) and Aleksandar Novak.
No doubt the TurkStream deal signals that Turkey and Russia are in alignment mode. Energy has always ensured a strong link between Ankara and Moscow, ever since Soviet gas started flowing Turkey’s way in 1986. Ties are furthermore cemented by each party’s grudges against the United States. Senior Turkish figures blame the United States for harboring the Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom the regime blames for the July coup attempt. More recently, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has come under fire for her suggestion that the United States should arm the Syrian Kurds. Turks also deplore the Western powers’ reluctance to include the Turkish army in the forthcoming operation to dislodge the self-styled Islamic State from the Iraqi city of Mosul.
Though Russia and Turkey are rooting for the opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, paradoxically enough, they are still close to one another. There is a sort of a paradigm shift here, too. If before November 2015, Putin and Erdoğan agreed to disagree on Syria and forge ahead with bilateral cooperation in energy and trade, it seems that now they see TurkStream, and economic interdependence more broadly, as a stepping stone to greater cohesion in dealing with the war south of the Turkish border. Ankara’s reaction to the destruction of Aleppo is uncharacteristically muted, as is, of course, the Russian response to the ongoing Turkish military operation in northern Syria. What’s more, Putin’s visit gave a boost to defense cooperation. And Russia has shown interest in the modernization of Turkey’s air defense systems, too. (AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)