Turkey and Russia in the Black Sea Region: An Unequal Partnership?
The Black Sea region is the key area in which Turkey and Russia interact. As post-imperial powers which retain extensive military, political, economic and cultural influence in the region, they have the ability to significantly affect regional geopolitics. Therefore understanding their bilateral relationship, and the extent to which one partner is dominant in different aspects of that relationship, is critical for any comprehensive understanding of regional dynamics. This paper studies four key aspects of their bilateral relationship and finds that Turkey’s economic and energy dependence on Russia ensures that Moscow is the dominant player in the region. The Black Sea region remains a contested concept, but the dominant positions of Turkey and Russia within this space are undoubted. Their geopolitical, military, economic and cultural influence gives them the capability to shape the region in a way which outside actors do not. Given this, the relationship between them is critical to understanding the Black Sea region. The changing dynamics of competition and cooperation between the two powers has historically had an enormous influence on the area. Although neither is now an imperial power, the same dynamics are still significant today: the bilateral relationship helps to determine the multilateral environment. This paper will not dwell on each aspect of the Moscow-Ankara relationship. Instead it will identify key areas of conflict and cooperation. However, it is useful to summarise the main contours of their bilateral relationship. Historically, relations between the two were tense, with the Black Sea region serving as a zone of conflict and confrontation between them (a western version of the ‘Great Game’ which Russia played with Britain in Central Asia). Since the end of the Cold War, ties have greatly improved, particularly in the Putin/AKP era – a remarkably significant historical shift2. There are four main aspects to their relationship. Firstly, energy has been a critical component. Russia provides around 70% of Turkey’s natural gas and oil, which is essential to support the country’s economic boom 3. Russia is also investing heavily in Turkey’s energy infrastructure and is heavily involved in building nuclear power stations in Turkey. Secondly, the two sides are close economic partners, even excluding energy4. Russia became Turkey’s largest trading partner in 2008; mutual trade is now around $26 billion, in which tourism, construction, and small-scale ‘shuttle trade’ are prominent. Turkey runs a serious deficit: Turkish imports from Russia were $21.6 billion in 2010, whilst Turkish exports to Russia were just $4.6 billion5.
The author is an independent writer and analyst focusing on the Caspian region. He currently acts as a political risk consultant. 2 Punsmann, B (2010) ‘Thinking about the Caucasus as a Land Bridge between Turkey and Russia’ TEPAV Policy Note. Available at: http://bit.ly/rtVeML 3 ‘Turkey, Russia accelerate cooperation’ Hürriyet Daily News 19/1/12011 4 Kiniklioglu, S (2006) ‘Turkey and Russia: Partnership By Exclusion?’ Insight Turkey Vol. 8 No.2. Available at: http://bit.ly/qfK4yS 5 ‘Russia becomes Turkish exporters’ target market with visa-free travel’ Today’s Zaman 24/4/2011. 1
Turkey was faced with a major conventional war between two of its Black Sea neighbours.e. Turkish officials limited themselves to statements calling for a ceasefire. it also involves refraining from becoming involved in disputes which the other is involved in. weapons proliferation and drug smuggling. One analyst notes approvingly that this “increased Turkish influence in the Caucasus without putting TurkeyRussia relations at risk”7. Available at: http://bit. approving of its regional focus to problemsolving (i. a sign that Turkey was willing to defy its traditional partners. avoiding any measure of blame. After the end of hostilities the polarisation of the regional community into two camps. continued. B (2009) The Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform: An Attempt to Foster Regional Accountability p4. Clearly. which would serve as a mechanism to solve regional problems through dialogue. immediately after the end of hostilities Turkish officials proposed a Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Platform (CSCP). and its immediate neighbour and a valuable strategic ally on the other.Thirdly. which acts as a conditioning framework on other aspects. both sides share an interest in maintaining security in the Black Sea region. fluctuates with internal politics. Firstly. In the immediate post-war period Turkey made two decisions which encapsulate its approach in the Black Sea region and the complexities of its relationship with Russia. In that regard the March 2003 decision by the Turkish Parliament to prevent US forces from entering Iraq via Turkey is widely seen as a watershed. it excluded non-regional players like the EU and US)6. one of its biggest regional commercial and political partners on the one hand. Thus Russia has ended its earlier support for Kurdish separatists.ly/nP9nNb 2
