Exploring the Prospects for Russian-Turkish Cooperation in a Turbulent Neighborhood

Exploring the Prospects for Russian-Turkish Cooperation in a Turbulent Neighborhood

By Memduh Karakullukçu, Dmitri Trenin

Iran and Nuclear Nonproliferation


For both Turkey and Russia, relations with Iran have historically wavered between cooperation and competition. In the past few years, Iran has emerged as particularly important in Turkish-Russian relations, amplifying differences between Ankara and Moscow on some occasions and bringing their positions closer on others. Now that the P5+1 group of world powers (the United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France, plus Germany) have signed an interim accord with Tehran in November 2013 opening the way to resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, Russo-Turkish cooperation is particularly important in ensuring that this interim accord is followed by a final agreement.


For Iran, commercial relations with Russia and Turkey have been an important part of its attempt to break its international isolation in the face of ever more stringent economic sanctions. Turkey, while complying with international sanctions, has substantially expanded its economic ties with Iran, including in the area of gas imports. The volume of trade has grown remarkably, from $1 billion in 2000 to $22 billion in 2012, transforming Iran into one of Turkey’s major economic partners. Additionally, Iran and Turkey are members of the Economic Cooperation Organization, which has provided a platform for deepening the economic exchange. 


Russia, in the meantime, has also maintained substantial commercial ties with Iran, though their similar economic structure—energy exports are key for both countries—has somewhat limited the extent of their economic relations. Russia’s importance has stemmed from its ability to supply military technology to Iran and assist the country in building its first nuclear power plant. 


Both Ankara and Moscow have repeatedly expressed their reservations about further tightening sanctions on Iran, which until Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013 remained high on the international agenda. Both countries, but especially Turkey, are likely to benefit from a relaxation and eventual termination of the sanctions. Turkish leaders have repeatedly underlined the extent of losses due to over a decade of turbulence in neighboring Iraq and have been cautious about the impact of ongoing sanctions on Iran.


The main issue where Ankara and Moscow have demonstrated their common interest, and adopted a fairly consistent approach with each other, is on the need for Iran to commit to nuclear nonproliferation. Neither country wishes to see Iran acquire nuclear weapons. Likewise, neither of them would welcome a military solution in the form of a preemptive attack on Iran by Israel and/or the United States. Both Ankara and Moscow argue that when dealing with a country such as Iran, non-coercive measures have a greater chance to succeed.


For Turkey, a nuclear Iran could lead to a nuclear race in the region, dangerously undermining regional stability. Ankara has been particularly cognizant of a country’s right to pursue peaceful nuclear technology—a right it is planning to exercise by developing its first nuclear power plant with Russian partnership. 


This has prompted a proactive approach by Turkish diplomats to ensure that Iran addresses international concerns about its nuclear program, while preventing toughening of international sanctions. In 2010, Turkey and Brazil, both of them non-permanent members of the UN Security Council that year, mediated an agreement with Iran for a nuclear fuel swap. But as progress failed to materialize, the two countries voted against the draft resolution of the Security Council to impose new sanctions. At the time, this proactive diplomatic maneuver by Turkey came at the cost of questioning its commitment to its alliance with Western powers. Ankara considered this reaction in the West to be unjustified, as the differences over Iran’s nuclear program were largely over tactics for addressing a brewing conflict rather than strategic goals. 


For Russia, which sees itself as a guardian of global strategic stability, a nuclear-armed Iran is also unacceptable. Moscow has been an active participant in the P5+1 talks with Iran on its nuclear program. Like Turkey, it has sought, and also failed, to mediate between Tehran and the West. Yet, Russia managed to play a positive role in encouraging direct U.S.-Iranian contacts that led to the interim agreement. An additional factor in Russia’s diplomacy has been its role in building Iran’s first nuclear power plant. Moscow, while helping Iran in its endeavor, has insisted that all spent fuel be transferred back to Russia in an effort to decrease proliferation concerns.


The Syrian crisis, however, has created some discord between Ankara and Tehran, while helping to solidify Russia’s ties with the Iranian leadership. Iran is the staunchest supporter of Assad’s regime, while Turkey has been outspoken in its backing for the opposition forces. When Ankara decided in September 2011 to host a radar system with its NATO allies to track missiles, Tehran perceived the move as directed at Iran. Iraq, in the meantime, has also become an arena for growing competition between Ankara and Tehran.


