As expected, the “summit” between the Russian and American presidents last week produced little more than speculation and innuendo. Some small, arguably symbolic, progress was made on minor issues but the major points of contention remain unresolved. The question, however, is: Are we making too much of Russia’s role in world affairs? And if there is going be a new Cold War, will it involve Russia or its new – and more powerful “best” friend, China?
Adnan R. Khan: How would you characterize the China-Russia relationship?
Ilter Turan: I would call it a marriage of convenience. Let’s not forget that China’s strategy to expand its sphere of influence is to construct multiple overland trade routes into the West. This plan runs into a big, fat chunk of property called Russia. So, China needs Russia if it is going to fully succeed in its Belt and Road Initiative. We are already seeing that some Russian land East of the Urals is taking on Chinese investments. It is said that there are now some areas in this region where both owners and a majority of farm hands are Chinese.
Russia, of course, has a lot of military know-how to offer China but the Chinese have started moving ahead of Russia in space exploration. There is still some room for cooperation between them both in weapons production and in the exploration of space. But overall, especially in terms of being capable of running a major market economy and affecting how the global economy operates, China is in a much stronger position than Russia which looks more like a developing nation that relies on selling raw materials to the developed world. In the long run, China will likely become by far the superior economic power and it will increasingly expect Russia to assume a secondary role in their relationship. It’s an open question as to whether Russia would be willing to accept that role.
Adnan R. Khan: Given those challenges, is the relationship sustainable?
Ilter Turan: It depends on what we mean by sustainable. I think the relationship will be sustained in the sense that the two nations will probably not go to war. But will this relationship be one in which their strategic interests will be closely integrated? I think that is unlikely. The two sides will keep their guard in developing their relationship in more comprehensive ways, although I would imagine that increasingly Chinese products will come to dominate the Russian market.
Adnan R. Khan: Given Russia’s weakness, should the U.S. be as worried about it as it seems to be?
Ilter Turan: I would imagine so. There is sufficient evidence that Russia has not accepted the shifts in power and political allegiances that emerged after the Cold War. Russia still wants to expand its influence into the Baltic Sea and sees the Baltic states as an impediment; it would still like Ukraine to be a client state rather than one that is more closely integrated with the West; it is trying to become the prevailing strategic actor in the Eastern Mediterranean; and it is employing technologies, including cyber technologies and hardline cloak and dagger tactics, to undermine Western security.
Adnan R. Khan: Looking at this China-Russia nexus, what does Russia give China that would make it more of a challenge for the West?
Ilter Turan: As I mentioned earlier, there is the military hardware and technology Russia possesses. Currently, Russia is much more advanced in nuclear weapons and delivery systems as well as in constructing military aircraft than China. It is also more capable of building naval ships, though China is catching up in many of these domains. I can certainly imagine a future state of affairs, not in the too distant future either, where the Chinese will become less and less dependent on Russian military technology and may, in the end, become a provider of military technology to Russia.
Adnan R. Khan: Given that Turkey has used Cold War rivalries in the past for its own benefit, if Russia becomes less relevant in world affairs over time, what does that mean for Turkey?
Ilter Turan: I think when we talk about Russia being less relevant, it’s not that it will become completely irrelevant. Some of the beneficial economic interactions in the Turkish-Russian relationship are likely to continue. However, if Russia’s importance as a military actor declines, this would essentially open space for Turkey to wield greater influence in the Caucasus as well as the Middle East and Central Asia. From that perspective, Turkey would stand to benefit.
But as you suggest, Turkey has also looked upon Russia as a resource it can mobilize to balance off other pressures on it. From that perspective, of course, the weakening of Russia as an international actor means that, for Turkey, the weight of this resource will diminish.
Adnan R. Khan: Can China play that role for Turkey?
Ilter Turan: We’ll have to see what sort of role China will eventually play. But already Turkey has rather friendly relations with China and it has a set of expectations for what this relationship will bring as rewards. I think that those expectations are unlikely to change anytime soon. Will China become more important to Turkey than Russia? Possibly, but we will have to wait and see.