Russia faces escalating crises that may look manageable individually, but in the aggregate, represent an existential threat to the future of Vladimir Putin’s regime. At the same time, Russia’s woes could offer Turkey some opportunities. But is the AK Party in a position to take advantage?
Adnan R, Khan: Could you briefly explain the challenges Putin’s regime faces?
Ilter Turan: Let us begin on the domestic front. Russia’s economy is in shambles. It has not been able to sell as much oil and gas as it used to, and it’s not getting the price it once did. On top of that, the highly authoritarian government of Putin is facing a number of opposition activities that are proving to be problematic. For example, in the city of Khabarovsk, protests over the removal of the governor are now running into the 13th or 14th week. There are similar movements elsewhere. And, of course, there is the issue of the poisoning of Alexei Navalny.
On the international front, we must first look at what’s happening in Belarus, where a rigged election result has been rejected by the people and the government has not yet found a way to quell protests. In the Caucuses, there is a fight between Armenia and Azerbaijan in an area the Russians consider their own backyard. In this instance, the Russians are finding it difficult take sides because they would then be placed in direct opposition to Turkey in the region. Then you look at Kyrgyzstan – which, again, the Russian government tends to think of as within its sphere of influence – where demonstrations are continuing after elections were quickly annulled by the electoral commission. In addition, you now also have Germany, which is under pressure to impose sanctions on Putin’s regime over the Navalny affair, as well as Russia’s behavior in Belarus. Added to that is a trial that just opened up in Berlin in which a Russian citizen is accused of murdering a Chechen opposition leader. On the other side of the Atlantic, Russia is again a topic of discussion in the American election. People accuse it of electoral meddling and in the event that Joe Biden wins, which seems a strong possibility, it is likely that American-Russian relations will take a turn for the worse. When you put all these things together, life has become difficult for Vladimir Putin both domestically and in terms of Russian foreign policy.
Adnan R. Khan: How do you explain how Russia found itself in this position?
Ilter Turan: Russia’s desire to be a superpower strongly influences its behavior. But it simply does not have the means to be in that position. Instead, what we have is an economically weak nation that tries to act, judging that it is politically and militarily strong. This policy imposes major hardships on domestic populations who are deprived of economic benefits that are directed to external engagements. Also, as is usually the case with authoritarian systems, Putin lacks effective means to cope with opposition. So, when the opposition reaches a critical mass, the reaction is to suppress it. Of course, this only weakens the regime both domestically and internationally which is the opposite of what is intended.
Adnan R. Khan: Geopolitically, in terms of Russia’s relationships, one of the side effects of its domineering attitude is to isolate itself. Does it have any partnerships left in the region?
Ilter Turan: It has many partners but it’s not clear that they are genuine partnerships. Russia and China appear to be partners at this particular time but the general consensus is that, in the long run, this is not a sustainable relationship. In terms of post-Soviet states, the Russians tend to assume that they are the masters and this, of course, is not acceptable to others who are enjoying the fruits of independence. Furthermore, in the post-Soviet states, the Soviet trained elites are slowing “withering ” away.
Adnan R. Khan: Is this a moment for Turkey to take some sort of advantage?
Ilter Turan: Turkey is fully occupied with other problems to take serious advantage of possible openings. Nevertheless, I think the preoccupation of Russia with other matters has produced two potentially positive outcomes for Turkey. One of them, in the case of the Azeri-Armenian conflict, is that the Russians are probably less interventionist and more accommodating to Turkey than they might have been if their hands were not so full. The other thing is the Russians are probably more willing to cooperate with Turkey since it is one of the few countries with which its relationship has been more or less been good with a potential for improvement. But sure, if Turkey were in an economically stronger position and if it did not have so many other external difficulties, it would have been easier for it to take advantage of the difficulties Russia is experiencing domestically and internationally.