If Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was looking for a way to convey his anger at Russia over the death of eight of his country’s troops in Syria, a visit to Ukraine provided the perfect opportunity.
At a guard of honour at the presidential palace in Kyiv on Monday, Mr Erdogan shouted “Glory to Ukraine”, a nationalist slogan deeply associated with anti-Russia sentiment and the country’s fight for independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
His carefully chosen words — to an army battling Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine — were a clear rebuke to President Vladimir Putin. T
he pragmatic alliance between Ankara and Moscow across the Middle East, was severely tested by Monday’s assault on Turkish soldiers by Syrian troops supported by the Kremlin in the opposition-held province of Idlib
This attack and tensions over everything from Libya to the price of gas imports have made clear that, even as Turkey’s Nato allies have fretted over Ankara’s growing closeness with Moscow, the dynamic between the two countries is far from straightforward. “It’s fair to say that it’s not an easy relationship,” said a senior Turkish official.
“It’s easy for some western officials or commentators to say that Turkey turned its back on the west, as if we are totally aligning ourselves with the Russians on everything. It’s not the case.”
In response to the soldiers’ deaths, Turkey called off a planned joint military patrol with Russian forces in Syria, while Moscow suggested that Ankara was to blame for not disclosing the location of the troops.
“All of this is very disquieting,” said Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s upper house of parliament. “This is a serious test of the strength of the existing Russian-Turkish agreements.”
The war in Syria, where Ankara backs forces opposing President Bashar al-Assad and Moscow supports his regime, has long presented a thorny situation for the two countries. Five years ago, the Turkish military shot down a Russian Su-24 as it strayed across the border with Syria. But seven months after the incident, in the face of growing frostiness between Turkey and its traditional western allies and with a close personal bond between Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin, the countries were reconciled.
Since then, they have co-operated on energy supplies, trade and the conflicts in Syria and Libya — despite backing opposing sides in both countries. Mr Erdogan’s choice to buy Russia’s S-400 air defence system last year horrified Turkey’s western allies and scuppered Ankara’s purchase of Nato’s new F-35 fighter jet.
Turkish officials have long claimed that the rapport with Moscow protected their country’s interests in a troubled neighbourhood. Yusuf Erim, a foreign-policy analyst for the state-owned broadcaster TRT World, said that it was important for Turkey to “diversify [its] relations with superpowers” in a shifting global order. Yet, despite the dozens of phone calls, meetings and jovial public appearances that have taken place in recent years between Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin, there are multiple spheres where Turkey has been riled by Russia’s approach.
Moscow played hardball over lifting an import ban on Turkish tomatoes imposed after the jet crisis, while the Turkish-language arm of Sputnik — the Russian state-owned news site — has irked Turkish officials by giving prominent coverage to Mr Erdogan’s critics.
Despite agreeing to host the recently-opened TurkStream gas pipeline that enables Russia to bypass Ukraine, Ankara pays a higher rate to state exporter Gazprom than Germany, according to Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst of Russian-Turkish relations. “Turkey couldn’t get a discount,” he said. Gazprom declined to comment. Mr Erdogan was also enraged by the refusal of Libya’s Russia-backed strongman general, Khalifa Haftar, to sign a peace deal at talks brokered by Moscow and Ankara last month.
Now, Idlib threatens to become the most serious crisis yet as conditions worsen for some 3m people crammed into the province by Turkey’s border. Mr Erdogan, who is already facing a backlash over the 3.6m Syrian refugees living in Turkey, has warned that his country cannot take any more people.
Mr Has said that Ankara faced problems in its relations with Russia because its position was “weak” in many areas, allowing Moscow to be “much more assertive”.
Officials in Ankara say that the job of standing up to Russia in Syria has been made more difficult by a lack of support from western allies.
Turkey does have some cards, including its influence over the remnants of the opposition to Damascus and its control over a swath of northern Syria that Mr Assad wants to take back. But it also depends on Russia to prevent an even larger wave of refugees from heading towards the Turkish border, to limit the role of Kurdish militias and their political affiliates in talks on Syria’s future, and to meet its reliance on imported gas.
Ankara “really cannot afford to alienate Russia,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, who predicted that the two countries’ ties would survive the latest tensions over Idlib. “Turkey is not a Russian vassal,” she added. “But it has become too beholden to Moscow to snap out of this relationship at the first crisis.”
That view was echoed on Tuesday by Mr Erdogan himself, who said that Turkey had “many serious strategic initiatives” with Russia and promised to “sit down and talk everything through, without anger”. Citing a Turkish proverb, he added: “Because he who stands up with anger will sit down with regret.”