. ‘Turkey and Russia Meet in the Caucasus’ Turkish Policy Quarterly Vol 8. Its response was restrained and cautious during the conflict itself. As Turkey’s relationship with its traditional allies has faltered. 3. and the extent to which they cooperate (as a Moscow-Ankara ‘axis’). At a basic level this involves a joint desire to prevent ‘non-conventional’ and inconsequential threats such as terrorism.ly/o910FC 7 Beat. No. The CSCP appears to be moribund. M (2009). The extent to which they seek to do this. Available at: http://bit. Russia broadly welcomed the move. However. Despite some concerns in Moscow that Turkey was using the CSCP to increase its influence. The Russia-Georgia War There is no better illustration of the regional tension between Turkey and Russia than the war between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Fourthly and most broadly. Ankara was therefore in a deeply uncomfortable position. both Russia and Turkey seek to cooperate politically and limit the intrusion of Western powers into the Black Sea region. pro-Russian and pro-Georgian. is hotly contested. regional geopolitics. Russia has become a more attractive partner. Russian opposition to ‘encirclement’ by Western blocs is stronger than that of NATO member and EU aspirant Turkey. and Turkey has clamped down on Chechen rebels based in Turkey. This paper assesses four key aspects and events of the Russia-Turkish relationship.
Punsmann. identifying areas in which the balance of power dynamics are equal and areas in which one party has been able to exercise significant influence over the other. as the region’s complex and overlapping conflicts make it almost impossible that a forum containing all the key players could be established. This aspect of their relationship. ICBSS Policy Brief 13. and – most crucially – the status of relations between both parties and the West.
We would act in line with what Turkey’s national interests require”10. Russia’s closest ally in the South Caucasus. He underscored that message by saying that “It would not be right for Turkey to be pushed toward any side. Turkey’s willingness to propose this mechanism shows that it was seeking to address regional instability in a way which was inclusive. One of the sides is our closest ally. The other side is Russia. Efforts to repair ties had been slow since then. 9 Torbakov (2008) p15. Turkish policy throughout the RussiaGeorgia war demonstrated the inequalities in the partnership.and.. The Armenia-Turkey Thaw Another critical aspect of the relationship involves the Turkish ‘thaw’ with Armenia. B (2008) Turkey and the Crisis in the Caucasus p2. Since then the process has foundered. 10 Aliriza. contrary to Turkey’s interests. not exclude. the United States. politically. restore ties with Turkey and make sacrifices over Karabakh at the same time. Available at: http://bit. Progress is unlikely to occur without concurrent movement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: the Turkish government cannot move forward with Armenia whilst the status of the Karabakh conflict remains unchanged. Turkey was forced to react. as Turkey sought to promote stability and reduce possibilities for conflict across the region. in alleged violation of the Montreux Convention of 1936 which governs access to the Black Sea8..in order to maintain its influence in Armenia. Russia from regional security arrangements despite serious concerns about Russia’s willingness to destroy the regional status quo and threaten Turkey’s interests. Russia’s stated support for the rapprochement raised eyebrows among analysts. The second. underscoring the imbalances in the Ankara-Moscow relationship. and in that sense the CSCP was an exercise in ‘damage limitation’. and illustrated that Turkey’s actions are constrained by its reliance on Russian energy. It sought to include.Nonetheless. G (2008) ‘Ongoing Trade Crisis Demonstrates Turkey’s Lack of Leverage Against Russia’ Jamestown Eurasia Daily Monitor 9/9/2008. by extension. The conventional wisdom is that Russia seeks to maintain the ‘frozen’ status of Karabakh . largely due to nationalist politics within both Turkey and Armenia. A trade dispute flared up shortly after the war. then fighting Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. related decision which Turkey made was to publicly acknowledge the extent of its dependence on Russia in trade and energy. the failure of the CSCP and Turkey’s inability to improve Russia-Georgia ties at the bilateral level indicates that good intentions are simply not enough. The thaw began in September 2008 and culminated with the October 2009 signing of protocols aimed at opening the border and restoring relations. Indeed. The border has been closed since 1993 when Turkey closed it in solidarity with Azerbaijan. Armenia’s leaders cannot. This includes security (the Russian military base at Gyumri) economics (Russian
Jenkins. This was not a situation which Turkey wanted to find itself in. the impasse between Ankara and Yerevan . CSIS Commentary.ly/q4ytEn 3
. Russia acted. Prime Minister Erdoğan said bluntly that Turkey could not afford such disruption in ties with Russia – “Otherwise. However. widely believed to have been orchestrated by Russia to show displeasure with Turkey’s decision to allow US warships delivering aid to Georgia through the Bosphorus. This stance was realistic but remarkably candid. However the August war gave an added urgency to the reconciliation process. we would be left in the dark”9. with which we have an important trade volume.
