Volume III, Number 4

Eurasia Analyst

A publication of independent researchers     @EurasiaAnalyst

December 17, 2014

Putin’s Pitch to Turkey

By Susan J. Cavan

Russian President Vladimir Putin recently visited Ankara for talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and to convene the fifth meeting of the High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council, which focused on economics, trade, and the energy sector. The most notable results of the visit certainly centered on energy as Putin announced the cancellation of the South Stream project, with a compensatory increase in projections for capacity and deliveries to Turkey through the Blue Stream pipeline.

While Putin portrayed the end of South Stream as a penalty inflicted upon European states, (1) other analyst were more forthcoming over both the reasons for the cancellation and its effect. Igor Bunin, director of Russia’s Center for Political Technologies noted: “That’s a defeat that they are trying to mask as a victory. … The South Stream project was dying despite many attempts Russia made, despite the money it spent to keep the project alive. Sanctions and the general mood in Europe made this project impossible.” (2)

Turkey reaped the benefit of the end of South Stream both with the increased capacity for Blue Stream, as well as a six percent energy discount offered to Turkish citizens. Putin also suggested that Turkey’s ambition to serve as an energy hub might be a realistic possibility, “if it is deemed expedient, we can build an additional gas hub for the South European consumers on Turkish territory, near the border with Greece.” (3) Of course, that subordinate clause holds a compelling caveat.

Russia’s assistance to build up Turkey’s nuclear sector also figured in the presidents’ meeting. In general, however, the talks between Erdogan and Putin seemed unremarkable. Clearly, they discussed the situation in Syria and the risks posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but equally clearly, their fundamental disagreement over the status of Bashar al-Assad would not permit any significant movement on this topic. There was no mention of the two discussing the presence of non-littoral navies in the Black Sea, or any change in the implementation of Montreux Convention restrictions, which previously had been a source of friction.

Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea earlier this year, concern about control of the Black Sea region focused attention on the area. As Russian actions in Ukraine raised alarms, the U.S. and NATO increased their naval presence in the Black Sea and may have requested an easing of Montreux Convention restrictions. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov soon complained that Turkey was not enforcing strict adherence to the Montreux Conventions (specifically, the provision of a 21 day limit for non-Black Sea littoral warships to remain in the Black Sea). Turkey responded by affirming that implementation of Monteux was meticulous, but it seemed clear that Turkey was under pressure both from NATO and Russia, after Russia’s annexation of Crimea:   “Some NATO countries have noted that Russia’s seizure of the Ukrainian fleet ended Turkey’s status of having the largest fleet in the Black Sea and that there is a need for new balance in the region. That’s why they have asked Turkey to ease the implementation of some of provisions of the Montreux Convention.” (4)

The Black Sea continues to serve as flashpoint in the dispute over Russia’s actions in Ukraine. In July, NATO and Russia each held naval exercises at the same time in the Black Sea. The Editor-in-Chief of Russia’s National Defense Magazine, Igor Korotchenko, described NATO’s presence in the Black Sea as a “direct threat” and a challenge to Russia’s security and its control over Crimea. (5) Yet, the cycle of challenge and competition continues unabated. As NATO’s General Secretary noted earlier this month, “we have seen a substantial increase in Russian air activity around NATO borders, NATO airspace during the last year. And especially in the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, and it’s only… not only a question of increased numbers and increased number of flights. But it is also the way they are conducting the flights. … [t]hey are not filing the flight plans. And they’re not communicating with civilian air traffic control. And they are not turning on the transponders. And that poses a risk to civilian air traffic.” (6)

In the Black Sea, as in the Baltic and across NATO airspace, Russia has been pushing, testing, probing, and gathering intelligence.   The Chief of NATO’s Maritime Mission, Royal Navy Vice Admiral Peter Hudson noted, “We’ve seen the instances in the Black Sea flying aircraft at NATO ships; their surface ships have [been] interfering with NATO operations in the Baltic Sea, shadowing and intelligence collection. … In the Baltic and the Black Sea, we see a couple of Russian small warships fouling gunnery ranges … These sorts of things are irritating, mischievous. … And this is the renewed Russian way of asserting its authority.” (7)

Against this backdrop of tension and aggression, President Putin’s visit to Turkey drew speculation on relations between the two presidents. Natalie Nougayrede, writing in The Guardian points out the similarities in leadership styles between Putin and Erdogan: “They concentrate power, repress opposition, restrict media freedom, control the internet, and have cowed the judiciary. Both play religious cards. …Restoring national pride is central. Their historical narrative is about victimisation by the west.” (8) Writing for RFE/RL’s Russia report, Daisy Sindelar highlights their domestic power politics: Erdogan and Putin have both tinkered with their country’s constitutions to extend their political life spans by shifting between presidential and prime ministerial posts, and adjusting the balance of powers accordingly.” (9)

Putin’s and Erdogan’s domestic political tactics do bear strong resemblance to each other and may provide a bond of common understanding that merits consideration, particularly if either Russia or Turkey becomes engulfed in domestic crises (not entirely far-fetched scenarios for either government). Nonetheless, at issue for Putin, Erdogan, NATO, the E.U., and others is the possibility of any synchronicity between Russia and Turkey on international affairs. Has Erdogan, for example, succumbed to Putin’s call for the creation of a new center (or pole) of power, security, and trade? (10) It seems clear that Putin made the trip and the major pipeline announcement (and even dangled the possibility of Turkey becoming an energy hub), because he considered Erdogan flexible enough to respond to his criticism of the west.

