By Dr. Abdul Ruff
One of positive consequences of military coup engineered in Turkey on July 15 is the realignment of Russia and Turkey, former foes for decades, into a friendly and purposeful anti-West relationship.
In a remarkable about-face, Erdogan apologized to Putin for the Su-24 shoot-down and asked the family of the killed pilot to “excuse us.” Two weeks later, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim stated that Turkey might even entertain normalizing relations with Syria someday. After the failed coup attempt in Turkey, international experts have been quick to declare that Turkey will drift closer to Russia and away from its allies in NATO. Putin was one of the first to condemn the attempt and declare support for Turkey’s elected government. Thus their bilateral relationship began to flourish.
As the bilateral relations are getting warmed up, on August 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel to St. Petersburg, Russia to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the first time since November 2015.
The plane downing led to a bitter war of words between the two leaders, with the Kremlin strongman calling it a “stab in the back” and accusing the Turkish president of involvement in the illegal oil trade with the ISIS jihadist group. But after the Kremlin claimed last month that Erdogan had apologized to Putin over the incident, Moscow ordered the lifting of a string of economic sanctions including an embargo on Turkish food products and the cancellation of charter flights to the country.
Further, an official in Turkey said that Erdogan and Putin had agreed to meet ahead of the G20 summit in China in September. Russian news agencies quoted Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek, the highest ranking Turkish official to visit Russia since the November downing of the Russian jet on the Syrian border sparked an unprecedented crisis in relations. He said he was in Moscow to meet his Russian counterpart Arkady Dvorkovich in an effort to “normalize the situation and our relations as soon as possible and at an accelerated pace”.
Bilateral relations between two Eurasian nations -Turkey and Russia – have been fraught ever since the Turkish air force downed a Russian fighter plane that repeatedly violated its air space in November. But the tensions between the two countries had been escalating for months before that, due mainly to US instigation, first over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and then over Syria. As a result, in the span of two years, both have largely undone whatever entente they had built over the past 15. However, Turkey woke up before it was too late and readily apologized to Russia.
Ties and tensions between them went hand in hand for years, fueled by USA, NATO and EU. In fact, the Russo-Turkey ties were slowly but steadily improving before the military coup to dethrone ruling government of Erdogan and destroy his AK Party – obviously ploy of the western powers to end Islamist rule in Europe. But the coup meant to destabilize an elected government in Istanbul has brought people together and simply accelerated the process of reinventing a possible Turkey-Russia coalition in warm ties for mutual cooperation in many domains of diplomacy, politics, security and economics.
Neither USA nor EU had anticipated the anti-climax to the plots of coup leaders in Istanbul. President Obama may have been shocked to know that turkey is strong enough to defend itself. The thawing of ice between the two countries began in June when Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to his counterpart expressing regret over the downing of the Russian jet, extended condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who died in the incident using the apologetic expression “may they excuse us.” Two days after this letter, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made a phone call to Erdoğan, and said, according to the Kremlin’s website, that the letter “opened the road for overcoming the crisis in bilateral relations.”
This exchange of cordiality resulted in Putin’s lifting of the Russian ban on travel packages to Turkey, which was welcomed by both Russian holiday-makers and Turkish tourism industry alike; and visits made by three Turkish cabinet members—Deputy Prime Ministers Mehmet Şimşek and Nurettin Canikli, as well as the Minister of Economy Nihat Zeybekçi—to Moscow last week, only a few days after the failed coup attempt in Turkey, reveal that reconciliation will proceed faster than expected and economic issues will be in the forefront. After the visit, Minister Zeybekçi said that 80% of the problems that Turkey had with Russia have been solved.
As the bilateral relations are getting warmed up, on August 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel to St. Petersburg, Russia where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for the first time since November 2015. For the past two weeks, a steady parade of Turkish ministers has flown to Moscow to lay the groundwork — confirmation that the Turkish-Russian relationship, on ice for the past eight months, is headed for a summer thaw. But the St. Petersburg meeting between two strong presidents is more than just another summit — it is the opening ceremony for a broader Turkish tilt toward Moscow.
The bases for this sudden change are manifold, but the primary impetus is Bashar al-Assad’s near-restoration in Syria. In the past, Assad had been the major obstacle to improved ties between Russia and Turkey. Both Russia and Turkey realized they need each other to protect themselves against the Super power, NATO and EU.
