The downing of a Russian SU-24 bomber by Turkish F-16s have helped touch off a major crisis in relations between the two countries, and perhaps the beginnings of a long period of renewed Russia-Turkey geopolitical rivalry. While the event itself was a shock, its eventuality should never have been a surprise. Despite a relative renaissance in bilateral relations over the past decade – facilitating billions in trade volume and mass flows of tourists – the SU-24 incident has revealed the period of warmth as ultimately vaporous and ephemeral.
It is true that Russia and Turkey did, at least at some point, see the other as mutually complementary, even if only temporarily. While the two states shared an inclination to autocratic excess (though Russia’s was and remains far more advanced) and a penchant for opportunistic barbs directed at the West, the main justification for the two countries’ historically aberrant détente was purely pragmatic: in the other, both sides saw a crucial economic partner and a wayfarer in the quest for global multipolarity. Turkey’s pursuit of independent great power status dovetailed with Russia’s longtime wish to see Nato declawed and European expansion curtailed.
Yet the relative decline of the West has not produced a stable multipolar concert of powers, but instead widening gaps of regional apolarity that local powers, faraway brokers, and non-state actors have only filled in a piecemeal, fragmented way – and sometimes only contributing to the chaos on the ground. And it was in that context that Russian and Turkish fighters squared off in the air as a multitude of factions vie for primacy on the Syrian ground below.
From a broader perspective, it was perhaps only a matter of time that Turkey and Russia’s entente of convenience would turn to acrimony. While much of the world has gotten used to the idea of Russia as the revanchist, rising global power, Turkey’s rapid economic growth since the early 2000s has driven its own rise, particularly in the Black Sea region and the Caucasus. Unabashed Turkish pretentions to regional leadership was bound to collide with Russia’s fragile but jealous sway over its so-called “near abroad”.
While the Syrian civil war and the SU-24 incident will rightly be seen as seminal moments in the Russia-Turkey relationship, the roots of the crisis were evident in bursts well before matters came to a head. For example, Turkey spearheaded a Turkey-Georgia-Azerbaijan trilateral alignment in 2012, which has served as a formidable and durable platform for advancing Turkish leadership in the traditionally Russia-dominated South Caucasus, in spite of Russian misgivings. And as Russia seized chunks of Ukraine in 2014, Turkey quietly but insistently backed Ukrainian territorial integrity and the rights of its own Crimean Tatar compatriots. These issues were never enough on their own to spoil what had become a lucrative trade relationship between the two powers, but the Russian intervention in Syria on the side of Bashar al Assad’s regime, and its overwhelming focus on non-Islamic State targets – following a tried and true Syrian regime playbook – was a bridge too far for Turkey.
The renewed Russia-Turkey rivalry has already shaken up the regional tactical landscape. Russia has deployed additional assets to its bases in Latakia, Syria, including the highly advanced S-400 anti-air system, which has an effective range that covers much of Syria, the eastern Mediterranean, and even into large chunks of Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, and all of Lebanon. Additional attack helicopters have reinforced already substantial Russian forces in Armenia near the Turkish border, and there are rumours that 7,000 additional Russian troops could be behind them. On the other side of the wire, a buildup of Nato military assets and air defense systems are bolstering Turkey’s already substantial military power. Unsurprisingly, Turkey is again rediscovering the virtues of its traditional alliances with the US, Nato and even long-estranged partner Israel.
The broader strategic implications of the new Turkey-Russia cold war are even more complex. This is no less true in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions, which will likely emerge as the primary theatre of Russian-Turkish competition outside of the Middle East.
Crisscrossing allegiances in the Caucasus
In the Caucasus, Turkish- and Russian-oriented alignments are already quite clear. Armenia, which is a member of the Moscow-led Eurasian Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), is a Russian client state. Thousands of Russian troops and hardware are already garrisoned in Armenia, whose own troops occupy Azerbaijani territory in and around Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan, for its part, has its own mutual defense treaty with Turkey and a history of close, even fraternal ties with Ankara. Yet likely fearing for its own regime’s staying power, Azerbaijan has taken a decidedly pro-Russia turn since the 2014 Euromaidan events in Ukraine and strongly distanced itself from the West. Caught between traditional patron Turkey and Russia, with which Baku is also more closely aligned regarding the ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, Azerbaijan has offered to mediate between the two powers – but to little effect. Despite its defence treaty with Turkey, the rapid deterioration of the Azerbaijani economy makes the regime even more reliant on securitization and repression to ensure political continuity, which only deepens Baku’s dependence on Russia. And, if some rumours are to be believed, Baku’s flirtations with Eurasianism may incentivize Moscow to play a more genuinely constructive brokering role between Azerbaijan and Armenia; Russia, after all, would prefer the allegiance of both Azerbaijan and Armenia than one or the other.
The situation in Georgia is similarly complex. The Tbilisi government has maintained a robust, pro-West foreign policy; it is common for senior Georgian officials to describe Turkey as their country’s “most important” day-to-day partner. It is not hard to see why. Turkey is a Nato member, a part of the EU customs union, and has a free trade agreement and passport-free zone with Georgia. Turkey is Georgia’s largest trade partner, among its most consistent sources of foreign direct investment, an active military partner, and an advocate for Tbilisi’s Euro-Atlantic integration. At the same time, Georgia has 20% of its territory carved out and occupied by Russian forces in the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russian forces regularly detain Georgian citizens at the de facto borders, and incursions by Russian military aircraft are also relatively common. Russia maintains a strong grip on both separatist regions both militarily and economically, but Abkhazia – the larger and far more pluralistic of the two de facto statelets – has extensive historic and cultural ties to Turkey. A large, active diaspora of ethnic Abkhaz and their Circassian kin live in Turkey and are relatively well integrated into Turkish national life. Despite Ankara’s close ties with Tbilisi, Turkish freighters skirt the international embargo and conduct trade with Abkhazia, offering the balmy, isolated republic a rare outlet to the non-Russian world. While it would be hard to envision the separatist Abkhazian government turning its back on Russia, Sukhumi nonetheless faces a difficult choice.
The addition of rising Russia-Turkey tensions to the competing, crisscrossing allegiances in the Caucasus make for a potentially combustible mix. While both sides have an interest in preventing tensions from escalating into a full-scale conflict that could intermingle or even merge with the nearby conflict in Syria, the Karabakh conflict, already a tinderbox, now has the added dimension of heightened acrimony between Russia and Turkey. Russia, or even Karabakh separatist forces, might even see some benefit from inciting violence along the so-called ‘Line of Contact’ to test the Azerbaijan-Turkey relationship. Turkey could also take a harder line in the Black Sea in support of its Crimean Tatar compatriots, or assume a more proactive posture in support of Georgia.
The exact effects of the Russia-Turkey cold war may play out a number of ways, but what seems clear at this point is the unlikelihood that the two sides will withdraw to the status quo ante of a mutually beneficial if uneasy friendship. Competition is the new normal, and the states of the region will be forced to take sides – whether they feel ready or not.
Michael Cecire is an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute's Project on Democratic Transitions and Black Sea regional analyst. Follow him on @mhikaric