Collusion or Collision? Turkey-Russia Relations Under Erdogan and Putin

U.S. relations with Turkey and Russia have soured over the last two decades. Once a staunch ally anchoring NATO’s southern flank, Turkey has increasingly drifted from the West. With Russia, post-Cold War hopes for strategic partnership between Moscow and the West have given way to renewed strategic competition and confrontation.

Meanwhile, despite a long history of fraught relations dating back to the 16th century, Turkey and Russia have moved closer. This report serves as an indispensable guide to the relationship between Ankara and Moscow.

To be sure, their differences are many, and mutual suspicion still runs deep. Yet the authors carefully document how the regimes of Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin have managed to compartmentalize their relationship, mixing competition with substantial — if transactional — cooperation across a range of areas. Many in Washington continue to see Turkey as a bulwark against Russia, yet this report capably demonstrates that such notions are fanciful, at least for as long as Erdogan remains in charge.

Economic ties, particularly in the energy sector, drove Russian-Turkish rapprochement following the Soviet Union’s collapse. These ties remain a key pillar of their relationship, helping to buffer against growing Russian-Turkish geopolitical competition across multiple regions.

But there are also broader and deeper forces at play. Erdogan and Putin both reject the post-Cold War liberal international order and view Turkish-Russian cooperation as a means of advancing their revisionist geopolitical agendas. Cultivating ties with Moscow helps Ankara achieve independence from the West. For the Kremlin, Turkey’s drift from the West supports Moscow’s longstanding efforts to undermine NATO, as seen with Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile system.

Turkey and Russia’s alignment also reflects domestic factors. Neither strongman chastises the other for his democratic shortcomings or kleptocracy. In both countries, large swathes of the elite reject liberalism and associated visions that root their country’s national identity and strategic vocation within the West. Indeed, Erdogan’s alliance with Turkey’s “Eurasianist” faction, which eschews the West and prioritizes relations with Russia and other non-Western powers, has helped fuel Ankara’s alignment with Moscow. For Putin, Russia’s “Eurasianist” thinkers have provided useful political cover for his authoritarian and kleptocratic regime.

In Washington, both political parties have come to recognize that America and its allies face growing threats from authoritarian powers that seek to undermine the interests and values of free societies. This report is among the best works that show how such autocratic regimes are able to cooperate effectively despite their unresolved differences.

For the United States and its allies, successfully navigating the Turkey-Russia relationship will require an accurate picture of today’s Turkey. Thankfully, the analysis here reflects a deep understanding of Turkish politics and the subtle ways in which ideology, strategy, and economic interests blend together to shape foreign policy.

As the authors note, Ankara’s drift from the West reflects a fundamental shift in Turkish foreign policy: Although Erdogan does not seek to exit NATO, he seeks to balance between East and West, making Erdogan’s Turkey unlikely to reprise its former role as a stalwart transatlantic ally. The foreign policies of both Moscow and Ankara have deep domestic roots, and both Washington and its allies will need to develop a coordinated strategy to deal with the consequences of the Turkish-Russian entente. This monograph offers a nuanced set of policy recommendations to inform that effort. They deserve careful consideration by policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic.

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