Why Turkey and Russia need each other

Story highlights

  • The shooting is likely to drive Moscow and Ankara closer together, writes Elmira Bayrasli
  • Turkey's growing tension with the West has brought Putin to the table, she says
  • Bayrasli: The Russian-Turkish relationship for now is one of convenience

Elmira Bayrasli is the co-founder of Foreign Policy Interrupted and the author of the book "From the Other Side of the World." The opinion in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)Russian-Turkish relations did not come to a head yesterday. Nor are they likely to unravel anytime soon.

Despite the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey at the hands of a 22-year-old Turkish police officer at an art gallery in the Turkish capital, Ankara, Moscow did not blame the Turks for the incident.
"They (outside forces) want to drive a wedge between Moscow and Ankara at any price," said Leonid Slutsky, the head of the Duma's national security committee, hours after the shooting.
    In fact, yesterday's shooting is likely to drive Moscow and Ankara closer together, and probably at the expense of the United States and NATO.
    Located between Europe and Asia and the Middle East, Russia and Turkey have been rivals. During the Cold War, Russia and Turkey stood on opposite sides of the wall.
    In the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the two countries locked horns over influence in the largely Turkic Central Asia and the Caucasus.
    Two years ago, Russia and Turkey again sparred over Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea, home of the Crimean Tatars, a Turkic group.

    Erdogan 'changes course' on Russia

    More recently, Turkey and Russia have disagreed over Syria. Turkey has been upset with Russia's support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and the country's stance against the rebels. So upset, that in November 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian jet fighter that it says violated its airspace along the Turkish-Syrian border.
    Earlier this year, however, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, changed Turkey's course on Russia -- much to his chagrin.
    Erdogan has been eager for Turkey to become a regional leader in the Middle East and a significant player on the world stage. In 2009, while serving as the country's prime minister, Erdogan advanced a "zero problems" foreign policy.
    Accordingly, Turkey would work to establish good relations with all its neighbors and allies, even those that the United States disagreed with: namely Iran. "Zero problems" hoped to position Turkey firstly as a key player in international diplomacy, security, and trade, and, more importantly, an independent one. That would not come to be.
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    However robust and dynamic its economy has been for the past decade plus, Turkey, with a mid-sized population, depends on outside trade, tourism, and, most importantly, energy resources -- ergo, Russia.
    Russia is among Turkey's top trading partners. Several million Russian tourists have added several millions of dollars (near $900 million) to Turkey's economy. Most significantly, Russia supplies 12% of Turkey's oil and 55% of Turkey's natural gas.
    While trade, particularly of oil and gas, is important to Russia, it is Turkey's growing tension with the West and, in particular, NATO that has brought Moscow and its leader, Vladimir Putin, to the table with Turkey.

    Turning away from NATO and EU

    Turkey has been a firm ally of the US and stalwart member of NATO since 1952, contributing the alliance's second largest military. It has wanted to become a member of the European Union since the 1960s. Yet, starting in 2013, Tayyip Erdogan began to turn away from all these interlocutors.
    Beset with corruption allegations, a weakening economy and a confrontation with a former ally, Erdogan abandoned previous policy approaches that focused on governance in favor of power politics.

    Kurdish question

    He went from leading Turkey's politics and economy towards progress and growth to becoming a strongman, who curbs free speech, arrests opponents, and lashes out at enemies. Of late, those enemies have been Europe -- which has stalled Turkey's EU accession talks -- and the US.
    Two things are exacerbating US-Turkish relations. The first is Syria. Ankara and Washington have disagreed over the fate of Assad, and, more recently, the role of the Syrian Kurds. Enemies to the Islamic state (ISIS), Washington supports Kurdish fighters. The Turks, who have been locked in a brutal war with the Kurdistan Worker's Party, more commonly known as the terrorist group PKK, in the country's southeast since the 1990s, don't.
    That standoff appeals to Russia, who, despite having supported the PKK in the past, want to defeat the Kurds in Syria.

    Erdogan angered by Gulen ruling

    Secondly, following a failed coup attempt this past July, Turkey and the US have sparred over the extradition of the Muslim preacher Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan blames Gulen, a former ally who lives in Pennsylvania, for plotting the July coup attempt and wants Gulen to stand trial in Turkey. The US has not agreed to an extradition. This has angered Erdogan. It has, however, made Putin happy.
    Putin is eager to see the disintegration of the NATO alliance and a stronger Russia. Current Turkish-US and EU relations as well as Turkey's own economic position makes both more likely. Russia is eager to take a leading role in the Syria crisis and global affairs in general. Today it will hold talks in Moscow on the matter, with Turkey and Iran -- and without US participation.
    That has made the Russian-Turkish relationship expedient for the moment and one not likely to unravel -- even over an assassination of a high-ranking diplomat. Each fulfills a short term need. What happens when those needs are fulfilled? That's when we can expect to see it get ugly.