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Fletcher Joins Panel Discussion on Russia-Türkiye Relations at Bilkent University in Ankara

By Hannah Campeanu, MALD 2024 Candidate, The Fletcher School

On March 23, 2023, the Fletcher Russia and Eurasia Program co-organized a panel discussion at Bilkent University in Ankara, Türkiye, titled “Russia- Türkiye Relations amid the War in Ukraine.” The event was part of the program’s spring break study trip to Türkiye, and featured speakers from both The Fletcher School and Bilkent University. 

The speakers from Bilkent University included Onur İşçi, Samuel Hirst, and Seçkin Köstem, who are all assistant professors of international relations and leading the Center for Russian Studies at the university. The panelists from The Fletcher School included Chris Miller, Associate Professor of International History and Co-Director of the school’s Russia and Eurasia Program, and Monica Toft, Professor of International Politics and Director of the school’s Center for Strategic Studies.

The panel discussion began with an introduction by Onur İşçi, followed by opening remarks from each speaker. İşçi opened with an assessment of Türkiye’s current political position between Russia and the West, noting similarities to its position in World War II. 

İşçi said, “I find it highly similar to the 1945 international order where Türkiye, after six long years of neutrality, began living with moral allegations of keeping a bizarre neutrality. I see a very similar situation with expectations from either side for Türkiye to step up a little bit more. If you’re looking from the Moscow perspective you’d like Türkiye to be a little more friendly, and from the West you’d like Türkiye to be much more proactively neutral.” 

Toft also compared the current international order to the WWII era. “I don’t think we’ve seen such personalized rule of states since the 1930s,” she said, comparing the authoritarian leaders of that time period to modern leaders like Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, former U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Köstem reviewed some of the major recent events in Türkiye-Russian relations. He said, “The Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015 was a crucial turning point, then Türkiye’s downing of the Russian fighter jet along the Türkiye-Syrian border… Then there was the seven-month long period of heavy Russian economic and financial sanctions on the Turkish economy, and then the Turkish president’s letter of regret/apology which was delivered to Putin in the Tashkent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. A new era began after that, in the summer of 2016.”

Köstem summarized the relationship between Türkiye and Russia as a “managed regional rivalry” rather than a “strategic partnership.” He noted that Türkiye supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and has provided drones to Ukraine, but also declined to join the sanctions against Russia despite criticism from the West. He described Türkiye’s relationship with Russia as following a “typically Turkish” theme, mixing cooperation, conflict, and looking for opportunity. 

Miller discussed how Russia was very invested in the outcome of the Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections on May 14. He stated that domestic and economic concerns would come first for Turkish citizens in the election over issues of foreign policy relating to Russia and the war in Ukraine. “When there are domestic reforms that are proposed, discussion of foreign policy often takes a backseat. It doesn’t go away, but political leaders have less bandwidth to spend on it.”

Hirst discussed the possible combined effects of the war in Ukraine and the Turkish general election on the Russia-Türkiye relationship. He stated, “I think there is a real sense—talking to colleagues in Russia, talking to colleagues who study Russia—a real sense of rupture [with the post-Soviet era]. I’m not sure that Turkey has accounted for that. What we’re seeing right now is a lot of continuity, in the significant expansion of foreign trade and exports to Russia…But as a historian, I think we have to be open to the possibility of significant rupture…after [the general election] there are going to be some really difficult economic questions to address.”

The floor was then opened to the audience for questions. In response to a Bilkent University student’s question about the reasons for a global return to authoritarianism, Toft listed the failures of capitalism and globalism and leaders using them for political gain, as well as changes in technology and increased nationalism.

Responding to concerns about the Turkish general election on the Russia-Türkiye relationship, Onur İşçi expressed confidence in the members of the Turkish Foreign Ministry, stating that mediation takes place through bureaucracy rather than the leadership and will continue regardless.

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