However, with the new leadership in Iran, the interim accord between Tehran and the international community, and signs of hope for a rapprochement with the United States, Turkey and Russia should be actively seeking a final resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue that would allow Iran to develop a peaceful nuclear program while ensuring that it does not become a nuclear weapon state. Should such a solution be reached, Turkey and Russia would be important for Iran’s future reintegration into the global economy and for creating a stable strategic environment around it. 


The chances for a positive and long-lasting contribution by Turkey and Russia will be greater if they channel their efforts for the establishment of a reliable nonproliferation regime in the Middle East as a whole. In conjunction with governments in the region, UN Security Council members, and international stakeholders, Ankara and Moscow should spearhead the process of developing a comprehensive set of measures for peaceful development of national nuclear programs. This should include clear-cut proposals for monitoring nuclear programs, in conjunction with confidence-building mechanisms throughout the Middle East and North Africa region that would curb any potential incentives for countries to make a transition toward developing nuclear programs for military purposes. 


Afghanistan and Regional Stability 


The withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force from Afghanistan, scheduled to take place by the end of 2014, subjects regional security to another serious trial. Coming as it does during a period of high uncertainty in Afghanistan, the stability of the government in Kabul and the nature of the future Afghan regime are in question. 


To steer the situation within and around Afghanistan away from more dangerous scenarios and to help Afghanistan achieve stability through peace and prosperity, it is imperative that the countries in the region work jointly toward a common cause. At stake is not only a decade of efforts aimed at building a regime that could withstand attacks from Taliban forces and al-Qaeda. An Afghanistan that plunges into instability similar to the 1990s would have inevitable repercussions for security in the wider region, stretching from Central Asia to Pakistan to India. 


Although Turkey and Russia are not among Afghanistan’s direct neighbors, they are near enough to feel the impact of developments there. In this region, their interests are very much aligned and lack any significant potential sources for discord. Both countries have a stake, as well as potential capability, in helping Afghanistan on its way to recovery. 


Historically, Turkey has been a model for Afghanistan as a Muslim country that is successfully modernizing. This soft power potential continues to this day. Recently, in its role as a NATO member, Turkey has maintained an active role in Afghanistan’s security, twice leading the International Security Assistance Force. It has helped train members of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Turkey has also been involved in rebuilding war-torn infrastructure in Afghanistan. From 2004 to 2012, the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency fulfilled more than 800 projects, helping Afghanistan to develop health, education, and economic infrastructure. Overall, Turkey maintains a high degree of credibility and respect in Afghanistan and has the potential to help rebuild the country and its institutions.


Additionally, Turkey has had a positive role in the region in facilitating a dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan, thanks to its close ties with the two nations. The leadership in Ankara enjoys a relatively high degree of credibility in both countries, which has helped it to host numerous trilateral meetings and summits. Finally, Turkey has close relations with Afghanistan’s northern neighbors in Central Asia. 


Russia has rich historical experience with Afghanistan, having learned a number of useful, if painful, lessons during its war there in the 1980s. In more recent times, Russia played a key role in assuring the success of the U.S. operation to defeat al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan in 2001. Since then, it has been a crucial element of the Northern Distribution Network to ensure safe transit of material being shipped into Afghanistan by the United States and NATO. 


With respect to Afghanistan’s future, Russia is most concerned about two things: the potential spillover of terrorist activities and religious extremism into Central Asia, and increased drug trafficking to Russia. Moscow has been maintaining regular contacts with the government in Kabul, both bilaterally and in multinational platforms, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the so-called Quad countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Russia, and Tajikistan. 


Russia has been giving Afghanistan security assistance by providing military hardware (through the United States) and officer training. Moscow has declared its intention to expand its economic involvement in Afghanistan. Any economic assistance and investment in various infrastructure projects could enhance Russia’s positive role in Afghanistan and the region.


As developments in Afghanistan become more uncertain, Turkey and Russia should consult each other more closely and more often. In particular, they need to explore the potential for counterterrorism and counternarcotics cooperation among themselves and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia, with a view toward establishing a regional framework for stemming drug trafficking. 