Turkey was seriously traumatized by the coup attempt and is trying now to sound certain warnings to the West by floating the idea that it may move toward strategic ties with Russia. Russia’s economic losses due to Western sanctions have somewhat weakened the Kremlin. Turkey’s economic losses due to the embargoes imposed by Moscow after the downing of the jet and the fact that this incident seriously diminished Turkey’s hand in Syria forced Erdogan in the end to seek reconciliation. The punitive measures had dealt a crushing blow to the Turkish tourism industry, which is hugely reliant on Russian tourists, especially on its Mediterranean coast.
Erdogan’s domestic politics only reinforce his regional calculations for tilting toward Russia. The aftershocks of the attempted coup against Erdogan by a faction of the military on July 15 are steadily pushing Turkey away from the West and toward Russia. However, given Russia’s growing conflict with the West, which Moscow believes is trying to encircle it militarily, many doubt that Putin will want to squander the opportunity to turn Turkey away from the West. The Turkish president is now trying to improve Turkey’s relations with Russia. This makes Turkey Russia’s ally in the endeavor to split the consolidated position of the West
Turkey is angry with Europe over its “wait and see” stance during and after the coup attempt. The general view is that Europe’s dislike of Erdogan prevented it from providing unequivocal support for the democratically elected president and government of Turkey. Europe’s critical position on the massive crackdown against alleged coup plotters and sympathizers in Turkey and its reactions to Erdogan’s support for the death penalty for the coup plotters is adding more grist to the anti-Western mill in Turkey.
The beneficiary of coup
One of Russia’s principal aims today was to weaken NATO and it would like an important NATO member Turkey to support the Kremlin to consolidate the ties. Russia always looked for better ties with Turkey but USA opposes that. From the outset, as the coup unfolded, Putin reportedly offered support for Erdogan, in contrast to Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial equivocations. Predictably, that contrast has only grown sharper over the past two weeks: While Russia has raised no objections to Erdogan’s needy purges of key institutions to streamline administration the West has regularly criticized his crackdowns, with Kerry even threatening Turkey’s membership in NATO – the usual bully.
With more strategic foresight than the USA and Europe, Russia played its cards right as the coup attempt was underway and was the first country to immediately condemn this attempt unequivocally. As the one of first world leaders, Putin called Erdogan earlier this month to express his support after the failed putsch in Turkey, and the Kremlin confirmed at the time that the two leaders would meet in the near future.
Russia appears to be the main beneficiary of the July 15 attempted military coup in Turkey. Moscow clearly sees a strategic opportunity for itself given the sharp increase in anti-American and anti-European sentiments in Turkey, which are being fanned by the coup and rhetoric of Turkish President Erdogan. The failed coup has increased Russia’s importance for quarters close to Erdogan. Calls from pro-Erdogan circles for Turkey to seek strategic partnerships with Russia and to develop a strategic Eurasian dimension to replace ties with the USA, NATO and the EU are clearly being monitored closely in Moscow with satisfaction.
That Uncle Sam is dragging its feet over Ankara’s demand for Gulen’s extradition, has raised anti-American feelings among Turks to a fever pitch. This has also increased calls for Turkey to seek strategic partnerships with Russia and to replace ties with the United States, NATO and the European Union. These calls are clearly being monitored closely in Moscow. Eyes will therefore be focused on Erdogan’s talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Aug. 9.
There are indications, however, that while Moscow believes it has the upper hand against Ankara now, and will try and secure maximum advantages for itself as it responds to positive overtures from Turkey, it will still play hard to get. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov gave an early sign of this after the failed coup attempt when he openly declared that the future of Turkish-Russian ties would still depend on Turkey’s position on Syria where Turkey support USA.. “Much will depend on how we will cooperate on the settlement of the Syrian crisis,” Lavrov said, according to TASS.
Now, Moscow and Tehran are in the midst of an operation to restore Assad’s control over Syria’s second city of Aleppo. Even an obstinate leader like Erdogan cannot ignore the hard reality that Assad is here to stay. Turkey’s reconciliation with Russia would make Turkey to work with Russia in Syria. USA knows the terrible meaning of losing Turkey to Russia. President Barack Obama is not without options, however. To keep Turkey from moving toward Russia, the USA would widen its aperture beyond the Islamic State to include Turkey’s strategic interests in Syria. It would also recalibrate its criticisms of Erdogan.
