Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are strange bedfellows — sometimes close strategic partners, but sometimes bitter regional adversaries.
For now, the Turkish leader is casting himself as a middleman, as he visited the Dolmabahçe Palace on the Bosphorus waterfront last week to personally welcome Ukrainian and Russian negotiators gathering for peace talks.
In assuming this role, Erdoğan is treading a delicate tightrope. The relationship between Turkey and Russia is profoundly complex and is steeped in history. It’s a relationship that’s been haunted by tensions over Crimean Tatars, energy dependence and wars in Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria and Libya. Only in recent years, Turkey has shot down a Russian warplane, Russian airstrikes in Syria have killed 33 Turkish troops and Moscow’s ambassador to Ankara has been assassinated.
A NATO member, Turkey has unabashedly labelled the conflict in Ukraine a “war,” has blocked Russian warships from the Black Sea and has sold devastatingly effective Bayraktar drones to Ukrainian forces, much to Moscow’s outrage. On the other hand, Ankara has also annoyed Kyiv by refusing to sanction Russia, with presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalın saying the world cannot afford “to burn bridges with Russia.”
“It’s quite different from other NATO allies,” said Steven Cook, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and expert on Turkish politics. “The Turks are really trying to position themselves in a way where they support Ukrainian sovereignty but also want to use their good offices in both places to try to mediate.”
“Over the course of the last 10 years, the Turks had really chafed at their relationship with the U.S. — they’ve been very dissatisfied with it,” he said, adding that Russia now presents a good alternative. “They have a fairly good working relationship.”
Here are seven key components that have forged Ankara-Moscow relations over the past 10 years.
1. The personal touch
The relationship between Putin and Erdoğan shifted from enmity to comradeship thanks to a coup attempt against Erdoğan in 2016.
The two had maintained cordial ties until November 2015, when a Turkish F-16 downed a Russian bomber over the Syrian-Turkish border. Putin furiously denounced the incident as a “stab in the back.” Through a 10-month standoff, Moscow imposed economic sanctions, including exhortations from Moscow that its citizens should avoid traveling to Turkey, which relies heavily on Russian tourists. This ultimately forced Erdoğan to apologize to Putin.
But it was the July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey that would bring the two closer than ever before.
“While [former U.S. President Barack] Obama and his European counterparts sat on a fence, Putin immediately became his savior and promised him all the support he could give,” said Kemal Kirişci, a professor and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. “And there were always rumors that it was the Russians that had warned Erdoğan.” It is not for no reason that the Turkish president chose St. Petersburg as his first post-coup foreign trip, and not Brussels or Washington.
“His relationship with the West went from bad to worse,” Kirişci said, “and autocrats are very good at coming together.”
In fact, this glue binding the two leaders together was so strong that experts say it helped overcome events that would normally destroy a bilateral relationship, including Russia’s ambassador to Turkey being shot dead by an off-duty policeman in Ankara in 2016 — during a period of feverish tensions over Russia’s involvement in the Syria war — and dozens of Turkish troops being killed by Russian airstrikes in Syria in 2020.
2. Tatars in Crimea
Crimean Tatars are also a recurring thorn in the side of Moscow and Ankara.
Turkey has historic ties to the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic ethnic group indigenous to the peninsula, where 300,000 of them reside today. On Joseph Stalin’s orders in 1944, more than 200,000 Tatars were forcefully deported to Central Asia, where up to half died. In 1989, they were finally allowed to return.
Given their ethnic bond and the Tatars’ large diaspora in Turkey, Erdoğan often rushes to their defense. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 — which revived the community’s fears from Soviet times — proved a particularly difficult moment for Turkey.
Ankara immediately came out against the annexation, maintained contact with the group’s leaders there, funded a new Tatar Center in Kyiv, and quietly negotiated the release of two Tatar politicians from prison. Erdoğan also promised in 2014 he had got assurances from Putin that they would be protected.
Kirişci argues this support is part of a very domestic — and electoral — calculus for Erdoğan.
“It has more to do with domestic politics in Turkey,” he said. “Every single vote counts for Erdoğan, whose popularity has been diminishing as economic problems continue to pile up.”
“He is in alliance with an extremist Turkish nationalist party to perpetuate his rule [and] for them, the Tatars are very important,” he added, arguing that national elections in 2023 are weighing heavily on Erdoğan’s mind.
3. Black Sea Security
In the Black Sea, Russian-Turkish cooperation has gradually increased after recovering from the high point of tensions in 2016.
Turkey controls access to the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, but under the terms of the 1936 Montreux Convention, it must guarantee “complete freedom” to civilian ships passing through — and is only allowed to block military ships in times of war.
The two governments’ Black Sea relations have largely mirrored the trajectory of their wider relationship. In 2016, as tensions between the two countries escalated, largely due to their opposing positions on Syria, Erdoğan demanded a greater NATO presence in the sea.
“The Black Sea has almost become a Russian lake,” he lamented back in May 2016, while advocating for a joint Bulgarian-Romanian-Turkish fleet to move into the area.