Turkey and Russia should also cooperate in rebuilding the Afghan economy, strengthening its institutions, and fostering stability. Their assistance projects thus far have lacked coordination. To enhance the impact of their efforts, developing joint projects, such as those related to training of personnel or infrastructure development, should become a priority. 


As Central Asian countries also feel the impact of developments in Afghanistan, Turkey and Russia should consider incorporating them into their dialogue on Afghanistan, and possibly bring them, along with Iran, into joint projects, such as counternarcotics, that span the whole region. 


Given Turkey’s interest in expanding its involvement in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russia should help upgrade Turkey’s participation in the organization from dialogue partner to observer. 


Central Asia and Regional Development


For several years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, competition dominated Turkish-Russian relations with respect to Central Asia. At the very outset, Turkey hoped to emerge as a possible model for development in Central Asia. Remarkably, all of the countries in Central Asia, except for Tajikistan, are Turkic-speaking. Ankara pioneered in establishing diplomatic relations with them right after their independence. Economic and cultural ties expanded rapidly with Turkish companies gaining a significant role in construction, light manufacturing, retail, and other key sectors. For Moscow, this constituted a source of concern as the extent of the appeal of the Turkish model was not immediately clear to Russian officials.


Over time, however, Russian leaders have largely overcome their concerns about growing Turkish involvement in Central Asia. They soon realized that a pan-Turkic ideology lacked sufficient appeal both in Central Asia and in Turkey. Also, some setbacks in Turkey’s policy in the region eased Russia’s anxiety. Ankara’s relations with Uzbekistan suffered corrosion, for example, while its economic activism did not transform into gaining a major foothold in the most strategic sectors of Central Asia—oil and gas. Notably, Turkey’s increasingly proactive foreign policy with its neighbors in the past few years has not coincided with a growing activism in Central Asia. 


Stability in Central Asia is at risk as several developments occur simultaneously. First, the political stability of the post-Soviet republics in the region is under challenge as the old generation of leaders continues to pass the scene. Particularly, Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s biggest country, and Uzbekistan, its most populous nation, are facing likely departures of their founding presidents, who acceded to power a quarter century ago. Second, stability and security in Central Asia may be challenged by what happens in Afghanistan after the International Security Assistance Force is withdrawn. Third, the impact of political Islam on the domestic political transitions in the region remains unclear.


Now that Russian concerns about Turkey’s role in the region have faded, an opportunity exists to collaborate in enhancing the region’s law-based political stability. Both countries share interest in opposing terrorism and extremism in the region, and both have denounced drug trafficking. The two countries should also consider expanding joint projects for promoting the region’s development. Since both Ankara and Moscow are already donors in various capacities in the Central Asian states, coordinating their efforts could help achieve more effective results. Likewise, they should attempt to jointly mediate to help Central Asian republics resolve the long-standing problem of water supply. 


In the meantime, both Turkey and Russia need to acknowledge that the foreign policy of Central Asian countries is becoming increasingly dynamic, resulting in more contacts with external players. Thus, Central Asian countries have diversified their foreign political, economic, and security relations. China has become a very significant player in the region, especially in the energy and raw materials sectors, but also in trade and infrastructure. The United States is represented by its major oil companies and—for the time being—the Pentagon-rented facilities. Iran, India, Europe, and Japan are also showing interest. The place is becoming more crowded. 


Among all players, Russia could probably be expected to maintain some advantages, providing it with continued soft power. This includes substantial labor migration to Russia, Russian-speaking elites, and the presence of Russian minorities in the region. Also, Russia has special ties with many of the region’s republics through the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Customs Union/Eurasian Union initiative. Yet, Moscow should ensure that its regional initiatives are based on equal footing among their members and do not come fundamentally at the expense of other stakeholders in the region. 


Conflict Resolution in the South Caucasus


In the nineteenth century, the South Caucasus was historically one of the main battlefields between Turkey and Russia (the other one being the Balkans). In the early 1990s, this remained the region where tensions between Ankara and Moscow persisted for some time.


Today, Turkey and Russia maintain significant differences in the South Caucasus, though they have learned to live with them without causing a major dent to bilateral relations. One area where interests have diverged has been in energy development, over rival pipelines to feed Europe’s energy demand. Turkey’s extensive trade and intensified energy relations with Russia, however, has helped to partly soften Moscow’s approach toward Ankara.


The main differences have been the product of several protracted territorial conflicts: over Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia. While dormant now, these conflicts are not close to being resolved.


