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War in the Middle East Is Boosting Russia-Turkey Ties

Shared support for Hamas likely means better diplomatic relations between Moscow and Ankara. But any warming of ties will only be situational.

The latest period of tension between Russia and Turkey appears to have come to an end. It was just a few months ago that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was testing Moscow’s red lines by making friendly overtures toward Ukraine. Now the Russian and Turkish governments have both responded to the war in the Middle East in exactly the same way: by using it as a stick with which to beat Israel and its Western backers.

Finding themselves on the same side of the barricades, Moscow and Ankara will likely seek to shore up their own relationship, aligning their positions on thorny regional issues. That’s not to say, however, that one side will not end up accusing the other of stabbing it in the back.

Erdogan made several decisions this summer that the Kremlin would have seen as hostile. During a July visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Istanbul, the Turkish leader said that Ukraine “deserves” NATO membership. In addition, Erdogan handed over to Kyiv five commanders from Ukraine’s Azov regiment who had been in Turkey under the terms of a Russia-Ukraine prisoner exchange.

At that moment, the Kremlin was preoccupied with the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive and the insurrection by the Wagner mercenary group, and had to content itself with verbal objections duly made by senior officials. Russia’s only serious response was to back out of the Black Sea grain deal despite Turkey’s efforts to negotiate an extension, which included a personal intervention by Erdogan.

While Ankara understood that Moscow was in a vulnerable position, Erdogan was only testing Moscow’s red lines. He was not trying to radically worsen bilateral ties. Erdogan agreed to go to the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on September 4 to meet President Vladimir Putin, even though the original plan had been for Putin to go to Turkey. Despite expectations, the talks did not resurrect the grain deal, or indeed bring any significant results. The main outcome was a signal to the world that Moscow-Ankara relations were in good shape.

Economic data offers vivid proof of the friendship. The trade turnover between Russia and Turkey increased more than 80 percent in 2022 to $62 billion, with Russia becoming Turkey’s biggest source of imports. This year’s figures are expected to be even higher.

Foreign policy has always been a sticking point, however, with persistent disagreements over Syria, Libya, and the disputed South Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Still, Russia and Turkey have managed to avoid open confrontation in recent years. Now, with the flare-up in the Israel-Palestine conflict, they find themselves in the same camp: something that has never been the case on any other major international issue, prompting many to predict that ties between the two countries will warm rapidly.

A Kremlin readout from a telephone call between Erdogan and Putin on October 24 about the Israel-Hamas war stated that Moscow and Ankara have “practically overlapping positions, focused on implementing the well-known two-state solution, which provides for the creation of an independent Palestine coexisting with Israel in peace and security.”

While their stances may be similar, their motivations are very different. When Russia’s representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, says that as an occupying power, Israel has no right to defend itself, he’s attempting to portray Russia as one of the leaders of the so-called Global South. In contrast, Erdogan aspires to lead the Muslim world.

Russia’s open support for Hamas is a relatively recent phenomenon, and a direct consequence of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Specifically, the invasion led to a cooling of ties with Israel and warming relations with Iran, a major Hamas sponsor. Before the October 7 attack on Israel, the sight of Hamas delegations in Moscow could have been interpreted as Russia seeking to mediate between Palestinian factions. Now, however, such contacts are perceived very differently by Israel. Secure in its alliance with Iran, Russia is indifferent.

Erdogan, on the other hand, has long supported Hamas, allowing Hamas fighters to reside in Turkey and giving them Turkish passports. The Turkish president himself emerged from Islamist circles, and backing Hamas is ideologically important for him. In the first days of the current war, Erdogan tried to go back and forth between Israel and Hamas (some reports suggested he even expelled Hamas leaders from Istanbul). But he soon abandoned that tactic and decided to give his full support to the Palestinian “brothers.”

Different roads have brought Moscow and Ankara to the same decision to sacrifice relations with Tel Aviv, which means neither can be a mediator in the current conflict. Turkey’s recent proposal to create a group of guarantors to facilitate a resolution to the fighting looks unrealizable. Even Moscow was unenthusiastic about the idea.

At the same time, neither country’s interactions with Hamas have been particularly effective. Despite liaising with the group’s political leadership, neither Russia nor Turkey has achieved the freeing of any hostages. This contrasts with the more successful efforts of Egypt and Qatar, for example, which are in contact with Hamas’s military wing in Gaza. Nevertheless, their approach allows Russia and Turkey to level repeated criticisms at the West, which is important for their domestic audiences.

By accusing the United States of fueling chaos in the Middle East, Putin is shoring up his narrative that the West is the source of all misfortune in Russia and the wider world. In the same way, Erdogan’s criticism of the West for attempting to start a war between Christianity and Islam appeals to strong anti-NATO feeling in Turkey.

Still, such rhetoric from Erdogan does not mean he wants to destroy his relationship with NATO—far from it. It was no coincidence that just two days before he gave an angry speech in support of Hamas, Erdogan submitted a bill to parliament that would approve Sweden’s membership of the Western military alliance: something Turkey had previously resisted.

The Kremlin is therefore unlikely to be able to recruit Turkey to its anti-West campaign on behalf of the Global South. If Erdogan needs to show loyalty to his NATO partners (as with the Swedish membership vote), he will do so without even a backward glance at Moscow.

Agreement over the Israel-Hamas conflict means diplomatic cooperation between Russia and Turkey—for example, over the South Caucasus and Syria—will grow. But any warming of ties will be situational, and absolutely no guarantee against future disputes.

Source:  carnegieendowment