Westminster Debate ‘Turkey-Russia Relations’


11 January 2017

House of Lords

This Centre for Turkey Studies Westminster Debate was hosted and chaired by Lord Balfe. Our keynote speakers were Dr Natasha Kuhrt of the Deparment of War Studies King’s College, Ezgi Basaran, journalist and columnist, and visitor at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University and Professor William Hale of SOAS.

Ms Ezgi Basaran began by stating that with the relationship between Russia and Turkey we first have to check if there is a coherent Turkish foreign policy. She concluded that there is not one. She argued that this is more of a reactionary step as the country goes along and that Turkey has been a victim of a rapidly changing policy structure.

Adding greater context, she argued that since the collapse of communism, trading, nuclear power and energy have been fundamental in the relation between the two countries. She stated however, that under President Erdogan, a closer relationship emerged. She argued that one of the reasons for this is the common regime both leaders practice: authoritarian rule and pragmatism in their ways of doing business. She continued, stating that the way Erdogan accumulates his powers is through portraying himself as the underdog and the victim, and by using anti-Western rhetoric. This she argued, plays into the hands of Russia since Erdogan’s unique personality and the never-ending instability with the EU would only benefit Russia.

She also commented that this partnership is strengthened in that Moscow and Ankara both oppose the Gulen Movement and agree that the shooting of the Russian ambassador was affiliated with it. She concluded that this common enmity brings them closer.

On the broader theme of Russo-Turkish rapprochement, she stated that there are increasingly common interests between the two leaders, but was sceptical as to how long this honeymoon period will last. She added that it may not last long because economically, socially and militarily, Turkey cannot be isolated from Europe, and although the Turkish government is using this foreign policy for  domestic popularity, Turkey’s orientation will always face west. She also commented on Russia’s having been historically supportive of the Kurds and that this relationship could cast a deal of uncertainty over Turkey-Russia relations. Thus, the Syrian war has arguably become the main rift between the two pragmatic leaders.

Dr Natasha Kuhrt began by discussing Russia’s general foreign policy outlook and then how this impacts its approach to Syria. She stated that Russia is fundamentally against regime change, especially after having witnessed “Colour Revolutions” in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia in the early 2000s and more recent changes in Ukraine. She continued arguing that opposition in Russia to the Arab Spring comes from concern about these revolutions causing instability in its backyard.

She also explained that because of this perspective Russia sees Syria’s Assad regime as a stable secular dictatorship and therefore, a bulwark against radical Islam which it views as a domestic threat that could spread within Russia and Central Asia if not stopped in the Middle East. She saw this as especially important for Russia given that Chechen jihadists have been travelling to fight in Syria.

She added that the ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey was unnerving to the Assad regime as Russia has been willing to work with rebel groups to end the conflict, but concluded that Russia’s aim is not to consolidate relations with Assad but simply to strengthen the Syrian army and itself in the region.

She then stated that Russia’s co-operation with Turkey after relations were restored after the November 2015 jet incident is a means of guaranteeing that regime change does not occur.

She also mentioned that President Putin had also made it clear that the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara would not upset the bilateral relations.

On energy, trade and joint Russian-Turkish gas pipeline co-operation, she argued that the energy factor is becoming more important as relations between the EU and Turkey are deteriorating. She also mentioned that both countries need one another on gas energy, Russia for sales and Turkey for imports, especially given that China is trying to break its dependence on Russian gas by branching out and buying from other Central Asian countries.

Dr Kuhrt agreed with Ezgi Basaran however, that the Turkey-Russia relationship still seems somewhat unstable and that there are a lot of zig-zagging between the two countries.

Professor William Hale agreed that the natural gas relationship between Turkey and Russia is a strong factor as it would be difficult for Turkey to replace it. He noted that more than half of Turkey’s natural gas comes from Russia and that the two states need one another having a seller-customer relationship. He added however that the Trans-Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) project with Azerbaijan would also assist Turkey in breaking some of that dependency on Russia.

Professor Hale suggested that, economically, the relations between the two countries will remain strong. Adding to this, after Turkey suffered from Russia’s banning of goods at the end of 2015, he argued that Erdogan is more determined than even to keep ties closer and warmer.

Touching on the Syrian war, Professor Hale also talked about the need for both Russia and Turkey to move on from Syria and it is the constant failure of western policy towards the conflict that has adjusted Turkey’s relationship with Syria.

On Syria, he added that both Turkey and Russia deserve great credit for having made advances on the ceasefire which the US and other powers have failed to do for years. His main questions on this issue were, can the ceasefire hold? If it does, can any progress be made in Astana? – as the rebel groups will not accept Assad as future ruler. What happens when Raqqa is recaptured? (Who does the territory go to?) and finally what will Trump’s policy be vis-a-vis Kurdish movements including the PYD/YPG and the PKK.

The speeches were followed by a lively Q&A.

Speaker Biographies

Dr Natasha Kuhrt is a lecturer in the Deparment of War Studies King’s College and was the co-director of the MA International Peace and Security Programme for 2013-14. From 2002 to 2009 she lectured on M.A. International Peace and Security Programme at King’s in the School of Law before joining the Dept of War Studies. In 2009 she established the British International Studies Association Working Group on Russian and Eurasian Security and is co-convenor with Valentina Feklyunina of the Working Group. At King’s College she co-convenes the Departmental Research Group on Russian and Eurasian Security which holds regular seminars in term time. After gaining a BA first class honours in Russian and German Language and Literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, followed by an MA in Soviet Studies (London), she spent several years in publishing, before completing a PhD at UCL in 2000 – “Russian Policy towards China and Japan 1991-1997.” Together with her research students she has set up a Facebook page on Russian and Eurasian Security and Foreign Policies which now has at least 140 members, as well as a Twitter account (@RussEurasia).

Ezgi Basaran is a prominent journalist and a columnist in Turkey. She began her career working for the news channel, NTV, while studying at Marmara University’s Journalism Department. After graduating, she became a junior reporter in 2004 for Hürriyet, a daily of the Doğan Group and Turkey’s most widely read newspaper. In her first year, she covered the Beslan Massacre and she went on during her time at the newspaper to report from Iran, Pakistan, and Northern Iraq, and interviewed many prominent figures. In 2010, she left Hürriyet for Radikal daily, Turkey’s most prestigious liberal-left daily. She began writing a column first for two days, then five days a week. She focused on such topics as the Kurdish issue, women’s rights, the Armenian genocide, the marginalisation of non-believers and anti-Semitism in Turkey. She was appointed managing editor of the paper’s news website Radikal.com.tr in 2011. When Radikal transformed into a digital-only newspaper in 2013, she became the youngest editor-in-chief in Turkey, and only the second woman ever to hold this position. When she took over in 2011, the news site had 180,000 unique visitors daily. In two years, this figure reached one million. In May 2015 Radikal had a record 41 million visitors. She is now the coordinator of the Contemporary Turkey Program at SEESOX, visitor at St. Antony’s College, Oxford University where she explores the bridge between journalism and academia. She is about to publish a new book, with the UK publishing house I.B. Tauris, on Turkey’s Kurdish issue, titled “Frontline Turkey: The Crisis at the Heart of the Middle East.”

Professor William Hale is an expert on Turkish affairs. His main interests are the modern politics and international relations of Turkey. His recent publications include Turkey, the United States and Iraq (Saqi Books, for London Middle East Institute, 2006), Islamism, Democracy and Liberalism in Turkey, The Case of the AKP (co-authored with Ergun Özbudun, Routledge, 2011) and Turkish Foreign Policy since 1774 (Routledge, 2012).

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