In particular, the Azeri-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh threatens to disrupt peace in the entire region and draw in both Russia and Turkey. For more than twenty years, the conflict has been “frozen,” while Nagorno-Karabakh and a large swath of Azerbaijani lands outside it remain in Armenian hands. Despite all the attempts by international mediators from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe Minsk Group, where Russia is a co-chair, progress toward peace between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains stalled.


Moscow and Ankara take considerably different views on the Azeri-Armenian dispute. Moscow is a formal ally of Yerevan and maintains a military base in Armenia’s territory, though Russia also sells arms and military equipment to Azerbaijan. In 2013, Yerevan opted to join the Moscow-led Customs Union. Ankara maintains a strategic relationship with Baku. Turkey, for its part, launched an effort several years ago for a rapprochement with Yerevan, though the initiative soon stalled. While the effort enjoyed Russia’s official support, some in Ankara felt that Moscow failed to use its leverage with Yerevan as effectively as it could have.


The stalemate in the rapprochement between Ankara and Yerevan has raised the possibility of new tensions. The gap in the economic and military capability of Azerbaijan and Armenia keeps growing. In the meantime, the leadership both in Baku and Yerevan continues to resort to rhetoric calling for a military solution. 


Russia and Turkey need to pool their diplomatic efforts in promoting peace and prosperity in this region. Russia maintains significant leverage over Armenia, and Turkey has significant leverage over Azerbaijan. If this is not enough to establish peace in the area, it should at least be sufficient to prevent a new outbreak of hostilities. In the near term, both Moscow and Ankara need to work together to prevent a military confrontation. 


Georgia’s territorial integrity has been another area where Moscow and Ankara are divided by significant differences. In 2008, Russia recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent states. Turkey, while expanding economic ties with Abkhazia, supports Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, preferring that conflicts be resolved through peaceful means within internationally recognized borders. Likewise, Ankara, at odds with Moscow, supports the European Union’s Eastern Partnership policy, whose objective is to foster economic and social integration between the EU and the South Caucasus republics.


Yet, on another note, Turkey’s approach in the South Caucasus has been well received in Moscow. Thus, in the aftermath of the Russo-Georgian war of 2008, Ankara called for resolving regional issues with less intervention from external players. Also, the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform, initiated by the Turkish leadership in 2008, can be revived and updated to foster dialogue in the region. It could even be transformed into a joint Turkish-Russian initiative. 


As the region’s neighbors—the South Caucasus physically links Russia and Turkey—Moscow and Ankara bear a special responsibility for conflict prevention and resolution there, as well as for promoting economic cooperation that helps build understanding and, eventually, trust. Ankara and Moscow would both benefit from a more stable and prosperous South Caucasus region and should develop joint initiatives promoting that goal. These initiatives may include joint energy and transportation projects, infrastructure development, and cultural exchanges and other human contacts. 


Moscow and Ankara should also consider cooperation in the South Caucasus as part of their shared interest to ensure stability, peace, and prosperity in the region. For more than two decades, the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, which includes the three South Caucasus republics among others, has provided a multilateral platform for deepening cooperation. As an organization established to foster regional cooperation, it could potentially play a unique role in bringing the region’s countries together in setting and realizing their shared objectives for the new century. In that respect, Turkey and Russia, as the two leading members of the organization, should work on fulfilling its promise. Developing joint projects for the South Caucasus countries would be a good start in revitalizing this institution’s place in the international arena. 


It is time that Turkey and Russia developed a joint plan to bolster stability and enhance cooperation in the South Caucasus. Such an initiative could help mitigate the hardships felt by the people of the region as a result of the protracted conflicts; restore economic links, build transportation corridors connecting Europe and Asia along both east-west and north-south axes, and spur growth; promote informal dialogue; create stakeholders for conflict resolution; and isolate extremists and weaken radicals across the region. 


Conclusion and Recommendations


Having transformed their relations in the past two decades, Turkey and Russia now have the opportunity to further enhance their dialogue. At the same time, they could start contributing to prosperity and peace in their shared geography. 


With the Cold War’s ideological divide gone and some of the misperceptions of the early 1990s largely buried in the past, Ankara and Moscow could strive to build further trust in their relations and to explore pathways for a more functional future. 