It was, nonetheless, apparent from this most recent visit that Russia and Turkey continue to have serious differences over issues in foreign policy. President Erdogan openly disagreed with Putin at the Cooperation Council meeting when the topic turned to Syria and Bashar al-Assad. Interestingly, each leader stressed the importance of elections in the region, with Putin pointing out that Assad was the “people’s choice” as elected leader of Syria, and Erdogan noting that “coup-makers win elections,” when polls are not fairly conducted. (11) It is also interesting to note that protestors representing the Crimean Tatars were permitted to demonstrate during Putin’s visit. As for that gas price discount Putin offered, Turkish officials have suggested that it was only an opening bid – the real discount might yet be deeper. This may, of course, suggest an assessment of Russia’s current circumstances by the Turkish government, which found that Putin might well be willing to attach greater value to the relationship with Turkey.

Turkey is a NATO member and still harbors hopes of finally joining the European Union – these are impressive impediments to greater cooperation with Putin’s Russia. It is also true that despite policy, alliances, and aspirations, which drive Turkey towards Europe, domestic politics, including religious rights, media and free speech issues, as well as unrest and terrorist threats along Turkey’s borders, make the situation in Turkey extremely precarious and fluid. President Erdogan’s Turkey may well flirt with Putin’s Russia; in any event, it is bound to be a test of U.S. diplomacy, and a place in time where it is necessary to find the right mix of respect, appreciation, guidance, and when necessary, criticism.

By Susan J. Cavan    (sjcavan@bu.edu)



1) At the press conference (December 1, 2014) following his meeting with Erdogan, Putin cast blame for the South Stream cancelation on Europe and relayed his sense that Bulgaria had been pressured to refuse Russia permission for construction: “If Bulgaria is deprived of the opportunity to act as a sovereign nation, then they should at least demand money from the European Commission to compensate for their lost profits, because direct revenues to Bulgaria’s budget alone would have been no less than 400 million euro a year.” As reported on the Kremlin website, via http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/23322.

2) “Putin Scraps South Stream Gas Pipeline After EU Pressure,” By Stephen Bierman, Ilya Arkhipov and Elena Mazneva, Bloomberg News Dec 2, 2014 5:00 AM ET, via http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-12-01/putin-halts-south-stream-gas-pipeline-after-pressure-from-eu.html.

3) President Vladimir Putin, News Conference following State Visit to Turkey, 1 December 2014, via http://eng.kremlin.ru/news/23322.

4) Turkey under NATO and Russia pressure over Black Sea by Serkan Demirtas, 5 April 2014, Hurriyet daily, via http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/turkey-under-nato-and-russia-pressure-over-black-sea.aspx?pageID=449&nID=64579&NewsCatID=429

5) NATO holds reduced Black Sea naval exercises without Ukraine,  4 July 2014 08:02, RT.com, via http://rt.com/news/170380-sea-breeze-2014-bulgaria/.

6) Joint press point with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the Prime Minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, 15 December 2014, via (http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_116040.htm?selectedLocale=en)

7) The new cold war: Putin’s forces target U.S. Navy and allies by David Larter, 3:03 p.m. EST 2 December 2014, Navy Times, via http://www.navytimes.com/story/military/2014/12/02/russians-bully-europe-putin-navy-nato-breedlove-hudson/70121746/.

8) The two angry men on Europe’s borders: loud, proud, and impossible to ignore by Natalie Nougayrède, 29 October 2014, The Guardian, via http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/29/europe-two-angry-men-west-vladimir-putin-recep-tayyib-erdogan-russia-turkey.

9) Five Things That Vladimir Putin And Recep Tayyip Erdogan Have In Common by Daisy Sindelar, 1 December 2014, RFE/RL, via http://www.rferl.org/content/russia-turkey-erdogan-putin-five-things-in-common/26718978.html.

10) As a refresher, Putin outlined his vision for a new system of security and trade at the Asia Summit: “The region needs a new security architecture that guarantees equal interaction and a genuine balance of power and harmony of interests.  It is our firm conviction that this can only be based on the concept of indivisible security. A future system of genuine and equal security in Asia should be based on a balance of bilateral mechanisms and multilateral diplomacy that excludes any closed or restricted systems and blocs. Only by taking this approach can we avoid the emergence of new political and ideological dividing lines in the region.” Russian President Vladimir Putin address to Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia summit, May 21, 2014, 09:30 Shanghai, via http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/news/7208.

11) Putin declares gas discount for Turkey, scraps South Stream, 1 December 2014, Hurriyet Daily News, via http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/putin-declares-gas-discount-for-turkey-scraps-south-stream.aspx?pageID=238&nID=75084&NewsCatID=359.


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