By M K Bhadrakumar
Russian diplomacy has been on a roll in recent months, the revival of ties with Ukraine being the most dramatic manifestation. But a string of successes, major and minor, sung and unsung, has been notched up below that high point - in Poland, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, Norway and Syria.
Even with regard to Russia's highly inflammable relations with Georgia, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has opened a new front by trying to find people to talk to in Tbilisi, such as former parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze.
Russian commentators freely admit that the improved climate for relations with the United States opens up opportunities for Russian diplomacy to spread its wings. But then, according to a most recent strategy report prepared for President Dmitry Medvedev (which has found its way to the Russian media somehow - presumably through an authorized leak), the Foreign Ministry in Moscow remains apprehensive that respite from United States antagonism toward Russia could well prove transient.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov apparently wrote in his preface to the leaked 70-page report that "the military, intelligence and foreign policy establishment of the US" is seeking to "return to the confrontational policies of the last administration", referring to George W Bush's presidency. Lavrov pointed out that US President Barack Obama has "transformative potential" as a leader and any weakening of his position could lead to increased tensions between the US and Russia.
Unsurprisingly, the Kremlin appears to be hastening to explore the new vistas that have emerged as the fog of Cold War politics fades.
However, an historic breakthrough in Russia's ties with Turkey does not quite fall into this category. A tempo has been steadily building up over the past two decades for Russian-Turkish relations to develop into a strategic partnership between the two rivals who constantly jostled or even fought bloody wars against each other through centuries.
Their post-Cold War "reset" - as much at Ankara's initiative as Moscow's - in actuality by far predates the Obama era, and is based on well-thought-out foundations of hardcore mutual interests.
Medvedev's visit to Ankara this week has cemented this phenomenal transformation in the ties and launches it onto a far higher trajectory. A relationship that was heavily based on economic interests so far is rapidly acquiring political content. As Medvedev pointed out on Wednesday, "Russia and Turkey are strategic partners, not only in words but genuinely."
Russia cracks atom in Anatolia
Medvedev's Turkish counterpart, Abdullah Gul, reciprocated that the relationship had progressed to a "new phase" to become "multi-dimensional" with a strong strategic angle. The establishment of a high-level cooperation council co-chaired by Medvedev and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan testifies to the fact that "our cooperation has grown to such an extent that it became a necessity for political leaders to oversee them", to quote Medvedev.
During Medvedev's visit, the countries signed 17 agreements, which Medvedev estimated to have a combined value of US$25 billion. Principal among them is the agreement that opens Russia's nuclear power industry to the highly lucrative market in Turkey, something that has become possible only amid the dramatically new level of mutual understanding between Ankara and Moscow.
In essence, Turkey will allow Russia to build - and own - a $20 billion nuclear power plant. The agreement envisages the construction of four reactors on Turkey's southern Mediterranean coast. The deal's unique feature is that Russia's Rosatom will control the facilities and sell the electricity that it generates.
Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Rosatom and a former prime minister, openly admitted that Russia had been "craving" such a breakthrough in nuclear exports. Russia's established partners like China and India always insist on excluding Russia from any ownership or management role in the nuclear power plants that Rosatom may set up.
The deal with Turkey allows Rosatom to initially establish a fully-owned subsidiary, which will eventually offer up to 49% of the venture to investors from Turkey or even from third countries. Kiriyenko hinted that there could be potential investors from Europe. Rosatom expects to recoup the $20 billion cost of the project 15 years after completing each reactor by selling half of the electricity generated to the Turkish government-owned distribution company and the rest to the country's unregulated market. Rosatom is obliged to share 20% of its profits with the Turkish government.
The breakthrough is strategic for Russia since it will now become very difficult for competing countries to offer Turkey matching investment terms. Rosatom will complete the first reactor in seven years and thereafter one reactor in every three years. Significantly, Rosatom may also set up a facility in Turkey to make nuclear fuel.
Russia already meets close to 70% of Turkey's energy needs, and the established cooperation is also expected to grow. The two countries are discussing Russia's possible involvement in the north-south 550-kilometer oil pipeline to connect the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean, which was envisaged as a Turkish-Italian project.
The pipeline will provide a faster transit route for Russian and Kazakh oil to reach the global market by bypassing the congested Bosphorous and Dardanelles straits. An energy security agreement signed during Medvedev's visit to Ankara identifies the proposed $3 billion oil link as a priority project for cooperation with Russia.
In effect, Russia is helping Turkey realize its ambition to become a global hub for energy transportation, while Moscow expects Ankara not to promote pipeline projects that rival Russia's. The two countries are inching closer to cooperation in the Moscow-backed South Stream gas pipeline project that binds the south European markets to Russia's energy sources.
In geopolitical terms, among other things, Turkey is playing a role in facilitating the return of Russia to its Slavic backyard in the Balkans from where it was rudely evicted in the 1990s with the West's dismantling of the former state of Yugoslavia, as well as in buttressing Russia's lead role in supplying energy to Europe.
Assessing the overall prospects of Russian-Turkish economic ties, Medvedev said a target of reaching $100 billion in bilateral trade volume in the next five years from the current level of $40 billion was feasible. "It is hard even to imagine, but this figure is an attainable one," he said. "Once we achieve this goal, it becomes a model for Europe." Russia's overall trade with Europe presently stands at $200 billion.
