Russia may be preparing a 'long-term, game-changing move' with Turkey

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appears to again be embracing his old friend, Russian President Vladimir Putin, as he continues to consolidate power in the wake of last month’s failed military uprising.

Efforts to reset the Turkish-Russian relationship after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over eight months ago have been underway since before July’s attempted coup. Erdogan reportedly wrote a letter to Putin in late June with the apology Moscow had been demanding since November.

“I once again express my sympathy and profound condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who was killed, and I apologise to them,” Erdogan wrote, according to the Kremlin.

But the stakes of reviving the relationship may now be significantly higher, as anti-American sentiment peaks within Turkey and Erdogan draws condemnation from the West for his decidedly undemocratic crackdown on suspected coup-plotters and sympathizers.

Putin, too, has much to gain from strengthening his relationship with Erdogan at such a politically sensitive moment — specifically, the opportunity to undermine the unity of both the European Union and NATO and absorb Turkey into Russia’s sphere of influence.

That may be why Russia was one of the first countries to issue an official condemnation of the coup on July 15 — a gesture that Turkey noticed and evidently appreciated.

“We thank the Russian authorities, particularly President Putin. We have received unconditional support from Russia, unlike other countries,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu
told Haberturk TV late last month.

“Russia may go for a long-term game-changing move and lure Turkey away from the West as part of a broader geopolitical reconfiguration,” Middle East expert Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, wrote on Thursday.

He continued:

“Unlike Western capitals, Moscow has not bothered much with rule-of-law considerations. A trend toward a more authoritarian leadership in Turkey, one with fewer checks and balances than in any Western democracy, is not something to worry Russian President Vladimir Putin much. On the contrary, it helps him demonstrate that the Russian style of muscular governance is useful to Turkey, at a time when the EU and the United States keep reminding Ankara of their own brand of liberal democracy.”

As such, “an opportunistic convergence of minds might therefore emerge between the two leaders, with each having his own reasons,” when they meet next week in St. Petersburg, Pierini noted.

The clearest wrinkle in this potentially game-changing rapport between Russia and Turkey is their support for opposing sides in the Syrian civil war. Russia intervened in the conflict on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in late September, whereas Turkey has been arming various Syrian opposition groups since 2011 and formally severed ties with the Assad regime in March 2012.

But as The Wall Street Journal’s Yaroslav Trofimov wrote Thursday, even Erdogan’s determination to overthrow the Assad regime — which has reportedly been steadily waning — is likely to take a back seat as he restructures the Turkish military and focuses on purging his own country of suspected traitors.

Gonul Tol, the director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told the Journal that “the generals who were leading the Turkey-Syria policy and the Turkish policy on Syrian Kurds are all in jail now.” And

Mohamed Hineidi, a senior analyst at the Delma Institute think tank in Abu Dhabi, said that the shift in Erdogan’s priorities since the uprising “is undermining any future offensives that the rebels could launch.”

‘Our greatest and irrevocable goal’

That shift may have been in the works since well before the uprising even occurred, however, as evidence mounted that Ankara — in the wake of 14 terror attacks on Turkish soil in just more than a year — was looking to move away from ideology and toward security as the foundation of its foreign-policy objectives.

Perhaps most indicative of this policy reset were comments made by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim about Ankara’s relationship with Damascus just two days before the attempted coup.

“It is our greatest and irrevocable goal: Developing good relations with Syria and Iraq, and all our neighbours that surround the Mediterranean and the Black Sea,” Yildirim said on July 13. “We normalized relations with Russia and Israel. I’m sure we will normalize our relations with Syria as well. For the fight against terrorism to succeed, stability needs to return to Syria and Iraq.”

As Carnegie’s Pierini noted, normalizing relations with Assad might actually be a way for Erdogan to shore up domestic support at a time when he needs it most.

“An evolution of Ankara’s policy toward overt acceptance of the Assad regime might usefully ease up some tensions at home, as Turkey’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has long viewed the Assad regime as a guarantor of Turkey’s security,” Pierini wrote.

“For Erdoğan, this is simply a survival strategy,” Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said in an interview last month
. “This is like a barter. He gives up the AKP’s foreign policy priorities in exchange for his personal survival in domestic politics.”

His best chance of doing that, Erdemir said, is to “back-step from his Islamist stance” and relinquish “neo-Ottoman adventurism” in favour of a more pragmatic and realpolitik approach as he faces threats from ISIS, the insurgent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and, now, from his own military.

It is little wonder, then, that Moscow would choose now to try and reset its own relationship with Ankara.

“Now that Turkey is moving away from NATO and Washington, Russia has an enormous interest in bringing Turkey into its fold,” Lebanese parliament member Basem Shabb told the Journal.

He added: “If Syria is important, Turkey is infinitely more important, and Russia isn’t going to sacrifice Turkey to please Assad, Hezbollah, or Iran.”

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