Medvedev’s Charm Offensive in Turkey

As President Dmitry Medvedev departed for a state visit to Turkey this week, there wasn’t much debate over whether or not it would be success, but rather what kind of deals would be offered up to get the handshakes – would it be weapons, cheap gas, a pipeline, a Gazprom investment, or the granddaddy of them all, nuclear energy?

Well Turkey is no old maid (sorry, Ukraine), and has many good reasons to call for a high dowry:  NATO membership, the largest standing army in Europe, and a booming, modern economy which is closely narrowing the gap with Europe.  Most importantly, the country occupies an incredibly important geostrategic position between Europe and the energy basin of Central Asia as well as control over the Bosporus Strait, and will continue to play a key role in the transit of oil and gas.

So it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that during Medvedev’s visit Russia signed a $20 billion deal to built Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, and another 20 deals and agreements. In this particular situation, Sergei Kiriyenko and Rosatom played the role usually left to Igor Sechin, and carried out the now familiar process of layered bargaining (very few countries in the world can come to one meeting with arms deals, nuclear energy, and 5 or 6 industrial oligarchs in tote to jump in on the deal).  

But as usual, behind the deals, some problems in the relationship remain.

Turkey and Russia have had a historically rocky relationship dating back to Ottoman support for the Crimean Khanate (who burned down Moscow in 1571), while the Tsarist empire repeatedly clashed with the Turks over the 18th and 19th century and supported Christian separatists.  During the Cold War, fears of Russian intervention in Turkey drove them into the arms of NATO, while trade politics over the Black Sea have also come into play.  The tensions between historic rivals continues to today with a very large population of Chechens, which some Russian hawks believe is a safe haven for terrorists.

Ankara sees itself as an influential regional leader on the Black Sea, and their conduct following the war in Georgia displayed a distaste of Russia’s failure to consult before combat operations.  There is of course also Russia’s role in supporting Armenia as a client state, as well as other regional problems, such as the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute and Turkey’s interests in Azerbaijan.  Energy, however, really seems to the be trickiest issue of all, and with Russia supplying some 2/3rds of Turkey’s natural gas, the government is looking to play both sides of the fence, and above all, maintain strict control over transit points.

Despite some of these tensions, the high stakes involved in Russia’s effort to monopolize the flow of energy supplies from east to west (and block the Nabucco pipeline) has led to a hasty and sometimes expensive rapprochement with Turkey.  Medvedev’s visit builds upon the evident momentum from Vladimir Putin’s 2009 visit, which used energy trade and investment as the key vehicle to deepen relations. 

Before arriving, Medvedev published an op/ed in Today’s Zaman on his vision for the strategic alliance:

Certainly cooperation in the field of energycomprises the main axis of our cooperation. We have critical jointprojects that are of top priority in this field. These are the SouthStream and Blue Stream-2 natural gas pipelines, the construction of theSamsun-Ceyhan oil pipeline and a nuclear power plant to be built byRussia on Turkish soil. I am confident that implementing these projectswill be concrete evidence that relations have moved up to a high-qualitynew level and significantly contribute to consolidating internationalenergy security.

Upon completing the series of deals signed this week, the Russian President wasebullient:  “Our talks today showed that Turkey and Russia arestrategic partners notonly in words but in deeds.  (…)  It really looks rather impressive.”  It might not be enough to overcome the deep problems in the relationship, as well as the collision of national interests in Turkish and Russian competition in energy transit, but they are certainly getting close. 

Once again, we are witnessing a complete lack of awareness or at least a policy failure on behalf of Europe and the United States to offer competing deals to Ankara and keep relations close, and a failure to recognize the importance of this critical ally.  Turkey’s cooperation with Russia is certainly no doomsday scenario, and, like any other country, they will structure their relations with Moscow as they see fit … but if Europe somehow thinks that this won’t impact their energy security in the long term, they had better get their heads out of the sand.