There has been an incredible acceleration of friendly ties between Turkey and Russia in the last year. In November 2015, Turks shot down a Russian Sukhoi jet, and the two countries were about to continue their hostilities as the Russians provided evidence of Turkish support of ISIS. But in June of this year, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — nominally an ally of the United States in Syria and an important member of NATO — patched things up with a letter of apology and a trip to St. Petersburg in August.
Last Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Istanbul, where the two presidents signed an agreement that will lead to the construction of a double pipeline beneath Turkish waters on the bed of the Black Sea, with a capacity of 30 billion cubic meters of gas. One would serve the Turkish market, and the other the rest of Europe. The pipeline, called Turkish Stream, will be a replacement for the abandoned South Stream project after Russia and Europe collided over the crisis in Ukraine.
According to the Financial Times, the signature energy agreement was not the only matter that the two presidents discussed in Istanbul:
The rapprochement continued on Monday, with Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan overlooking their differences on Syria to agree closer military and intelligence co-operation.
Ankara’s relations with the U.S and European nations, in contrast, remain strained by what Mr. Erdogan perceived as slow and half hearted backing after the attempt to overthrow him in July.
Since then, Turkey has railed against Washington’s refusal to immediately extradite Fethullah Gulen, the exiled Islamic cleric accused of masterminding the coup plot, a claim he strongly denies. It has also been riled by western warnings about the scale of the post-putsch crackdown that has seen more than 100,000 people sacked or dismissed from their jobs.
The meeting in Istanbul was the third time in three months that Mr Erdogan and Mr Putin have met, stoking fears in the west that Moscow is exploiting tensions between Turkey, a Nato member with hopes of EU accession, and its traditional allies.
Ayse Sozen Usluer, head of foreign relations at the Turkish presidency, dismissed such fears. “Neither Turkey’s alliance with the West nor its relationship with Nato is up for debate,” she said. “Nor is Turkey’s EU membership bid … I don’t see any possibility of a new axis of alliance.” She added, however: “But this doesn’t mean that Turkey will not diversify its foreign policy choices.”
Regardless of the reassurance that Ankara will not budge, Moscow is pressing hard. Both Putin and Erdogan have had recent troubles with Washington. The United States broke off cooperation with Moscow over Syria and then accused the Kremlin of war crimes. Erdogan has been criticized by Washington for using the aftermath of a July coup attempt to introduce a sweeping crackdown against a wide array of critics, going well beyond the coup plotters and their backers.
As Al-Monitor reports, just before Putin’s arrival in Istanbul, Ahmet Tunc — an adviser of Melih Gokcek, the mayor of Ankara, and a strong supporter of President Erdogan — and Aleksandr Dugin, a “special representative” of President Putin, met in Moscow.
In the meeting, Dugin made the sensational claim that he himself helped save Turkey from the military coup by informing Turkish authorities about some “unusual activity” in the military July 14, a day before the coup attempt. He also claimed that the coup plot took place “because Erdogan had begun to turn toward Russia.”
Dugin also urged his Turkish guests to reconsider the orientation of their country. “You know, they are not welcoming Turks to Europe,” he said, in reference to Turkey’s unpromising bid to join the European Union. “Yet while Europe’s doors are closed to you, Russian ones are open.”
However, Al-Monitor‘s sources in Ankara claim that there is no intention to break with the West in any major way, such as leaving NATO. Despite the current honeymoon, they say, Ankara has seen how Moscow reacts when it senses a crisis:
“Western capitals, especially Washington, should be aware of this Russian effort to drag Turkey away from the West. And they should balance it by reaching out to Ankara on its key concerns while offering constructive criticism on growing human rights problems rather than watching Turkey slip to the dark side.”
Aside from the understandable improvement of the relationship between Russia and Turkey due to their common interest in the energy field, the new geopolitical speculations and predictions derive from the increasing tension between Washington and Moscow. As I discussed in our previous issue, the Russians sought a dialogue with Washington for a long period of time. In the vacuum of a bilateral relationship and with the passive position of the Obama administration, Putin filled in the empty space in such a way as to make Russia an indispensable part the solutions for various crises around the globe. The first and most pressing of them being Syria, as Foreign Policy demonstrates:
Like it or not, the United States has no better option than to keep trying to work with Russia, which inserted itself into the region with a dramatic military intervention in September 2015. Moscow has the wherewithal to maintain its military deployment for a prolonged period, and regional powers like Iran, and perhaps even Turkey, support its continued presence. The more forceful options that some are now advocating — such as a no-fly zone or the destruction of the Syrian air force — carry too large a risk of outright military confrontation with Moscow in the region and elsewhere.
It is quite clear that the current administration will not change its path in its broken relationship with Moscow. No matter how often Secretary of State John Kerry talks to his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, there seems to be no political will that would put Washington in a position to try for a fresh new start on the bilateral relationship. It will have to be Hillary Clinton again or, God forbid, the meteoritic Donald Trump.