Issues in Russia-Turkey Relations After Crimea

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 223


On December 4, Major-General Oleksandr Rozmazninov, of Ukraine’s General Staff, reported a Russian deployment of the Iskander-M tactical missile system to Crimea. (Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, December 4). This and other Russian military deployments to the annexed peninsula have prompted debates on the shift in the military balance in the Black Sea region (see EDM, December 9).

An interesting part of this discussion relates to the impact Moscow’s militarization of Crimea is having on the strategic relationship between Russia and Turkey. This debate was especially revitalized in connection with the December 1 meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

Despite disagreements over the issue of Crimea’s annexation, the main points of strategic bilateral cooperation are trade and energy. Turkey opportunistically has not supported international sanctions against Russia. For example, the two countries are building a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu. Although the project has already experienced substantial delays, construction is now set to begin in spring 2015 (Hurriyet Daily News, October 11). Whereas in the gas sector, Putin and Erdogan conducted talks on the possibility of Turkey becoming a gas hub and new destination for Russian gas, to replace the failed South Stream pipeline, which was supposed to bypass Ukraine on its way to Europe (, December 11). The talks were echoed by Gazprom’s CEO, Alexei Miller, who declared Russia’s strategic goal of eliminating its reliance on Ukraine as a transit state (, December 6).

Indeed, Turkey has been pragmatically profiting by ignoring the West’s trade sanctions on Russia and working with both the European Union and Russia on competing natural gas transit projects (, September 12). Yet, Turkish observer Ali Yurttagul has warned against spoiling ties with Western institutions, including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO—of which Turkey has been a member since 1952), and cited Ankara’s possible future need to stand together with the West in case of developing security problems in the Black Sea, the Caucasus or the Turkish Straits. Moreover, he cautioned against Turkey’s growing energy dependency on Russia (Zaman, December 7).

Russian historian Sergei Balmasov inadvertently underscored this second point by noting that Turkey’s “total dependency” on Russian gas was one of the key issues that prevented Ankara from conducting a more proactive policy toward Russia—including over the issue of the Crimean Tatars and the Crimean peninsula’s annexation. He asserted, however, that future supplies of natural gas from northern Iraq’s Kurdish territories, as well as Iran, might eventually cover 30 percent of Turkey’s needs and lead to a “change [in] the Turkish policy vector” in a direction unfavorable for Russia (Newsbalt, March 6).

Unlike energy cooperation, Russia’s mounting militarization of Crimea (see EDM, December 9) remains a sore point in Russian-Turkish relations. Ukrainian analyst Andriy Klymenko noted earlier this year that Russia’s Ministry of Defense plans to form 40 new major units—brigades and regiments—on the Crimean peninsula by the end of 2014 (Zerkalo Nedeli, October 24). The Russian Air Force has already deployed to Crimea the modernized S-300PMU Favorit air defense missile system (Vzglyad, December 3) along with Su-27SM and Su-30M2 fighter jets and Tu-22 bomber aircraft (, November 26). Meanwhile, the Russian navy’s coastal defense was beefed up by the deployment of Bastion-P mobile missile systems.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has justified the militarization of Crimea by noting NATO’s “anti-Russian sentiment” (, November 12). Whereas, the more radically minded Russian military analyst Semyon Bagdasarov, earlier this spring, claimed that Russia needed to deploy Iskander theater ballistic missiles to Crimea because Turkey had allegedly violated the Montreaux Convention by admitting a large number of NATO warships through the Straits and allowed them an extended stay in the Black Sea. The Iskanders could be used against the North Atlantic Alliance warships in the region, he asserted (Moskva Tretiy Rim, October 21).

Nonetheless, some Russian and Ukrainian experts believe that the current power balance in the Black Sea tilts in Turkey’s favor. Moscow State University’s Pavel Shlykov wrote that “at the present time, the balance of power is more favorable for Turkey that it was during the Cold War, for example. Turkey has the world’s 17th strongest economy (and it is structurally more diverse than Russia’s), with dynamically developing knowledge-based industries, and the second largest military contingency within NATO (with hi-tech weapons that are primarily developed and produced in Turkey)” (, December 3)

At present, Turkish naval and air force units in the Black Sea are, in fact, numerically and technologically superior to local Russian forces. Turkey’s naval platforms include German-designed frigates and submarines, as well as frigates and corvettes donated by the United States and France (modernized in Turkey) that are more capable and of a newer generation than those deployed to the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BSF), stationed in Sevastopol. Turkey also produces its own corvettes. And as a NATO member, Turkey is able to procure modern US weapons systems. According to State Department–approved May 2014 contract, Turkey “will use the enhanced capability of the MK 48 Mod 6 Advanced Technology torpedoes on the new CERBE Class submarines (214 Type 1200)” (, May 12).

Meanwhile, the Turkish Air Force includes locally produced F-16 fighters and recently procured the first of ten planned modern A400M transport aircraft (Turkish Air Force May 16). Russian Turkey expert Andrey Boldyrev thinks Turkey’s naval firepower is 1.5 times that of the BSF (, March 11). And Ukrainian military expert Admiral (Ret.) Ihor Kabanenko also confirmed Turkey’s regional military superiority over Russia (Author’s interview, November 28). Illustrative of the Russian defense industry lagging behind Turkey’s, the Russian project to build modern diesel-electric Kilo-class submarines was 10 years late (, October 30, 2013). Whereas the six Kilo-class submarines set to join the BSF in 2014–2017 are only incrementally improved (rather than fully modernized) vessels ( , December 8).

Perhaps at least in part because of this ongoing favorable tilt in the regional military balance toward Turkey, Ankara has repeatedly signaled that its foreign policy is far from becoming unquestionably pro-Russian. Notably, the new Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu expressed Turkey’s support for “Georgia’s goal of integration with Euro-Atlantic institutions (, accessed December 12), expressed concern over the situation of the Crimean Tatars “held under pressure by the de facto [Russian] administration,” and stated that “Turkey does not recognize [the] illegal annexation of Crimea and will continue to do so in the future” (, accessed on December 11). But with Russia’s ongoing remilitarization campaign, the security situation in the Black Sea region is fluid. Thus, it remains to be seen whether Ankara will be able to maintain its strategic fine line vis-à-vis Moscow.