The USA, which is pitted against Erdogan-inspired Islamists, is shielding the alleged coup mastermind, Fethullah Gulen, who could be an important tool in the hands of all anti-Turkey forces in the West. One Turkish minister even flatly accused the USA of orchestrating the coup. Incensed Turkish protestors have marched on Incirlik Air Base, the key facility from which the USA flies combat missions against the Syria and ISIS Islamic State.
The PKK is a US-designated “terrorist organization” that has fought a separatist war against the Turkish state for decades. As Turkey turns inward and anti-Western sentiment rises, Turkish military readiness needs to on alert. Its Kurdish sister organization in Syria is the Democratic Union Party (PYD). For the past two years, the PYD has systematically built up its political control in northern Syria under the guise of fighting the Islamic State. President Erdogan would rely on the key player on the ground, Russia, to limit the PYD and PKK. Turkey has tracked the PYD’s rise along its border with alarm — especially since the group crossed west of the Euphrates, a traditional Turkish red line, to participate in the fight to capture the Syrian city of Manbij from the ISIS.
By sidestepping the question of Assad, Erdogan is attempting to unlock cooperation with Russia on his other major priorities — the defeat of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and the consolidation of domestic power. Erdogan understands that in order to stop the PKK and PYD from establishing themselves along the Turkish border, he must deny them international support — most notably, from their natural regional patrons, Russia and Iran. These sets up a possible transaction in St. Petersburg next week: In return for Russia withholding its support for the PKK and PYD, Turkey may agree to look the other way on Assad.
From US perspective Russia and Turkey are autocracies while USA and Europe, where minorities are ill treated, are true democracies. From Ankara’s perspective, PKK and PYD pose a more ominous threat than the Islamic State — even after the Istanbul airport attack of June 28.
There are indeed achievements made during the talks in Moscow: charter flights will be resumed between Turkey and Russia, sanctions on food exports from Turkey to Russia will be gradually lifted, the Joint Russian-Turkish Intergovernmental Commission on Trade and Economic Cooperation will be reactivated, negotiations will resume on an intergovernmental agreement on trade in services and investment and a mid-term intergovernmental programme of trade, economic, research, technical and cultural cooperation for the period between 2016 and 2019, visa restrictions will be lifted, and a joint Russian-Turkish fund will be established to finance investment projects in both countries.
Russia and Turkey have affirmed their intention to reinstate dialogue on the proposed Turkish Stream pipeline project. In other words, business will be back to normal very soon between Turkey and Russia. Trade figures, investment projects and tourist numbers may soon get back to normal. However, it is too early to declare the normalization of ties complete, as obstacles remain in the political realm with the two sides yet to solve their differences over the issue of civil war in Syria. It appears that the future for the “strategic partnership” with Russia that some in Turkey are hoping for now, purely out of anger for the West, would soon develop into fruitful ties.
With a reconciliation process between the two countries starting in June and gaining significant momentum through the visits of a number of Turkish cabinet members to Moscow last week and an upcoming meeting between the two countries’ presidents, there are sufficient grounds to expect this soccer game to herald the normalization of relations between Ankara and Moscow.
Moscow continues to back the Assad regime and its allies; while from Ankara’s point of view there can be no solution in Syria unless Assad leaves. These two positions appear to be firmly irreconcilable; however given the emerging political will to that end on both sides, a certain degree of common ground can be achieved in St. Petersburg. In the meantime, Ankara is pinning the blame for the downing of the Russian jet fighter on a maverick pilot who allegedly was part of the coup plot, thus providing another indication of how fast things are moving in Turkish-Russian ties.
The countries’ already poor relations reached a boiling point when Turkey shot down a Su-24 Russian fighter jet last November. The situation in Syria has changed dramatically since that episode, however. The Russian-Iranian offensive in support of Assad has checkmated Turkey, shutting Ankara out of northern Syria. If the Erdoğan-Putin meeting on August 9 goes well, we might also see the two leaders attending the game together. Turkey and Russia made serious progress in restoring their economic ties, and despite all the difficulties and differences, the meeting in St. Petersburg can produce some form of a common ground over Syria as well. The question for Ankara would be then whether the détente with Russia could be replicated in other problematic areas of foreign policy too.
The relations should be improved and deepened. I believe that the most important file to be taken up during Erdogan’s visit to Moscow, for example, will be the energy file,
On the evening of August 31, the newly built stadium in Antalya on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast will host a soccer match between the national teams of Turkey and Russia.