Leader-oriented relations between Russia and Turkey in times of pandemic


At the end of April, Minister Fahrettin Koca announced that the Ministry of Health had granted an emergency use authorization in Turkey to the Russian vaccine COVID-19 (Anadolu Agency, April 30). Sputnik V became the third vaccine to receive such approval, after Chinese Sinovac and the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, developed in the United States. In addition, the Turkish company Viscoran Medicine will produce the Sputnik V vaccine in Turkey, based on an agreement with the Russian Direct Investment Fund.

The emergency clearance was granted amid persistent criticism of the Turkish government for the slow pace of vaccination in Turkey. Previously, Koca announced that the Ministry of Health planned to vaccinate 60% of Turks by the end of May (Anadolu Agency, February 10). However, as of May 9, only 25 million people had been vaccinated out of a total population of 83 million (Dunya, May 9). Koca hinted that Sinovac’s supply of fire had slowed following Turkish opposition statements about China’s human rights violations against Turkish Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Officials at the Chinese embassy in Ankara said the reason for the slowdown in supply was not political (Haberturk, May 9). But either way, Turkey has missed the opportunity to step up vaccinations during its costly 17-day lockdown and travel ban.

The supply of Sputnik V was one of the main topics covered in recent phone calls between President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄŸan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin (Kremlin.ru, May 12). In addition to granting a production license to a Turkish company, Russia will also ship 50 million doses to Turkey in six months. The Ankara government hopes that the fruits of this Russian-Turkish cooperation in the medical field will play well politically with its electorate. It will also benefit Russia, which has access to one of the region’s largest markets with a well-developed healthcare system. Although a handful of Western countries, including Hungary and Slovakia, have also decided to buy Sputnik V, most European Union member states are awaiting approval from the European Medicines Agency before considering to buy the Russian vaccine. Turkey’s willingness to use Sputnik V therefore represents a major propaganda coup for Moscow.

In the case of Turkey, the value of Sputnik V as an instrument of soft power for Russia extends to the field of technological cooperation and transfer of know-how – an area that the two countries have already strongly pursued. as regards, in particular, the development of weapons and nuclear energy. . Russia was chosen to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and supplied it with the advanced medium to long range S-400 air defense system. Likewise, during the Cold War period, Moscow helped Turkey develop the latter’s heavy industrial base.

Of course, it should be pointed out that the Akkuyu nuclear power plant and Turkey’s acquisition of S-400 have raised enormous controversy at the national (Turkey) and international levels. In particular, the acquisition of the S-400 missile defense system created a serious rift between Turkey and the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and triggered US sanctions. It remains to be seen whether the recent Sputnik V deal will also add to tensions between Turkey and the Euro-Atlantic community.

However, the deepening of cooperation with Russia over the past decade represents an axial shift in Turkish foreign policy away from the West. This gradual reorientation gained particular momentum after the failure Rebellion attempt against ErdoÄŸan in July 2016. Like Putin, the Turkish president also prefers a direct dialogue with his counterparts in matters of foreign policy. It is therefore no coincidence that following the downing of a Russian military plane by a Turkish F-16 in November 2015, the two leaders repeatedly tended to engage in head-to-head talks. one-on-one to sort out bilateral issues instead of sending messages first. to each other through the media. At his year-end 2020 annual press conference, Putin said, “We have different, sometimes opposing views on some issues with President ErdoÄŸan. But he keeps his word like a real man. He does not wag his tail. If he thinks something is good for his country, he goes. It’s a matter of predictability. It is important to know who you are dealing with ”(Kremlin.ru, December 17, 2020).

Yet the two countries have conflicting positions in Syria, Libya, Ukraine and the Caucasus. However, they manage to find ways to keep the channels of dialogue open. Such an approach helps Russia and Turkey avoid a possible direct confrontation while projecting their might abroad. In addition, the two countries are using this dialogue to balance American activities in their neighborhoods. According to Russian analyst Maxim Suchkov, “on most sensitive issues in Ankara, Moscow seeks to convey the kind of empathy Erdogan does not encounter with either the United States or Europe.” But above all, the Kremlin is also looking beyond new opportunities to deepen the relationship (Al-Monitor, April 9, 2019). In this regard, a vivid example is the so-called Astana process to resolve the Syrian conflict. Turkey and Russia have competing interests in Syria, but they have managed to agree on an approach that serves the interests of both sides while limiting the room for maneuver of the United States.

Harmonizing their policies in the Middle East is relatively easier for Turkey and Russia. But given Russia’s dominant strategy abroad, developing a common language with Moscow is more complicated for Ankara in Eurasia. During the Second Karabakh War (September 27-November 9, 2020), both sides apparently managed to come to terms in the South Caucasus. Here, Turkey’s efforts to act cautiously during the war, not to confront Russia directly, are worth noting (Valdaiclub.com, December 10, 2020). Russian analyst Pavel Baev claims that Ankara started dialogue with Moscow just after the outbreak of the first Armenian-Azerbaijani skirmishes in Karabakh (Ifri.org, May 2021). Nevertheless, the limits of Russian-Turkish relations have not yet been tested in the Black Sea.

Recently, military-technical cooperation has developed between Turkey and Ukraine. Based on recent agreements, Turkey sells its Bayraktar TB2 Advanced Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) combat drones to the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU); and the two countries agreed to jointly build corvettes (Anadolu Agency, April 4). Such cooperation contributes to the modernization of AFU, with potential implications for the balance of power in the Black Sea. Considering that these Turkish drones have played a critical role in the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Karabakh, Russia is closely following Turkish-Ukrainian relations in this area. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov recently said that Moscow would reconsider its military and technical cooperation with Ankara if Turkey delivers drones to Ukraine (TASS, April 21th). The personal relationship between ErdoÄŸan and Putin will therefore be crucial to watch because Russian-Turkish relations have not yet been thoroughly tested by a delicate case like Ukraine.


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