ly/p9ipRA 13 Dubovyk. B (2007) ‘Security and Stability Architecture in the Black Sea’ Perceptions Winter 2007. with Russia playing only a passive role. Under the Montreux Convention of 1936.firms control large chunks of Armenia’s strategic infrastructure) and geopolitics (Armenia acts as one of the ‘bastions’ of Russian post-imperial power in the Black Sea region). all nonmilitary vessels enjoy free passage during times of peace. At the fraught. which was severely damaged by the war with Georgia. and differing security perceptions. However the size. Black Sea Maritime Security The Black Sea is a unique maritime space. 138. Partly this support – like Russia’s sudden intensification of direct diplomacy to settle the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict . their varying commitment to this goal. After the Russia-Georgia war this calculus seemed to have changed. the Georgia war).
‘Report: Nalbandian signed deal at Lavrov’s insistence’ Today’s Zaman 13/10/2009. Available at: http://bit. The question may be asked whether Turkey would have been able to initiate the thaw without Russian approval. given Russia’s use of energy as a weapon. However despite Moscow’s significant influence. tonnage. which then impose their interests on everyone else”13.ly/pceKQn
. and it seems that it Russia was keen to promote stability in the Black Sea region for its own sake. The only possibility would be to punish Turkey or Armenia bilaterally. However. In addition the exclusion of outside actors because littoral states can provide for their own security “calls for a very particular understanding of security. and duration of non-littoral warships is closely regulated12. Unlike most other seas. Russia has also supported the Convention in order to limit NATO’s presence in its southern rim. Both Moscow and Ankara are therefore agreed on the need to maintain the status quo. by which is meant security for the few (strongest) regional players. V (2011) ‘Should Europe Care About Black Sea Security?’ PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. Available at: http://bit. touch-andgo signing ceremony in Zurich. This is not impossible.was intended to restore Russia’s image. The thaw should be seen as an instance when Turkey and not Russia was the defining force in the region. not Russian meddling. Although the process has now stalled (seemingly for the long term). This thaw was Turkish-led. it is accessible only through a narrow channel under Turkish control. However this is only part of the story: substantive politics is always more important for the Kremlin than its international standing. affect their bilateral relationship. which leads to the inference that the process collapsed because of meddling from Russia. This vignette illustrates that Russian involvement was not confined to passive approval: Moscow gave active support to a reconciliation process which was initiated and driven by Ankara. it does could not easily derail the rapprochement. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov allegedly pressured his reluctant Armenian counterpart into signing the protocols11. Karadeniz. say. by cutting economic contacts or energy supplies. but would be unlikely given the low stakes involved (compared with. success would have had significant impacts on Black Sea geopolitics and Russia’s position. The implications for the status of the Turkey-Russia partnership are clear. The Montreux Convention has been upheld in the post-Cold War era not only because of a Turkish desire to maintain its influence over Black Sea access. In any case the collapse of the thaw occurred because of domestic political opposition in Ankara and Yerevan.