Europe is the ailing partner
Medvedev was spot on. The galloping Russian-Turkish cooperation and emerging climate of trust and understanding - as illustrated by Turkey's agreement to grant visa-free travel for Russian tourists who currently number 3 million a year - holds profound implications for Europe.
Ironically, if the concern a century ago was that Turkey was the "sick man of Europe", today there has been a curious reversal of roles. Turkey is raring to go like an adventurous explorer of new frontiers while Europe is lost in thoughts habitual to old age and inertia. The specter that haunts Europe is a new geopolitical axis that might revive the "imperial ambitions" of both Turkey and Russia.
Europe is hit in ways more than one by the Turkish-Russian energy cooperation. Consumer countries in Europe develop political dependency on Turkish goodwill as the pipelines go through the Anatolian heartland and, simply put, Europe may also have to be more conscious of Ankara's sensitivities, especially on the vexed issue of Turkey's proposed European Union membership.
The reality is that Europe is already flustered by its energy dependence on Russia - Russia supplies one-third of Europe's needs - and the emerging prospect is that in political terms, Russia and Turkey are finally reaching an equilibrium in pooling their oil-and-gas friendship for augmenting their own bargaining strength vis-a-vis Europe. Moscow and Ankara do not seem to care anymore as to which side needs this "friendship" more than the other. Clearly, their pipeline politics are finally beginning to dictate geopolitics in a vast arc of surrounding regions.
Turkey can be trusted to use the "Russia card" in its future negotiations over EU membership and Brussels will have to factor in that continued negativism may only drive Ankara more into Moscow's embrace. That embrace is already resetting the geopolitics of the Black Sea and the Caucasus and is poised to impact the Middle East as a whole, including the situation around Iran and the Israel-Palestine issue.
Medvedev spoke about this while in Ankara. In an extremity meaningful statement, he said in Gul's presence, "Russia and Turkey are working together to maintain global and regional stability. Sitting in the president's office just now we spoke about the fact that the Black Sea countries themselves, and above all the region's two biggest countries, Russia and Turkey, bear direct responsibility for the situation in the region."
Things couldn't have been stated more explicitly that Russia and Turkey have a shared interest in forestalling any attempt to make the Black Sea a "NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] lake" and that Moscow counts on Ankara's helping hand to keep outsiders away from its Crimean backyard. Coupled with the recent Russian-Ukrainian agreement extending the lease of the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, Moscow is energetically boosting its capacity to delimit NATO's activities to the Black Sea's west coasts.
A regional alliance in the making
Medvedev also underlined that Russia and Turkey hold "very close views" on the Middle East peace process. Interestingly, he traveled to Ankara via Damascus, where he had a meeting on Tuesday with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Medvedev lamented that there had been ''something of a slowdown" in the US-brokered peace process which in turn "is having an impact on the situation in the Middle East".
He called Gaza a "humanitarian disaster", sought wider regional and international participation in seeking "actual solutions and decisions" in the Middle East and, in an oblique reference to Israel, insisted that Hamas shouldn't be excluded from the peace process. Coupled with the revival of Russia's traditional ties with Syria, Moscow is reappearing on a Middle Eastern chessboard where China also is aspiring to be a new player and where the US's predominant status is being challenged.
What is striking is that Medvedev virtually echoed Turkish viewpoints. The Russian and Turkish position on Iran is also similar, underpinned by the "need to incite Iran to take a constructive line, while at the same time emphasizing the need to resolve this problem through peaceful means", as Medvedev phrased it.
The developing Russia-Turkish coordination of positions over the South Caucasus aims at creating a regional security system. Arguably, the process is also subject to the US's acceptance and the climate of a US-Russia "reset" will have a bearing. As a Turkish report pointed out, "Azerbaijan is leaning toward Turkey, Armenia has embraced Russia, and Georgia has been seeking rapprochement with NATO and the US. When these countries lean (or are prodded) toward different supports, it usually ends badly, as proved by the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia over South Ossetia."
In the immediate aftermath of the 2008 conflict, Ankara proposed a Caucasus stability and cooperation pact, which would include the three South Caucasus countries plus Russia and Turkey. This was a manifest attempt by Ankara to insert itself into the Caucasian circle but also reflected the tacit Turkish acknowledgement of the Russian claim that the conflict brought to light the failure of existing forums - the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the EU and the United Nations - to address security in the Caucasus.
Without doubt, what is unfolding is also Moscow's diplomatic foreplay even as NATO gears up for a refocus on its destiny in the 21st century at the alliance's summit in November in Lisbon. There is much irony here, in that Moscow has sought out a key NATO member country as its privileged partner in this enterprise.
It does, though, take two to tango. No matter Moscow's assiduous courting of Ankara, the diplomacy wouldn't have proceeded at such speed had it not been for the tectonic shift in Turkish foreign-policy thinking and its new diplomatic thrust toward creating an environment of "zero problems" with its neighbors.
Many factors have contributed to the new impetus in Russian-Turkish understanding. Putin's extraordinary personal friendship with Erdogan became a significant template in itself. But ultimately, as the Foreign Ministry report to Medvedev, entitled Program for Effective Use of Foreign Policy in the Long-Term Development of Russia, seems to have pointed out, Russia's "modernizing alliances" with foreign partners need to be based on the calculus that there are neither friends nor enemies, only interests.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.