Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2020. Photo via Kremlin.ru.

What motivates Ankara to establish increasingly close relations with Russia? From the German Marshall Fund. 

While closer relations bring several benefits with little cost to Russia, it is difficult to say the same for Turkey, particularly when it comes to the cost of these relations. One could make a long list of benefits that Russia gains from engagement or cooperation. Meanwhile Turkey has accrued some benefits, for example by disrupting the plans of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party in northwestern Syria, but this has come at a high price. Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 missile systems from Russia has led to its removal from the United States’ F-35 program and sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. In broader terms, its closer relations with Russia have generated heated discussions in the West regarding Turkey’s place.

What motivates Turkey to establish increasingly close relations with Russia is an important question—one with several answers that are not mutually exclusive. Explanations include the rising tide of authoritarianism at home, which strains relations with the West, Turkey’s adjustment to a regional and international environment in which the United States has downsized its geopolitical footprint, the growing geopolitical decoupling and discontent between the United States and Turkey, and the personal agency of Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin in keeping relations close and on track. There is also the argument that the strengthening of relations is best explained by ideology—in this case Eurasianism. The rationales for the first four explanations are relatively straightforward. However, the idea that Turkish Eurasianism serves as the ideological glue in this relationship is nebulous at best. 

Turkish Eurasianism and its Different Manifestations

The tendency to account for improving ties between Turkey and Russia through the lens of Eurasianism begets two interrelated questions: What does Turkish Eurasianism denote? And what does it mean for Turkish foreign policy? Though the discussion has always been around in one form or another during the republican era, Turkish Eurasianism has meant different things over time. Further complicating matters is the distinction between geopolitical and ideological Eurasianism. Different combinations of two criteria have led to three different manifestations of Turkish Eurasianism since the end of the Cold War. The first is whether a Eurasianist vision includes or excludes Russia. The second is whether Eurasianism is projected to be in cooperation or competition with the West.

The first manifestation of Turkish Eurasianism in the early 1990s was anti-Russian and pro-Western. The second, which can be associated with former Foreign Minister Ismail Cem (1997–2002), represented Turkey’s search for a role in the post-Cold War geopolitical reality. The third and current manifestation also has its roots in the early 2000s and carries strong elements of anti-Western ideological posturing. Whereas the first two manifestations of Eurasianism can be regarded as geopolitical, the third can be denoted as ideological. 

Geopolitical Eurasianism

With the demise of the Soviet Union, Turkey saw the emergence of a potential area of influence for itself in Central Asia. Supported by the West, its Eurasianism in this period meant Turkey could play a leading role in the affairs of the newly independent Central Asian and Caucasus states. Hence it was also premised on a competitive agenda with Russia. However, despite its early eagerness to take advantage of this epochal development, Turkey failed to cultivate a leading role in Central Asia.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Eurasianism was discussed largely in relation to the foreign policy vision of the social-democratic Cem, during whose term Turkish-Russian relations improved significantly. He believed the end of the Cold War had given birth to an emerging Eurasian order in which Turkey would play a central role. However, Cem set Turkey’s Eurasian vision neither as an alternative to the West nor against Russia. Rather, he believed that the artificial divides between Western Europe and Asia would end, and that global, technological, and economic processes would facilitate the integration of these two regions. Thus, in his view, the Eurasian order was neither anti-West nor anti-Russia. Moreover, Cem believed that Turkey’s Eurasian policy, despite not being driven by an anti-Russia agenda, was in conformity with Western interests.

Ideological Eurasianism

Unlike the more geopolitically informed early forms of its Eurasianism in the post-Cold War era, Turkey’s recent turn to Eurasia, driven partially by its deepening discontent with the West, seeks to build closer relations with Russia and China. This latest form, present earlier among some military officers and marginal political groups in the early 2000s, carries a strong suspicion of the West as the constitutive ingredient of its political identity. Thus, the current Eurasianism is essentially an ideological disposition rather than a coherent geopolitical vision. Its most recent manifestation can be seen through the imprecise, nebulous, and unofficial Blue Homeland geopolitical concept.

