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Turkey, Russia struggle to contain Syrian crisis’ damage to bilateral ties


From: | 2012-10-23 23:28:08

ANKARA, Oct. 23 (Xinhua) — The 19-month-old Syrian crisis has exposed sharp differences between Turkey and Russia, two foes- turned-friends, with the recent trade of accusations over Turkey’s interception of a Syrian-bound plane flying from Moscow.

For a long time, both Ankara and Moscow have been trying to prevent the Syrian crisis from spilling over on their bilateral ties. But as the crisis in Turkey’s southern neighbor severely affected Turkey’s national security, Ankara increasingly finds itself at odds with Russia, Damascus’ main international supporter.

Nevertheless, both countries are expected to manage their bilateral relations while weathering the impact of Syrian crisis, according to Turkish experts.

“Turkey and Russia have always found a way to stabilize their ties even during the Cold War era. I’m sure they can manage today after such unprecedented development in fostering ties in the last decade,” Idris Gursoy, political analyst in Ankara told Xinhua over the phone.

“No doubt that there is a risk of spillover to the Turkish- Russian ties from the Syrian crisis but it will eventually find its own balance,” he added.

In an effort to soothe tensions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a visit to Luxembourg that nobody should be concerned over bilateral relations between the two countries. ” Last week’s incident in Ankara will not damage Turkish-Russian relations,” he said, referring to the intercepted plane.

To what extent will the Syrian crisis cast a shadow on bilateral ties between Turkey and Russia and whether it will leave scars on it depends on how long it will take to restore stability to Syria. “I’m afraid if the crisis in Syria lingers for a longer period, it may drive a wedge between Turkey and Russia,” Gursoy noted.

Gokhan Bacik, professor of international relations at Zirve University in Gaziantep, agrees with Gursoy. “One cannot even imagine the negative outcomes should there be another interception of an aircraft somehow linked to Russia.”


Experts believe there is little chance of rolling back on gains the two countries has attained in recent years. “There has been a positive improvement in ties between Turkey and Russia since 2000, ” Hasan Kanbolat, the director of Ankara-based Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM) said.

He underlined that fundamentals leading to the rapprochement between the two largest powers in the region are still strong. ” The multidimensional developments have been taking place with increased investments and trade on both sides, mixed marriages between Turks and Russians and the flow of Russian tourists into Turkey,” Kanbolat noted.

Turkey and Russia, have a trade volume of 30 billion U.S. dollars in 2011 with a surplus for Russia. Turkey exported 6 billion U.S. dollars worth of goods to Russia last year while Russia exported 24 billion U.S. dollars worth of goods, mainly gas and oil, to Turkey.

According to the latest available figures from Turkish statistics agency TUIK, for the last eight months of the year, Turkish exports to Russia has increased 10 percent, from 3.9 billion to 4.3 billion U.S. dollars. Turkish imports from Russia have also increased in the same period from 14.5 billion U.S. dollars to 17 billion U.S. dollars, an increase of 17 percent.

There are nearly 1,400 Russian firms active in Turkey while more than 2,000 Turkish firms are doing business in Russia. Turkey ‘s total direct investment in Russia amounts to 10 billion U.S. dollars, which represents Turkey’s biggest investment abroad, while Turkish construction firms have so far a total turnover of 35 billion U.S. dollars in projects in Russia.

Turkey is also a major destination for Russian tourists, with some 3.5 million Russian travelers coming to Turkey every year.


Though the two countries downplayed the postponement of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey for intergovernmental conference, which was rescheduled for Dec. 3, some experts believe it was a in fact a rebuke by Moscow to Turkish position on Syria.

“The interception of the plane may have played a role in the postponement,” Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Economy and Foreign Policy Research Center (EDAM), said.

Putin’s visit was part of the intergovernmental conference in lieu of the Turkey-Russia High Level Cooperation Council, established in 2010 to become the main vehicle in developing ties between the two countries. The two also lifted visa requirements in 2011 for people traveling for the sake of the High Level Cooperation Council held in Moscow.

Ulgen speculated that Putin may again put off his visit to Turkey in case the latter takes further steps in Syrian crisis that would irritate Russia.


Experts point to differences in the past which Turkey and Russia had managed to prevent from harming their bilateral ties, citing them as evidence that the Syrian crisis will not result in major rift between the two countries.

For example, when Turkey agreed to host NATO’s early warning radar system as part of the missile shield in Malatya province despite Russia’s objections, both Ankara and Moscow were successful in neutralizing the negative repercussion of this decision over bilateral affairs. “Turkey and Russia have agreed to disagree on this issue,” Gursoy commented.

The two countries also boosted ties during the 2008 Russian- Georgian conflict, when both countries had adopted a similar stance regarding the presence of foreign powers in the Black Sea.

“In 2008 Russia-Georgian conflict, the countries have worked on common proposal in diffusing the tensions in the Caucasus,” Selcuk Colakoglu, an analyst at Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), said.

However, differences between Turkey and Russia in Central Asia and Caucasus still remain. Under Putin’s presidency, Russia made efforts to achieve integration with Central Asian countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union while Turkey tried to foster economic and political ties with these countries based on kinship, historical and cultural affinities.


Experts note that trading accusations publicly between Turkish and Russian leaders over the intercepted plane were in fact intended to cater to domestic constituencies as well as to send message to other countries that has a stake in Syrian conflict.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly criticized Russia for its stance on the crisis in Syria, though without explicitly naming the country. He also sticks to Turkey’s original position that the plane was carrying illegal arms to Syria, a claim denied by Russia.

Putin fired back at Erdogan, saying that “it’s only the sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council that can serve as a basis for limiting weapons supplies… In all other cases, nobody can use any pretext to dictate how Russia should conduct trade and with whom,” Putin said last week.

Gursoy believes Putin’s remarks are intended to be delivered to the West rather than to Turkey. “I think both Putin and Erdogan values the bilateral ties in which they personally invested a lot. They will not jeopardize this relation for the sake of Syria,” he said.

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