The end of the Cold War marked a dramatic change in the global strategic parameters, which affected Turkey’s role in the post-Cold War era, while the Russian Federation rose as a new actor in world politics, inheriting the role of the successor of the Soviet Union.
Following the 1990s standstill in their bilateral relations, Turkey and the Russian Federation started converging, gradually improving their relations, with trade and economic cooperation being the points of reference. The warmth in their relations was ratified by the exchange of Head of State official visits, President Putin’s to Ankara in 2004 and PM Erdoğan’s to Moscow in early 2005.
Turkey has seen a long series of changes within the last 16 years, a substantial amount of which have been about its foreign politics and a large part of this is associated with the Russian Federation and the strong economic, diplomatic and political links that were established between the two countries during the first decade of the new millennium. The foundation of this relationship has been their trade partnership, with special focus on energy.
However, this is only the one side of the relationship. Turkey’s growing dependency on Russian energy has been -and still is- a useful political tool for Moscow, which is clearly interested in maintaining close ties with Ankara, especially at a time that President Erdoğan’s government pursued a more independent foreign policy, regardless if the country lacks the political weight to support it, especially in such a sensitive and volatile area like the Middle East. Furthermore, Turkey has established a status of an influential player in the Middle East and it is highly beneficial for Moscow to remain in a close partnership, in order to exert its influence in the region.
However, this relationship that is often been referred to as a strategic partnership, is far less than it seems. As the war in Syria is closing to its end, Turkey’s partnership does not seem to solidify, in contrast to the other strategic players in the area.
The Damascus-Moscow-Tehran axis is determined to gain control of Idlib and the USA-PYD/YPG alliance remains strong in Rojava. Turkey, however, is still in a sui generis policy, in favour of a political instead of a military solution, for two reasons: a. to prevent another refugee influx to its sovereignty and b. to provide some protection to the elements of the rebel forces that are loyal to Ankara; the two reasons that the Turkish government has been trying hard the last few weeks to persuade Russia not to proceed with a military offensive and rather unexpectedly succeeded on the 17th of September.
Additionally, Turkey remains adamant on an “Assad-free” post-war Syria, whereas Russia and Iran are on the opposite side; Moscow has actually been lobbying with the West -rather successfully so far- to de-prioritise a political transition from Assad, directing the world’s focus for post-war Syria on humanitarian aid, reconstruction and eventually the return of the refugees.
The Idlib case, up until the 17th of September, has been testing the Turkish-Russian relation, raising questions on the balance between the two strategic partners and common understanding of each other’s sensitive interests.
The Erdoğan-Putin agreement in Sochi adds a new perspective, since it has positive effects for all the players actively involved in Idlib. It is a small victory for Turkey as well as a victory for the civilian population of the province. It is also a fitting development for Europe, since no offensive means there won’t be a mass exodus of refugees heading for Europe. Even for Russia it is a small victory since it can distance itself from its pro-offensive hard-line rhetoric of the past weeks and present itself as willing to move towards non-military solutions.
Last but not least, it is a positive development for the rebel forces, who were preparing to fight a battle they were bound to lose. That is, of course, if the agreement works.
Turkey’s foreign policy, which has been dominated by president Erdoğan since Ahmet Davutoğlu was forced to exit the government in 2016, has brought Turkey in a rather difficult position. Its traditional allies, that is the USA and Europe, are -at the very least- suspicious of Ankara’s relations with Russia and its “hostage diplomacy” towards western citizens in its sovereignty.
Washington’s recent economic offensive on Turkey has aggravated the country’s serious economic trouble, while the two leaders’ aggressive rhetoric has brought their bilateral relation to the limits of dysfunctional. Clearly, the Andrew Brunson case was just the spring for Washington to apply strong pressure on Turkey, as their relation has been seriously downgraded in recent years, due to a number of other causes, including the Ankara-Moscow close relations and their S-400 air defence missile system, its relations to Iran, the war in Syria, the PYD Kurds and Ankara’s support for radical elements of the Syrian rebel forces. That left Turkey with very limited potential support for its interests within the international diplomacy.
As the offensive in Idlib has ceased, in the wake of the Sochi agreement, Ankara still needs to address the big picture in its relations with Russia. The Sochi agreement is delaying the inevitable, which is that the Russian-Turkish bilateral relation will, eventually, get stripped of this cloak of “political convergence” in Syria that has been covering the fact that the two states have different interests and view post-war Syria from a different perspectives.
The bilateral relation will be reduced to the very successful trade partnership, from which it all started and Ankara will have to settle with a new reality in its south borders, where Damascus controls the west part and the PYD/US alliance controls the east, presenting president Erdoğan with a tough choice: either isolation or a radical change of policy that will include serious concessions, such as accepting that the Assad regime is there to stay, or that the PYD in Rojava is a legitimate neighbor. What remains to be seen is whether Ankara returns to more US-friendly choices in its foreign policy, or it pursues a new political understanding with Moscow.
 The improvement in their relations did not occur without problems. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, areas like the Caucasus and Central Asia that belong to Moscow’s sphere of influence but also of cultural and historical importance for Turkey, became areas of competition.
 The USA have stated that they will not get actively involved in Idlib, unless there is a chemical weapons attack.
 Estimates of 700.000 refugees getting displaced by the offensive in Idlib are causing serious worries both in Turkey and in Europe.