The regular political dialogue that has been established between Moscow and Ankara could be enhanced by deepening its intellectual foundations. Bilateral relations could gain further momentum through growing input from civil society institutions, universities, and interparliamentary and cultural exchanges. This would contribute to overcoming the burden of history, while cultivating new thinking, and even a new language in this process of a growing exchange between the two societies. Deepening such interactions will also help to generate a more robust and vibrant rationale for political cooperation. More empathy is needed at the formal level, as well as at the level of cultural and people-to-people exchanges between the two nations. 


Fundamentally, Russia and Turkey have some significant commonality of interests that provide a setting conducive to further strengthening their dialogue and cooperation. They have common interests in enhancing economic revival and political stability in their shared geography. Both have reservations about foreign intervention, especially a military one, on this geography. Furthermore, it would not be an overstatement to say that they also hold common fears and even historical traumas. Opposing the spread of terrorism and extremism as a potential threat to their own stability and integrity is an essential part of their foreign engagements. For their neighboring regions, ensuring a secular future based on international rule of law remains crucial. 


In a rapidly changing world with new emerging sources of threats and tensions, Turkey and Russia should put forth a major contribution to stability, peace, and prosperity in a wide geography spanning between the Balkans and Central Asia and Afghanistan and between North Africa and the Middle East and the South Caucasus. This vast geography is still embroiled in regional conflicts, upheavals, wars, revolutions, and political and economic turmoil. 


What further necessitates the cooperation of Russia and Turkey is that they are two of the leading powers in this shared geography with significant resources. Both possess historical, cultural, and economic ties with parts of this geography. Both should make use of their comparative advantages in the pursuit of resolving key issues in their neighborhood.


Importantly, through bilateral and multilateral efforts, Turkey and Russia have the capacity and the opportunity to contribute to multilateral initiatives to manage conflicts, bring peace, and enhance prosperity in a broad geography. As two regional powers, their joint efforts could be pivotal for addressing twenty-first century shocks, based on enhancing shared norms and values embodied by the UN Charter. 


Joint efforts to contribute to regional prosperity could help minimize mutual misconceptions, establish realistic expectations, and build trust between the two nations. It could also enhance the resilience of bilateral relations to tackle future shocks both in the neighboring regions and internationally. Admittedly, this will not be a quick and easy process. It will require continuing the current political dialogue, while also deepening it to address new potential issues in the future.


This Working Group proposes the following set of policies and actions for Turkey and Russia to further their constructive role in their neighboring geography. Broken down by region, Turkey and Russia need to:


Afghanistan and Central Asia 

Cooperate in rebuilding Afghanistan by providing assistance in strengthening its institutions, personnel training, and joint infrastructure projects to ensure its future stability. 


Use their leverage in a constructive manner for the prosperity and stability of the countries in Central Asia and Afghanistan, as the long-term interests of both Turkey and Russia will benefit from the growing integration of the region with the rest of the world (including their increasingly diversified relations with external powers). 


Consult more regularly and enhance their cooperation in the region through multilateral and well-coordinated efforts with Afghanistan, Iran, and the Central Asian republics to counter extremism, terrorist threats, and drug trafficking in the region.  


The South Caucasus

Utilize their leverage over Azerbaijan and Armenia to ensure that a new outbreak of hostilities does not occur.


Recognize that maintaining the status quo over Nagorno-Karabakh with regard to the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict has a detrimental impact for building a prosperous and stable region.


Coordinate their efforts to move Baku and Yerevan toward reciprocal and gradual steps leading to reducing their deep mistrust and offering a path to eventual conflict resolution in Nagorno-Karabakh.


Use their influence to help maintain regular top-level contacts between Armenia and Azerbaijan and increase their productiveness. 


Initiate steps toward multilateral security and stability dialogue across the entire South Caucasus region, including through existing initiatives that appear promising, such as the Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform.


Translate their economic power into joint projects in areas such as railways, roads, and other infrastructure development of adjoining countries in the South Caucasus to build a more prosperous and stable region, and link Russia and Turkey via that region.


Play leading roles in reenergizing the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, which remains a potentially useful platform for multilateral cooperation. As two major economic, political, and security players in the area, Russia and Turkey can do a lot to enhance stability, prosperity, and security in the region where, historically, they used to be rivals.



Carnegie Moscow Center






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