Can Russia trust Turkey this time?

Bryan MacDonald
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish journalist, who is based in Russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan enter a hall during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016. © Alexei Nikolsky
After months of often profound hostility, the sudden rapprochement between Russia and Turkey has caught even seasoned observers by surprise. Yet, questions remain about whether it’s genuine or sustainable.

We’ve been down this road before. Whenever Turkey’s relations with its Western partners go awry, Ankara habitually looks to Moscow. Yet, there are elements among the Turkish elite that openly advocate ditching NATO and the country’s EU pipe dream in favor of a Eurasian alliance with Russia and Iran. Right now, either they are winning the argument or Turkey is again playing games.

In a perfect world, Russia and Turkey would be natural allies because they’ve a lot that unites them. Both are partially in Europe but have been historically excluded from its political and cultural core for similar reasons. Russia has been shunned because it’s regarded as too big, too powerful and too populous to cozily integrate with the likes of France and Germany, who are also fearful of seeing their own influence diluted. At the same time, in Turkey’s case, numbers and size, as well as its predominately Islamic faith, are other factors that have a major influence on its relative isolation. Additionally, former colonies of their antecedent empires, the USSR and its Ottoman equivalent, often remain hugely suspicious of these shrunken successor states.

As we know, this is a far from flawless universe and in it statecraft between Ankara and Moscow has never been very smooth. Indeed, the relationship has frequently been badly strained. And that’s why this week’s rapid diplomatic offensive has raised eyebrows.

Many Differences

To explain why, we only need to go back a few months. For some years, the Kremlin had been attempting to build bridges with Turkey. But there were two key reasons why this strategy failed. Firstly, Turkey’s NATO membership made it part of an American-led military alliance which appears to primarily exist to ‘contain’ Russia and, secondly, both governments have long disagreed on events in Damascus. Ankara wants Basher Al-Assad removed and Moscow has been trying to keep him in power, because it fears the consequences of a subsequent power vacuum.

Matters took a nasty turn last November when the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 which was carrying out a mission in Syria. Moscow imposed economic and travel sanctions in reprisal and rhetoric from both sides became heated. Indeed, some commentators even predicted a possible war. The end result was that many informed pundits claimed that so long as Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin remained in charge of their respective countries, there was little hope for resurrecting any form of positive dialogue.

Then events took over. On the night of July 15, a coup d’etat was attempted in Turkey, driven by a faction in its military. A force that has, incidentally, has long been stoutly pro-American and hostile to friendship with Russia. Indeed, in 1960, the Adnan Menderes’ administration was overthrown by the armed forces when they feared he was about to abandon NATO for improved ties with the USSR. But this time, the attempted revolt had nothing to do with Russia.

In the aftermath of the foiled putsch, western leaders notably failed to rally strongly around Erdogan. This is mostly because of domestic repressions at home against the opposition and the media. But the fact remains that Erdogan is Turkey’s elected - and very popular leader - and he presumably felt he'd receive warmer support from notional allies. That it hasn't been forthcoming appears to have deeply upset the Turkish premier. Unless, of course, he’s bluffing. And that’s the challenge for Moscow here, to figure out whether he is or not.

Playing Games

In Russia, there are two possibilities being widely circulated. Cautious observers fear that Erdogan is playing the “Russian card” in order to achieve concessions from the West. And there are two in particular he is after. One is the implementation of a visa-free travel arrangement agreed in principle with the European Union earlier this year. The other is the repatriation of Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled Islamic preacher whom Erdogan holds responsible for plotting the coup. Gulen resides in America and the US authorities have, so far, refused to hand him over. Thus, we have a situation where NATO’s leader might be harboring an individual who plotted the downfall of another member’s democratically-elected government.

On the other hand, Ankara is fully aware that the Americans badly need its cooperation. Turkey is strategically vital to US interests in the Middle East, both as a base of operations and through the use of its own, highly competent, military in helping to fulfill US objectives. By appearing to get intimate with Moscow, Erdogan may wish to concentrate minds in Washington. And in Brussels too, which hardly needs reminding that Turkey is the only barrier stopping the EU being overrun by migrants.

The other theory is that Turkey is genuine this time. That Erdogan is tired of Western ‘allies’ refusing to treat Ankara as an equal and constantly sniping at his leadership. With that in mind, the narrative goes, Turkey may be ready to seek new partnerships. Of course, this could also be music to Moscow’s ears.

Putin has, for some time now, being trying to promote the idea of an alternative bloc to curb American domination of the global political order. With cooperation with China steadily increasing, bringing Turkey into the mix would be the icing on the cake. Of course, Putin could be playing poker himself here. Russia’s primary concern is to maintain its own security by exerting influence in its near abroad and restraining American attempts to gain more clout and leverage there.

Can Turkey Be Trusted?

On Wednesday and Thursday this week, a pair of events resulted in mixed opinion on the degree to which Turkey might be batting straight. Its foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, suggested that Ankara may seek other options outside NATO for defense cooperation. However, he also insisted that a “a political transition in Syria with President Bashar al-Assad (in situ) was not possible,” which is contrary to Moscow’s wishes. At the same time, Cavusoglu asked Russia to carry out joint operations against ISIS, their “common enemy.”

Meanwhile, the day before, Erdogan issued an ultimatum to the US, saying it must choose between Turkey and Gulen. “Sooner or later the US will make a choice […] Either the coup-plotting terrorist FETO [Gulenist Terror Organization, term used by non-Gulenists] or the democratic country Turkey. The [US] has to make this choice,” he said. These comments lend succor to the idea that Ankara is trying to play both sides right this minute.

According to Vladimir Sotnikov, the director of the Russia-East-West Center for Strategic Studies and Analysis, the fresh talks with Ankara “give the Kremlin a new instrument for influencing the situation in the Middle East and in other strategically significant regions and it destabilizes the Western coalition against Russia.”

Moscow is now in a bind. Does it accept Turkish entreaties at face value or remain skeptical? Because there are two possible outcomes to this current dialogue: It will either smooth relations between Europe's two conterminous half-in powers, or become a second betrayal of the country by Erdogan. Whatever the outcome, it’s fair to say that its impact will be profound.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.