The Blue Homeland concept effectively means three things. First, it represents an expanded vision and understanding of Turkey’s maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean. Second, it is the navy’s call to reimagine and reposition the country as a maritime power. Third, the ideological concept—as exemplified by the narrative of its creators who believe that Turkish geopolitical interests are better served through realignment with Russia and China—signifies a reimagining of the country’s place in the world. 

The government and the Eurasianist-neonationalist supporters of the Blue Homeland concept agree on the first two elements. On the third, they are not on the same page. In contrast to the Eurasianist-neonationalist group’s aspiration to reorient Turkey toward Russia and China, the government appears to be conscious of the limitations of Turkish-Russian relations. Again, even though this concept comes across as a geopolitical doctrine, it is essentially informed by ideological motivations at the core of which lies the discontent of its architects with the West.

In contrast, for Russia the role of ideology in its foreign policy has been minimal if not nonexistent, putting aside its suspicion and grievances toward the West. The fact that Russia can speak to almost all poles and actors in the Middle East is a testament to this. For it, Eurasianism appears to represent a geopolitical and regional-integration vision (for instance, with the Eurasian Economic Union), which partially fills the void created by the disappearance of ideology in its foreign policy after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Thus, not only has Eurasianism acquired different meanings in Turkey in different periods, it also currently denotes different things for Turkey and Russia. As such, it does not provide a strong analytical framework for their relations, particularly within the context of the Middle East. 

The currently prevailing ideological mode of Eurasianism in Turkey capitalizes on the growing anti-Western, particularly anti-U.S. sentiments at the governmental and societal levels in order to reach a wider audience. But it is important to bear in mind that anti-Westernism does not automatically translate into a Eurasianist geopolitical disposition in Turkey. Most of the time, anti-Westernism gives birth to the quest for a more independence or non-aligned status in international affairs. However, the ideological Eurasianists benefit from the anti-Western climate in advancing their cause.

The Idea of a Turkic World

Azerbaijan’s victory in the recent Second Nagorno-Karabakh War (arguably largely thanks to direct Turkish support) might embolden Ankara to seek a larger role for itself in the Caucasus and Central Asia. If realized, Turkey’s quest for a role in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal might also lead to a desire to play a larger role in the region. Ankara is therefore likely to seek ways to form even closer relations with Turkic peoples there, which may revitalize the idea of a Turkic (or Turkish) world as one of the intellectual, ideological, and political drivers of its foreign policy. 

This would bring the competitive, if not adversarial, nature of Turkish-Russian relations to the fore. In the end, a vast part of the Turkic world is also part of the post-Soviet space, an area that Russia regards as its geopolitical sphere and is fiercely hostile about any perceived encroachment on it. In other words, the search for a role in this region is likely to rekindle the geopolitical Eurasianism in Turkish foreign policy, which bodes ill for ideological Eurasianism and relations with Russia. Thus, Turkey’s turn to Eurasia, if implemented in earnest geopolitically, would put it on a collision course with Russia, the reverberation of which will be felt in different regions and contexts.

Yusuf Akcura, a Russia-born ideologue of Turkish nationalism, envisioned this scenario more than a century ago. In his famous 1904 essay, “Three Types of Policy: Ottomanism, (pan)Islamism and (pan)Turkism,” he reflected upon the three main political, ideological, and intellectual currents shaping the political and ideational imagination of elites during the late Ottoman period about which path to follow in order to save the crumbling empire. 

Akcura argued that the Ottoman elite should focus on Turkish nationalism and pan-Turkism in order to reverse the fortune of the empire. When contemplating the feasibility of such a Turkic-world policy within the confines of an imperial world order, he argued that Russia would be the major obstacle and opponent, while the West would probably support this policy on the ground that it would weaken the Russian empire, which presided over a vast Turkic population. What was true back then is still true today. If geopolitical Eurasianism and the idea of Turkic world rise in Ankara’s foreign policy, the first victim will inevitably be the ideological Eurasianism that tries to bring Turkey closer to Russia and China in an anti-Western fashion.

Galip Dalay is an associate research fellow at the French Institute of International Relation’s Turkey and Middle East Program. He works as a research director at Al Sharq Forum and non-resident fellow at Brookings Institution, Doha Centre. He is a regular contributor to German Marshall Fund’s “On Turkey” policy brief series.

This article originally appeared on the website of the German Marshall Fund. Reprinted with permission.