Turkey, Russia ‘very close’ two years after Andrey Karlov murder

Istanbul, Turkey– Standing in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, the Republic Monument commemorates the creation of Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

In the group of people depicted behind Ataturk is a figure little known to most passers-by, that of the first Soviet ambassador to the new republic.

The statue of Seymon Ivanovich Aralov on the monument demonstrates the deep ties between Moscow and Ankara – ties that came under strain during the Cold War as Turkey joined NATO and later sought membership in the European Union.

Since the collapse of Soviet communism, however, Turkey has moved closer to Moscow while retaining its NATO membership and European aspirations.

These links – forged through cooperation in areas such as energy policy, trade and security cooperation – were threatened exactly two years ago, on December 19, 2016, when Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov was shot dead by an off-duty Turkish police officer in Ankara.

Before opening fire, the gunman screamed “Don’t forget Aleppo”, a besieged city in Syria, prompting speculation that the ambassador’s killing was connected to Russia’s military intervention in the country in support of President Bashar al Assad, whose removal Turkey has called for.

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin brushed aside such claims, describing it as a “provocation aimed at spoiling the normalization of Russo-Turkish relations and spoiling the Syrian peace process”. His Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed, saying the two countries will not let the assassination affect their ties.

Instead, Turkey and Russia will deepen solidarity and strengthen cooperation, he said.

Later, Turkey blamed the Karlov’s death on a movement led by US-based Muslim preacher, Fethullah Gulen, who Ankara also holds responsible for a failed coup attempt earlier in 2016.

Karlov’s killing came nearly a year after the Turkish military shot down a Russian warplane on the Syrian border – another incident that threatened ties but was smoothed over by a Turkish apology.

“They’ve shot at each other’s soldiers and planes, an ambassador was killed and they’re on different sides in a civil war,” said Selim Koru, an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey.

“These are things that would have harmed long-term relations if they were to happen between Turkey and another country,” he said. But “despite all the real differences they could have, they’re very close right now.”

PKK, Gulen

This detente, many analysts agreed, was partly because of Turkey’s various disputes with its Western allies.

Key among them, Koru, said was the US support for a Syrian Kurdish group affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK, which has fought a decades-long conflict with Turkey.

“That is a long-standing insult to Turkish policy, the Turkish state and Turkish interests.”

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Sener Akturk, an associate professor in international relations at Istanbul’s Koc University, said that Moscow and Ankara had found common cause in Syria, despite backing opposing sides in the war.

“Russia and Turkey are experiencing a pragmatic rapprochement over Syria,” he said.

“Both feel threatened by different local formations that were significantly emboldened and empowered by the United States in the last couple of years.”

The US support for the PKK-tied People’s Protection Units (YPG) as well as its failure to extradite Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the US for nearly two decades, have been long-standing complaints for Turkey.

A perceived lack of support from the West after the July 2016 coup attempt has also irritated Turks.

By comparison, Putin was the first foreign leader to visit Turkey after the failed putsch and last year suggested the US may have had prior warning of the attempt.

“The critical turning points have been PKK’s declaration of an all-out offensive against Turkey in July 2015 and the failed coup attempt of the Gulenists in July 2016,” Akturk said.

“The PKK’s affiliate in Syria is armed and protected by the United States and the top Gulenists, including their leader, are sheltered by the United States.”

Trade, security ties

The close ties between Russia and Turkey is reflected in the growing number of Russian tourists choosing to sun themselves on the beaches of Antalya every summer. Last year, 4.7 million Russians visited Turkey, the largest contingent of foreign visitors. This year, the number is expected to leap to 5.5 million, according to current ambassador Aleksey Yerhov.

This follows a sharp drop below a million in 2016 following the shooting down of a Russian jet by a Turkish F-16 over the Syrian border.

That incident led to Putin accusing Turkey of delivering a “stab in the back”. The Kremlin responded by scrapping visa-free travel, calling for a tourism boycott, embargoing Turkish products and restricted Turkish companies working in Russia.

These measures have gradually been removed and Erdogan and Putin have since worked closely on several fronts, most notably the war in Syria.

The two leaders have met face-to-face more than a dozen times in the last two years as, along with Iran, they put together the Astana peace process that created de-escalation zones in Syria.

Ankara has softened its call for Assad, Russia’s ally, to be removed from power.

Meanwhile, Russia has allowed Turkish warplanes to operate in northern Syria, where Turkey has carved out a belt of land controlled by its proxy militias.

S-400 air defence system

Turkey has also turned to Russia to provide other security solutions in the form of the S-400 air defence system, which is due to be deployed next year.

NATO has voiced concern about the move, with the US threatening to block Turkey’s acquisition of F-35 fighter jets in response.

In the energy sector, Turkey remains heavily dependent on Russian natural gas flowing through Gazprom’s Blue Stream pipeline under the Black Sea.

With sparse domestic energy resources, Turkey relies on Russia for 55 percent of its gas. A second pipeline from Russia – TurkStream – is due to come online by the end of 2019.

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Russia has also been diversifying its hold on the Turkish energy market through the construction and operation of a nuclear power plant in Mersin, set to be operational in 2023.

Russian-Turkish trade soared by more than 40 percent to $22.1bn between 2016 and 2017.

In the first eight months of this year, it surged another 30 percent year-on-year, the state-owned TASS news agency reported last month.

At the same time, Putin announced the ambitious goal of seeing the trade with Turkey reach $100bn, although he did not give a timeframe.

In October, Turkey exported $1.9bn worth of goods to Russia, sending agricultural products, textiles and cars to its largest export market, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute.

Less dependent

However, the EU and the US still remain important markets for Turkish companies and the country as it seeks to replicate the growth figures of Erdogan’s earlier years in power.

“Keeping up the growth figures is a very important thing for this government so Turkey can catch up with other economies and become a winner not just economically, but also militarily and in terms of prestige,” Koru said.

“Burning bridges puts that goal back quite a bit because you need economic growth to be less dependent on the West.”

There are also areas where Moscow and Ankara are on opposing sides, most notably in Syria, where Russia supports Assad while Erdogan backs rebel forces seeking to remove him, and Crimea, whose Tatar Muslim population has complained of oppression following Russia’s 2014 annexation.

Turkey has also voiced alarm over recent tension between Russia and Ukraine in the Black Sea, urging restraint.

For Mitat Celikpala, an international relations professor at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, Turkey remains strongly tied to the West.

“Turkey is a Western actor. Its foreign policy and security needs mean it will stay in the Western camp. But we need to work and survive with Russia because it is everywhere around us.”

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