Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met on Monday for the second time since August to finalise a deal for an undersea gas pipeline and demonstrate renewed bilateral ties that could be used as a “trump card” against the US.
“Erdogan is flirting with Russia as a trump card against the US,” Aykan Erdemir, a former member of Turkish parliament and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider on Wednesday.
Erdemir noted that Erdogan doesn’t see the US as a partner in its battle against Turkey’s domestic Kurdish insurgency, and still resents the US’ support of Syrian Kurdish fighters that Turkey views as a threat to its territorial sovereignty.
Erdogan is also still reeling from a failed coup in July, which he and his party have blamed on the US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan on Wednesday accused the US of “sheltering the leader of the terrorist organisation,” warning that “very serious steps” would be taken if the 75-year old Turkish exile was not extradited immediately.
Moreover, Russia was quick to condemn the failed coup the night of the attempt and has been generally supportive of Erdogan’s subsequent crackdown on the alleged coup plotters. The US and Europe, on the other hand, have criticised the extreme measures Erdogan has taken to purge Turkey of political dissidents and muzzle free speech.
Still, many analysts have noted that the transformation of Erdogan and Putin’s relationship underway is not in Turkey’s best interests, politically or economically.
The long-delayed deal to construct a natural gas pipeline from Russia under Turkish waters in the Black Sea and into Europe is one example. The pipeline would be hugely beneficial to Russia, allowing Moscow to bypass Ukraine entirely and giving it a direct opening into the European market. But it’s an expensive undertaking for Turkey with nowhere near the strategic value it holds for Russia.
“This whole Turkish Stream makes so little sense from a financial point of view that its political benefit becomes very questionable,” Akin Unver, an assistant professor of international relations at Kadir Has University in Istanbul specializing in energy politics, said Tuesday.
“In the last decade, Turkey’s primary energy policy was diversification — away from Russia, and away from natural gas.”
“Turkey as an ‘energy hub’ was a romantic goal, but it was at least a good one. It made sense in terms of diversification of nearby sources. Now, as of 2016, Turkey has a new Russian pipeline, a 5% increase to its dependence on Russian gas, and a nuclear power plant built by Russia.”
As such, the pipeline emerges looking almost like a favour from Erdogan to Putin in exchange for Russia’s continued support of Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies — well-known to be the source of tension between Turkey and the West that Russia is happy to exploit.
“Ankara tried a similar strategy of flirting with Moscow back in the 1960s and 1970s, but those efforts always fell short of military cooperation, and were strictly limited to the economic field,” Erdemir said.
“It would be interesting to see whether under Erdogan’s rule, Turkey becomes the first NATO country to ‘defect’ by building close political and military ties with Moscow.
Putin ‘continues to cash in’
Sinan Ulgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, told Time that the warming ties “shouldn’t be read as a “strategic realignment on the side of Turkey.”
“It is much more an effort to eliminate the acrimonious state of the relationship following the plane incident,” Ulgen said. “Now the relationship stands on more firm ground, but again, both history but also the reality of Turkey’s relationship with Russia has amply demonstrated that there can be no real strategic realignment in Ankara and Moscow.”
Still, Russia gains a lot from the renewed friendship — arguably more than Turkey.
“Putin has detected Erdogan’s weakness and desperation, and continues to cash in on it,” said Erdemir, of the FDD.
The vulnerability stems from Turkey’s perception of the US as working against its national security interests, and Erdogan’s precarious position following July’s coup attempt.
“Russia has been quick to take advantage of the tensions between Turkey and the West,” strategic security firm The Soufan Group wrote on in a note to clients Wednesday.
“Furthermore, as tensions between the Turkish government and the [Kurdish] PKK broke into renewed conflict in the southeast over the summer, Russia arrested an arms-dealer in July who was allegedly delivering weapons to the PKK. On the domestic front, Turkey increasingly sees Russia as a security partner,” the firm added.
Although Erdogan and Putin’s goals have long been fundamentally divergent in Syria — Erdogan has been intent on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2011, whereas Putin has been actively supporting him — Turkey’s prioritisation of its own national security has resulted in a notable softening of its anti-Assad stance, in large part because many of the Turkish generals leading its Syria policy were jailed following the coup attempt.
On Monday, both Erdogan and Putin said they would continue to consult each other about their respective military operations in Syria, even after the US suspended its negotiations with Russia over Syria last Monday over its role in the relentless aerial bombardment of the city of Aleppo.
In any case, Erdemir noted, “Moscow has made significant strategic gains since Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet in November 2015” — and Putin has much to gain from strengthening his relationship with Erdogan at a time when Russian-US relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War.
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