But as relations with Russia warmed post-coup, and Turkey turned away from the U.S., the two began cooperating in the Black Sea. In 2017, Ankara sent several naval vessels to Moscow’s Novorossiysk base for informal exercises, which were later followed by more formal joint drills.
Amid conflict in Ukraine, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced on February 28 the straits would be blocked to warships. But as Cook points out, those returning to Russia can still return home.
“Now the question is: Who gets to determine whether that claim is legitimate or not? Is it just taken on face value that the Russians are telling the truth?” he said.
Meanwhile, in the South Caucasus, Russia and Turkey are directly at odds with each other, putting pressure on their alliance.
In the long-standing rivalry between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh — a breakaway territory backed by Armenia but recognized internationally as Azeri — Moscow and Ankara back different sides.
Azerbaijan is Turkey’s closest international ally, and Ankara has long supplied Baku with the same Bayraktar drones it sells to Ukraine. Similarly, Russia has deep ties with Armenia, and both countries share an air defense system and membership of the Moscow-backed Collective Security Treaty Organization military alliance.
When violence surged in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016, the two exchanged barbs, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling Turkish rhetoric “unacceptable.” But when full-blown war broke out over the territory in November 2020, the criticism was more muted, as Russia stepped in as a mediator and secured a cease-fire, while allowing Azerbaijan to keep its territorial gains.
“Even though they were on opposite ends of the conflict and Turkish-backed forces got the better of Russian-backed ones … they have found a way to guarantee a cease-fire remains,” said Cook from the CFR.
“The two leaders have been able to compartmentalize those differences and not let the relationship blow up.”
5. Syria and the Kurdish question
Syria is yet another front where Russia and Turkey ran headlong into each other, only to fall back into cooperation despite remaining on opposing sides.
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the conflict quickly spread to Turkey’s southeast border, stoking government fears of an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region on its frontier, as well as a stream of refugees into Turkey. With Russia officially stepping in to aid the regime of Bashar al-Assad as a longtime ally in 2015, Russian attacks on the opposition began, putting Putin and Erdoğan on rival frontlines.
Tensions peaked that same year, with Turkey downing a Russian warplane that entered its airspace. Russia went on to restrict trade and travel, with Putin accusing Ankara of supporting the Islamic State, and opened a representative office for Syrian Kurds in Moscow.
But once Erdoğan issued his apology, the two sides began cooperating.
After agreeing to a de-escalation zone in Idlib in 2018, Russia chose not to intervene in Turkey’s military offensive and eventual incursion into Syria against Kurdish fighters. And though the situation intensified once more after the 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in airstrikes over Idlib the following year, the pair ultimately came to an agreement yet again. A cease-fire backed by both came into force in 2020 — despite Kurdish forces appealing to Russia for help.
The deal enacted a security corridor and joint patrols, while Kurdish forces were required to pull back and Turkey got the safe zone it wanted. Though the delicate cease-fire is holding for now, Syria remains an ongoing pressure point for Erdoğan.
6. Challenges in Libya
The conflict in Libya stretches back to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. In the ensuing war, both Putin and Erdoğan increased their involvement to become the conflict’s two key players, while once again pushing clashing objectives.
Moscow had long backed Khalifa Haftar’s regime out of eastern Libya, providing arms and military equipment, with Wagner mercenaries present on the ground. Ankara, on the other hand, sided with the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), sending arms, drones, military advisers and Syrian mercenaries, which tipped the scales as the fight for Tripoli escalated.
In addition to growing geopolitical influence, both countries have hopes of economic gains from Libya, having lost lucrative contracts before the war. However, Erdoğan is also aiming to secure Turkish interests in the eastern Mediterranean, agreeing on a controversial deal with the GNA in 2019, drawing new maritime boundaries in waters rich in gas reserves near Cyprus.
Despite supporting opposing factions, however, the leaders managed to come to an understanding — just as in Syria. Jointly calling for a cease-fire in 2020, they reaffirmed their “commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Libya.” Though this time, the agreement did not hold.
7. Natural gas
Despite geopolitical strains, highly important energy ties between Turkey and Russia have remained relatively stable — though unevenly balanced — since 2016.
Turkey has long been a large market for Russia, directly receiving gas via the BlueStream pipeline through the Black Sea since 2005. Today, it still imports 45 percent of its natural gas from Russia, although this dependence is reducing. Erdoğan and Putin have inked deals for the TurkStream pipeline project and the Moscow-backed Akkuyu nuclear power plant.
With goals of becoming a transit hub and increasing its energy independence, however, Turkey has also been exploring its own resources and announced a natural gas discovery in the Black Sea in 2020. As an extension of its mavi vatan (blue homeland) rhetoric, the same aims lie behind Erdoğan’s involvement in Libya and the deal drawn up for Turkey’s access to the eastern Mediterranean to create an exclusive economic zone.
While Turkey will continue to buy Russian oil and gas for now, according to Deputy Energy Minister Alparslan Bayraktar, Europe’s current efforts to reduce such exports after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may place Turkey front and center of potential alternative supply routes — either from Azerbaijan, through the Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline, or Israel, with talks of a new pipeline on the table after the EastMed Project fell through in January.