a Turkish-led initiative set up in 2001. In a practical sense BLACKSEAFOR has achieved little because there the threats present are low-key and not suited to being addressed by conventional navies. The initiative provides a platform for them to operate on equal terms. ostensibly because of a technical trade dispute. Russia warned Turkey that if the warships overstayed the 21 days provided for by the Convention. Black Sea Peacebuilding Network (2010) The Black Sea Region In Turkish Foreign Policy Strategy: Russia & Turkey On The Black Sea p4. but rather focused on the ‘sensitivity’ on the region. Flagrant violation of this by Turkey would be greeted by punitive Russian responses. analogous to NATO’s Operation Active Endeavour in the Mediterranean. Ultimately Turkey upheld the Montreux Convention: it denied access to two US hospital ships which earlier sought to access the Black Sea. The same is true of Black Sea Harmony. despite the fact that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is superior to Turkey’s Northern Sea Area Command15. The USS Monterrey is within the tonnage requirements of the Montreux Convention and Russia’s objection was not specifically framed with the Convention in mind. It has economic and political leverage over Turkey which it can use to ensure compliance with Montreux. In both of these initiatives Turkey and Russia cooperate successfully and on an equal footing. this is not indicative of a regional arms race. it came at a time when Moscow was blocking Turkish trucks from entering Russia. and their shared participation in multilateral fora provides an avenue to share information and reduce any grounds for miscommunication. BLACKSEAFOR and Black Sea Harmony provide an opportunity for the Black Sea’s two largest navies to interact and become familiar with each other . a Turkish-led initiative established in 2004 as an anti-terrorism initiative.The security mechanisms and fora which have emerged are limited to littoral states as a direct consequence of the Montreux Convention and the shared interest of Russia and Turkey in limiting non-riparian access. although Turkey is responsible for the Bosphorus. Although both are increasing their naval forces in the Black Sea. although Turkey and Russia cooperate on an equal footing in ensuring
The BLACKSEAFOR states acknowledged the low level of the threat in a 2005 risk assessment. However there remains tension over non-littoral access to the Black Sea. it would hold Turkey responsible16. with regard to Russia and Turkey. Russia’s sharp response and warnings to Turkey demonstrate that. when a US guided-missile cruiser entered the Black Sea to participate in bilateral exercises with Ukraine. In the immediate aftermath of the Russia-Georgia War Moscow criticised Ankara after it permitted three US warships to enter the Black Sea and stop in Georgia to deliver humanitarian aid. Russia also sees a role for itself in upholding the Montreux Convention. However. or were in fact carrying military supplies for Georgia. most of which are ageing collections of former Soviet vessels14. Available at: http://bit. The most significant is BLACKSEAFOR. It is a naval task force comprising ships from the littoral states which conducts biannual exercises and serves to protect against ‘soft security’ threats like organised crime. and it ensured that NATO warships left the area before the 21 days expired. terrorism and weapons trafficking. Another example came in June 2011. Thus. Russia can act on its vocal opposition to non-littoral forces present in the Black Sea.confidence-building measures. as they violated tonnage requirements.ly/oJe8lq 16 Torbakov (2008) p14 5
. However. It was viewed as a significant intrusion into an area which Moscow likes to view as a Russo-Turkish lake.
Western-supported projects are limited in their use for Turkey. Unlike Europe (or the Arab world. Turkey is seeking to become a regional energy hub at the crossroads of Europe. Firstly. Russia has sufficient leverage in other spheres to ensure that Ankara broadly adheres to Moscow’s reading of the Montreux Convention.maritime security. However. and including Moscow would defeat the object of diversifying European and Turkish gas supply away from Russia18. which runs north-south through the Black Sea and emerges near the Turkish port of Samsun – the expansion would run southwards to the Turkish Mediterranean. Eurasia. This position has also been stated by senior US officials involved in the region – however. which reiterates the message. Energy Russia is one of Turkey’s biggest energy suppliers.ly/nFldx5 ‘Nabucco partners call for Baku’s participation’ News. Russia has also used energy as a political weapon against Turkmenistan. For Turkey that assistance has been a huge boon as it seeks to fuel its booming economy – energy demand is forecasted to double from 2009 to 201917. Moscow’s ability and willingness to cut off gas supplies for a combination of political and economic reasons was a serious lesson for other Gazprom customers. However there are several issues with this plan. The quantities provided by existing pipelines are small. Although Turkey has control of the Bosphorus. Available at: http://bit. is extensively investing in key energy infrastructure including nuclear power plants and gas storage terminals. Turkey has been calling for Russian inclusion in the Nabucco project. Western-backed pipelines also play a role in Turkey’s