On 9 August, high level talks were held between Russia and Turkey in St. Petersburg. It was Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s first overseas trip since the failed military coup and just a few days before there had been an impressive rally in his support.
Relations between the two countries deteriorated following the tragic incident involving a Russian Su-24 fighter jet and the Turkish president’s visit indicates a return to dialogue, said Vladimir Putin. Beginning in a limited format, the talks continued with the involvement of the head of Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation, Hakan Fidan, the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Valery Gerasimov, and the heads of a number of ministries and departments. «Our priority is to reach the pre-crisis level of bilateral cooperation. And this is really an urgent task», stressed Putin, noting that in the last five months alone, the volume of trade between Russia and Turkey had fallen by 43 percent, whereas in 2015 this figure was 26 percent. «We have painstaking work ahead of us to revive our trade and economic cooperation. We have already begun this process but it will take time».
The Turkish leader’s visit to St. Petersburg was accompanied by assumptions regarding a quick normalisation of bilateral relations and the unfreezing of ambitious economic projects. However, the expectation that trade and economic links will be able to iron out the critical difference in approach to sensitive regional security issues (first and foremost with regard to Syria) is unjustified.
Russia’s economic sanctions against Turkey have been extremely damaging to certain sectors of the Turkish economy. According to some estimates, the two countries were on the verge of open conflict in February and March due to Ankara’s undisguised intention to partially occupy northern Syria. The threat of internal destabilisation and economic turmoil forced Erdoğan to adjust his foreign policy and even send a letter of apology to Moscow. According to the Hurriyet Daily News, the content of the letter was edited by the two parties a number of times during May and early June.
Russia is interested in cooperating with Ankara on a wide range of issues, particularly with regard to stabilising the situation in the Middle East and countering terrorist threats. According to the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation, Turkey will be presented with a package of proposals relating to cooperation in the military sphere in order to avoid the kind of incidents that have taken place in the past. The proposed measures include the establishment of special channels of communication between the two militaries, protocols for air operations, and instructions for pilots in the event of a dangerous situation. This could suggest that the two countries are trying to take a further conciliatory step towards each other.
Talks on the Turkish Stream pipeline project have already been resumed and this immediately provoked a nervous reaction in Europe. During a concluding press conference in St. Petersburg, the Russian president noted that the Turkish government has made decisions on the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant and the Turkish Stream gas pipeline system. In return, Russia intends to gradually lift restrictions on Turkish companies.
Turkey’s interest in normalising its dialogue with Moscow was clearly evident in Erdoğan’s interview with Russia’s TASS agency, in which he repeatedly referred to Vladimir Putin as «a dear friend». It seems that Turkey will seek to return to the forms of trade and economic cooperation it found beneficial, leaving its foreign policy relatively unchanged on issues sensitive to Russia. Relevant efforts were made by Ankara in June and July, when intensive consultations took place between the two countries on a wide range of issues. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Turkish leader is primarily worried about the worsening economic situation resulting from the outflow of foreign tourists and the fall in investment.
It should be noted that as an experienced politician, Erdoğan is trying to exploit the growing rift between Moscow and the West. There are constant appeals from Turkish functionaries for Washington and Brussels to come to a decision, including calls for the EU to provide a clear date to grant visa-free travel. Sinan Ülgen, an analyst at the Carnegie Europe think tank, believes that talks with Putin are an opportunity for the Turkish president to send a clear signal to Turkey’s partners in the West that the country has other strategic options. Following the failed coup attempt in Turkey, the Iranian news agency Fars even published information citing Arabic and Turkish sources that the Turkish National Intelligence Organisation had allegedly received a warning from Russia that allowed Erdoğan to both save his position and possibly his life.
Whether true or not, the Turkish leader has made a number of threatening statements against his NATO partners in recent weeks. Internal rhetoric is one thing, however, but deeds are quite another. And so far, deeds are clearing lacking. Yes, Erdoğan acknowledged that: «Russia is a main, key and very important player in establishing peace in Syria», adding that, «the problem needs to be solved with the help of joint steps between Russia and Turkey». But this is only true so long as Ankara understands that these «joint steps» do not mean Moscow agrees with Turkey’s approach, including the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad and the further spread of the kind of «pluralistic democracy» in Syria that has already claimed hundreds and thousands of lives and turned millions into refugees.
Yes, the border crossing used by militants on Turkey’s border with Syria has been closed temporarily, but this is more to do with Erdoğan’s consolidation of power following the failed military coup than with Ankara changing its policy on Syria. At a meeting on 1 August with representatives from the political wing of Syria’s irreconcilable opposition, Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Çavuşoğlu stressed the need to end airstrikes on Aleppo and expressed his support for those referred to in Turkey as «the Syrian people».
As such, it can be assumed that the border crossings will be re-opened should there be a partial stabilisation of the internal situation in Turkey, and the Turks will resume their usual place in the supply chains being run by armed gangs in Syria (particularly in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo). This will prolong the conflict around Aleppo indefinitely and complicate the combat missions of Moscow and Tehran, which is also calling for Ankara to change its policy with regard to Syria.
It is unlikely that Turkey’s real policy will fully comply with Erdoğan’s statements in St. Petersburg. Even if the number of reinforcement fighters passing through the Turkish border drops slightly, the fundamental differences between Moscow and Tehran’s Syria policy on the one hand, and Ankara, Riyadh and Doha’s Syria policy on the other, will be a constant of the Middle East policy for the foreseeable future, complicating the fight against terrorism and fuelling mutual distrust. It will be recalled that after the anti-terrorist operation began in Syria, Moscow repeatedly asked Ankara to grant Russian military aircraft access to Turkish airspace. Permission was not given then and it is unlikely that anything has changed now.
As for talk regarding Turkey’s possible withdrawal from NATO and the country’s reorientation towards the Eurasian Economic Union, this is superficial at the very least. It is all part of Turkey’s foreign policy games and an easy way to blackmail its Western partners. And the very idea of a Turkish ‘Eurasianism’ is vastly different from how the Eurasian strategy is understood in Moscow. One only has to recall three closely linked components of Turkey’s policy with regard to its neighbours both near and far: Neo-Ottomanism, pan-Turkism and ‘mild’ Islamism (which is actually not all that mild).
And as far as Turkey’s links with the West are concerned, the country has little that is threatening in the long run. For the most part, a meeting between the presidents of Turkey and Russia can help address issues of bilateral trade and economic relations, but it cannot influence relations between Ankara and NATO or change the stance of either country regarding ways to settle the armed conflict in Syria. Ultimately, the West already has enough leverage on Turkey, and the global media’s preoccupation with attacks on homosexual Syrian refugees in Turkey is by no means the most significant...
If, at the very least, the meeting between the presidents of Russia and Turkey results in technical measures being put into practice to prevent incidents in the air and ensures that talks continue on the partial restoration of mutually-beneficial trade and economic relations, then it can be considered a success. However, to picture a future in which there is a strong alliance between Moscow and Ankara based on trust is to indulge in a pipe dream that, sooner or later, will find itself dashed against harsh reality.