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Shaky Bridges Between Russia, Turkey and the EU

Three questions to Andrey Kortunov

INTERVIEW - 2 November 2020

Covid-19, demonstrations in Khabarovsk, Alexey Navalny’s poisoning, protests in Belarus, revived conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, political crisis in Kyrgyzstan: Russia is facing a number of challenges internally and in its immediate neighbourhood. Andrey Kortunov, Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), shares his analysis of President Putin’s situation amid these crises, and of Russia’s relations with Turkey and the EU.

What does Vladimir Putin's current situation look like, amid the different crises Russia is facing at home and in its immediate neighborhood? Is he able to provide stability in the region?

Just a couple of months ago, Vladimir Putin could feel quite confident about his position at home and abroad. He managed to navigate constitutional changes without triggering street protests or political infightings in or around the Kremlin. Russia seemed to handle the Covid-19 pandemic better than most of its Western neighbors. Global oil prices were gradually rising and earlier concerns about macroeconomic stability were gone. Moreover, there were hopes for a micro-détente with the West, in particular with Europe, and moderated expectations of progress in dealing with the Donbas conflict.

However, this image was shattered already in early fall. The second wave of the pandemic hit Russia hard in September and continuous demonstrations in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk set a dangerous precedent for a lasting large-scale public disobedience campaign. The Normandy Group summit was indefinitely postponed, since the Minsk agreements implementation process had run into yet another dead-end. The poisoning of Alexey Navalny cast a new shadow over relations between Russia and the West, particularly between Moscow, Berlin and Paris. President Macron’s long-awaited visit to Moscow never happened and Russian-German relations reached an all-time low. Finally, the Kremlin witnessed a chain of apparently unexpected crises along its borders – from Belarus to South Caucasus to Kyrgyzstan.

The immediate reaction to these developments has been slow and cautious. The Kremlin has demonstrated its commitment to the status-quo – be it in domestic politics or in foreign policy. The Kremlin is apparently playing for time, given all the uncertainties of the economic situation inside the country and the political turmoil around it. There might also be a shortage of new ideas partially caused by the disruption of interagency communication lines due to the pandemic.  

How do you see EU-Russian relations evolving in the coming months? What role can President Macron play in this regard?

Brussels, it seems, is still not prepared to have a serious discussion on EU strategy towards Moscow, even internally. Nor does the Kremlin seem to have anything new to offer the EU.

The end of the current public health and economic crisis is nowhere in sight, but it is already clear that both Moscow and Brussels will come out of it weakened, both in absolute terms and relative to other global political actors, especially China and Asia at large. Conventional wisdom suggests that this unhappy situation should push both sides towards each other, but we do not see such a movement under way. Brussels, it seems, is still not prepared to have a serious discussion on EU strategy towards Moscow, even internally. Nor does the Kremlin seem to have anything new to offer the EU. On the contrary, the Covid-19 crisis has only exacerbated the fierce information war between Russia and the West.

In the security domain, we witnessed no joint efforts to absorb the shock of the American withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. The collapse of oil prices has demolished the core of Russian exports to Europe, while the decline in real incomes, combined with the ruble’s devaluation, has done the same to European exports towards Russia. Some European leaders, such as Emmanuel Macron, insist that Europe needs to advocate for a rethinking of Moscow’s budding partnership with China. Yet, if anything, the current crisis appears to be pushing Moscow and Beijing closer together, especially in the energy and economic spheres.

Speaking of Macron, he has emerged as arguably the most articulate advocate of the European Union reaching out to the Kremlin. However, he does not seem to enjoy full support from all of the EU member states. The Kremlin’s attitude to the Navalny poisoning has become another source of tension between the French and the Russian leaders. We can only hope that the Russian – French dialogue will continue despite recent frustrations and disappointments.

What is the current state of relations between Turkey and Russia?

There are a number of obvious parallels between the two. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like Vladimir Putin, is not exactly enamored with Western liberal principles. Both have become disillusioned with their countries’ experience of cooperation with Europe. Both preach "traditional values", rely on the so-called "Deep People" and call for a "religious revival". Both staunchly defend their positions on the international stage and have no qualms about challenging their many external critics and, where necessary, going against the dominant global attitudes and trends.

The fact that the two have almost identical ideologies, carry themselves in a similar fashion and quite obviously share the same view of the modern world and where it is heading, should in itself contribute to a rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara. What is more, Russia and Turkey objectively have many converging interests. The two countries complement each other quite successfully in a variety of areas — from energy, to tourism, from transport and logistics, to military-technical advancements, etc.

Russia and Turkey are at the same time companions and competitors. In some cases, they are even direct opponents.

That said, bilateral relations remain fragile and inconsistent. Russia and Turkey are at the same time companions and competitors. In some cases, they are even direct opponents. Putin and Erdogan do not exactly trust each other, although, in general, they do not tend to trust any of their foreign partners. Turkey–Russia relations could easily veer off course at any time. I could mention multiple potential catalysts: a direct Turkish intervention in Nagorno-Karabakh, an escalation in Libya, complications with the Sunni Islamist militant group Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib or with Kurds in Northern Syria, a Turkish confrontation with Greece, an upgrade in the security cooperation between Ankara and Kyiv, an aggressive promotion of Pan-Turkism in Russia, the list goes on.

There are influential anti-Russian forces within the Turkish political establishment intending to turn public opinion against Moscow. Similarly, there is no shortage of groups in Russia that do not want to see a rapprochement with Ankara, and thus try to fan the flames of the traditional anti-Turkish sentiments and prejudices. Overly simplified and negative perceptions of the other side as the embodiment of social anarchy, failed economic modernization and political regression dominate liberal circles in Russia and Turkey. There is something for diplomats, military leaders, independent analysts and civil activists alike to think about here. Whatever the case may be, the stakes in the Russia-Turkey game are extremely high — not only for Russia and Turkey, but also for a number of nearby regions where Moscow and Ankara promote their often-opposing interests, particularly Central Asia and Northern Africa.

 

Copyright: Mikhail Klimentyev

 

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