“Russia and Turkey: a conflict of influence” by Amer Rashed

SHAFAQNA- Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Ankara put the finishing touch to an economic partnership making Turkey, according to the CEO of Russian energy company Gazprom, a “pipeline” for gas exported to southern and central European countries. This has happened following the abandonment of the South Stream gas link project because of the economic sanctions imposed by the European Union on Russia and Bulgaria’s refusal to extend the pipeline. The authorities in Moscow also plan to accelerate the removal of Ukraine as a transit country for about 50 per cent of Russia’s gas exported to Europe.

Russia killed two birds with one stone through its new partnership with Turkey. It is easing the financial losses it suffered due to the cancellation of the South Stream project by using the completed phases of the pipeline to transport gas through Turkey instead of Bulgaria. It has also been able to deal a blow to its opponents in Kiev by depriving Ukraine of the revenues it would have had from acting as a gas transit country as well as the preferential price it would have been given, vital for its deteriorating economy. In addition, the move allows Russia to prevent Ukraine from having a decisive role in gas exports.

This may encourage Russia to take more punitive political steps against Kiev, coinciding with the developments in eastern Ukraine, where the majority-Russian speaking population is rebelling against the government. It has to be remembered that relations between Russia, the US and the EU play a pivotal role in escalating or mitigating the political measures taken against the Ukrainian government; the Kremlin is treating the Ukrainian crisis as a geopolitical conflict with the West located at the heart of Russia’s interests, imposing balanced actions in order to avoid being cut off from Kiev completely.

The Russian approach to the economic partnership with Turkey in the gas sector is not devoid of political tremors, and in the foreseeable future we may witness a partial conflict of interests in this regard. This may be imposed by a larger-scale game of bilateral economic relations between the two countries.

Putin’s visit to Ankara did not ease his country’s differences with Turkey regarding the Syrian conflict. Russia has warned Turkey against political activity in the Caucasus and Central Asia regions despite the fact that the Turkish discourse has emphasised its keenness to cooperate with Russia in these two vital areas; Moscow regards them as the main focal point for its influence geographically, politically, economically and culturally by virtue of its relationship during the time of the Soviet Union. They are also essential for Russia’s national security.

According to the predictions of Russian and Turkish economic analysts and experts, the partnership between the two countries in terms of the import, export and distribution of gas will be affected by a number of somewhat negative factors. These include Turkey’s lengthy pursuit of sources of gas for domestic consumption. Another negative factor is the intention of EU member states to reduce their dependence on Russian gas, and the EU’s monitoring of infrastructure investment in transporting gas across the Mediterranean Sea, which is expected to double following the discovery of huge reserves in its eastern waters.

As such, reinforcing Turkey’s role as an energy distributor requires dependence on more than one export partner, alongside Russia, such as Iran or Azerbaijan. Israel has joined the list of potential partners for Turkey after it shifted from a gas importer to gas exporter due to the major discoveries in the Leviathan and Tamar fields in the Mediterranean.

This would put pressure on Russia in the gas market through Turkey. However, the extent of trade and economic relations between Russia and Turkey, currently estimated at over $33 billion and expected to reach $100 billion by the year 2020, makes Russia an important strategic economic partner that Turkey cannot do without. As such, Ankara may give Russia preferential privileges.

Another point that was not lost in Ankara, and Moscow’s considerations during the arrangements for and the results of Putin’s visit to Turkey, is the confidence of both parties in the fact that they each possess enough pragmatism to overcome the complications and obstacles hindering their political relations. Such obstacles include their positions on the conflict in Syria, Turkey’s membership of NATO and Turkey’s dealings with political Islam, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

President Putin had no qualms about reiterating his country’s position on the conflict in Syria during a joint press conference with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan; the latter responded by questioning the legitimacy of Bashar Al-Assad. These matters were part of the two countries’ strategy to put aside their differences as their network of major interests prevents them from allowing Syria to block the path towards good relations.

Turkey’s pragmatism was tried when its trade and economic cooperation with Israel remained unaffected despite the political difficulties between Erdogan and Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Turkey’s membership of NATO has not prevented Ankara from taking positions in opposition to the politics of other NATO countries; the most recent example was its position on the war against ISIS and the Israeli war on the Gaza Strip.

However, the contrast in Turkish and Russian interests in Central Asia and the Middle East, as well as the lack of a joint political agenda, makes the relationship between the two countries more of a tactical partnership than strategic. There is no guarantee that the two parties will succeed in keeping their economic relations apart from their political disputes, as Russia will continue to oppose any serious Turkish influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia in terms of religion, culture and education, arising from the Justice and Development Party-led government’s Islamic orientation. On the other hand, Turkey fears that Russia will exercise a more assertive policy in Central Asia similar to the way that it is dealing with Ukraine.

Observers and political analysts in Moscow believe that it is not unlikely that, with the passage of time, the historical rivalry between Turkey and Russia will emerge once against (in addition to a third player in the region, Iran) at a level that cannot be dealt with pragmatically. However, this is not expected to happen in the foreseeable future. There is no doubt that many things depend on the resolution of pending regional disputes and the development of a network of mutual economic interests.

Source: middleeastmonitor.com

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