portfolio of pipelines: the BTC and BTE pipelines run from the Caucasus to eastern Turkey. and are often targeted by Kurdish militants.az June 9 2011. pipelines from the Caspian and Iran run through insecure areas. Lastly but perhaps most significantly. whilst the planned Nabucco pipeline would bring significant quantities of natural gas from the Caspian region to Turkey. It accounts for around 70% of Turkish gas and oil imports. using increased gas imports from the Caspian region and Iran. Although Nabucco would be more significant. Moscow is the dominant partner. and is working towards constructing new pipelines across Turkish soil. so it is a natural partner for Turkey. Some would be lifted off for domestic use whilst the rest would be sent on to Europe. where pipelines to Turkey have yet to materialise). Although pipelines can be
International Energy Agency (2009) Turkey 2009 Review p7. Russia is also seeking to run its grandiose South Stream project (which would cross the Black Sea and enter Europe through Bulgaria or Romania) through Turkish territorial waters rather than those of Ukraine. Just as importantly. allowing Russia to export gas to countries in the Levant. Talks are underway to expand the Blue Stream pipeline. and the Middle East. they would not be game-changing and even more importantly they would not come on-stream for several years – if at all. unlike Turkey. Georgia and the Baltics. 6
. with regard to preventing non-littoral intrusion in the area. The Turkish diversification strategy is intended to hedge against the prospect of such a cut-off. the US will not be directly receiving Nabucco’s core output. Russia has a proven track record of delivering on large-scale energy projects. Turkish officials began to realise the risks associated with reliance on Russian energy following the gas conflicts between Russia and Ukraine in 2006 and 2009. Turkey will do.
Russian and Turkish interests have coincided in the past few years. meaning it is additionally vulnerable to supply fluctuations and reducing its ability to cope with any sudden Russian shut-offs19. Thus for the medium term Turkey will remain dependent on energy – particularly gas – from Russia. the wider Black Sea region. Nonetheless in a serious crisis in relations a cut-off could not be ruled out. The CSCP proposal acceded to Moscow’s demand that non-regional players be excluded from peacemaking. essentially allowing Moscow and Ankara to dictate regional settlements. However. Russia made stark warnings about upholding the Montreux Convention. a realignment of international geopolitics or a major energy dispute would cause the tensions and inequalities of their relationship to emerge in the Black Sea region. It is by no means necessarily permanent. but this has had much to do with their mutual dissatisfaction with the West and their growing economic relationship. Turkey’s response was passive and reflected its economic dependence on Russia. which – unlike other victims – is not a former Soviet state and may be considered a more risky target. This leaves it extremely vulnerable to Russia’s politicisation of energy. as well as Russia’s clear willingness to use all instruments (including military force) to achieve its goals. The Black Sea’s tightly controlled access makes it an area with few security threats. are strong constraints on Turkish action in the Black Sea region. Russian forces threatened the South Caucasus transport and energy corridor which Turkey and Georgia had built up over several years. The Turkish-Armenian thaw was different. To be clear. and blamed Turkey for training Georgian forces. in reality Russia was simply eager to reduce regional tensions and was happy to back Turkey’s initiative. indicates that Ankara does take this seriously and acts accordingly. to date Russia has shown no inclination to turn off its exports to Turkey. Conclusions The examples cited above do not fully cover the relationship between Russia and Turkey. The Georgia war put Turkey in a corner. June 2011.fixed relatively easily. Driven by Turkey.
Conversation with energy expert based in Istanbul. and one where Turkey and Russia can cooperate easily and equally. Secondly. they do comprise some of the key aspects and current trends which affect their relationship and. Although Moscow’s support may have been part of a convoluted Machiavellian scheme. that Turkey would be “left in the dark” if it angered Russia. it received Russian approval and indicated that Moscow was not all-powerful in the region. Thirdly. The extent of Russian influence over Turkey in the Black Sea region ensures that this is not an equal partnership. However. Erdoğan’s statement cited above. Changes in government in either state. blocked Turkish trucks. is a direct constraint on its political freedom of movement. and illustrates the extent of Russian leverage. their slightly differing approaches to non-littoral forces in the region is a cause for tension and Russia can – and does – pressure Turkey to accede to its own criteria for Black Sea access. Turkey currently lacks adequate gas storage facilities. There is also a degree of equality in Black Sea maritime security. other import sources pale in comparison to imports from Russia. The most critical point is that Turkish dependence on Russian energy and their wider economic ties. 7
. therefore. thus. this is not a fully secure energy supply. Turkey’s reliance on Russian energy.