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Unravelling Turkey’s pivot to the East

Turkey sees an opportunity in the East that it cannot get in the West

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

In a few days, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in St Petersburg. The timing is critical and the implications extraordinary, because Turkey may well be shifting to the East out of geopolitical necessity. There are a number of key reasons for this.

Firstly, Turkey is entering a period of self-discovery that is resulting in a recalibration of its relationships with NATO and Russia. This is brought on by a number of factors, such as Kurdish activity in Syria, Iraq and Iran, and by a major restructuring of Turkey’s military.

The country’s core competence in participating in NATO has just been routed by Erdogan. Turkish military officers now without job or rank were considered to be Atlanticists seeking closer ties with the United States, Europe and NATO. Some may argue that Turkey’s military is more Eurasian in outlook, and perhaps just lost its NATO-enhanced edge.

If true, the future of Incirlik air base - where the United States and allies run air operations against extremists in the Levant - is up for question, potentially damaging U.S.-Turkish relations and thereby making Moscow very happy.

Second, Putin can take advantage of Turkey’s waking up to its historical destiny in Eurasia. Russia’s own past with Atlanticists and Eurasianists goes back hundreds of years, so there is a certain irony in today’s Turkish outlook between West and East. Putin’s foreign policy is Eurasian in outlook, and so is constantly driving a policy of integration with the Middle East. We may see Moscow and Ankara merge their views on the Levant and Iran.

Thus, the Turkish-Russian meeting may be telling. Ankara knows that Moscow and Tehran do not see eye to eye on Syria’s future. A Russian scholar told me that his country sees Iran wanting to establish Islamist jurisprudence in Syria. Turkey’s trajectory as an Islamist state modeled on Erdoganism is to challenge Iran’s Khomeinism, so we may see Russian-Turkish alignment on Iranian intentions in the Levant.

Turkey’s relationship with Russia is set to grow after the hostility of the past few months, including Moscow’s accusations of Ankara’s collusion with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and its shoot down of a Russian warplane in Nov. 2015.

According to a senior Russian reporter visiting Washington, “Russia only wants Turkey to close its border to stem the flow of money and fighters,” and “to move on to more important matters.” Meanwhile, “Turkey wants Russia to stop supporting Syrian Kurds who have overlapping ties with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK].” Closure here may be difficult between the two sides.

Economics

However, a more important matter than geopolitics is geo-economics. Russia now sees the perfect opportunity to anchor Turkey more in the Eurasian camp through a reset based on necessary bilateral economic relations.

The two sides are nearing a deal on TurkStream, an alternative to the cancelled South Stream project to bring natural gas to Europe bypassing Ukraine. TurkStream is an alternative to the Brussels-supported Southern Gas corridor to transport gas from Azerbaijan’s Shah Deniz field to European markets by 2020. Moscow recognizes that Turkey still plays a key role in the future of European energy requirements, and is thus seizing the moment to capture future market share.

Meanwhile, Ankara’s on-again-off-again flirtation with China may start anew. Erdogan’s meeting with Putin will be followed very closely by Beijing, which notes that Moscow’s influence in Central Asia helped Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan from following Erdogan’s call to clean out his Turkic enemies.

Nevertheless, Turkey and China are now cooperating more closely than ever before. They recently concluded a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in nuclear technology. This development gives Chinese industry an influential edge in Turkey’s future, which may be played against Moscow’s ambitious civilian nuclear energy program.

Turkey sees an opportunity in the East that it cannot get in the West

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Such moves by Ankara should be seen in light of its ties with Moscow. What Turkey cannot get from Moscow it can get from China. This notion will be tested in St Petersburg.

Ankara and Beijing are also cooperating in counter-terrorism, especially given the Uighur extremist threat from the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) over anti-Chinese grievances. Turkey may use China as a card against Russia if Moscow does not give in to Ankara’s interests. This game is likely to be played out in Central Asia.

Erdogan’s meeting with Putin will illustrate short-term advantages for Moscow. Turkey sees an opportunity in the East that it cannot get in the West, and we should not forget that.

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Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.