Erdogan attempts tenuous balancing act between US, Russia

“Putin wants a rupture between the US and Turkey.” - Soner Cagaptay
Sunday 17/11/2019
A S-400 missile air defence system in Tverskaya Street before a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade, which marks the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Moscow, Russia April 29, 2019. (Reuters)
A S-400 missile air defence system in Tverskaya Street before a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade, which marks the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, in Moscow, Russia April 29, 2019. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made it clear that his close personal ties with US President Donald Trump will not affect his country’s increasingly close cooperation with Russia. Experts, however, said they are not sure Erdogan can manage the tenuous balancing act.

“I want America as well as Russia to be my friend,” Erdogan said on his return from Washington.

Under fire in the West for a perceived pivot towards Moscow, Erdogan defended an approach that has seen Turkey allying itself closely with Russia and buying the S-400 missile defence system from Moscow despite sharp criticism from the United States and other NATO partners.

Erdogan rejected a US proposal to mothball the S-400 and buy the American Patriot system to avoid US sanctions. “It is out of the question to completely leave Russian S-400 to buy US Patriots,” Erdogan said. “We can buy Patriots, too. However, we will buy S-400 as well.”

Erdogan pointed to Turkey’s “strategic relations” with Russia. The two countries have been cooperating closely in Syria, where Trump’s announcement of a US troop withdrawal strengthened Russia’s role.

On November 15, Russian Defence Ministry’s Zvezda TV channel said Russia set up a helicopter base at an airport in the north-eastern Syrian city of Qamishli, a move designed to increase Moscow’s control there. Russia and Turkey are carrying out joint patrols along Syria’s border as part of a deal between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The Russian leader, speaking November 15 at a meeting in Brazil,  said he was in close contact with Erdogan and that — “considering the level of our cooperation” — Russia and Turkey were able to react to Turkish concerns about Kurdish militants in north-eastern Syria.

Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Programme at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Russia was keen to exploit tensions between Turkey and the United States.

“Putin wants a rupture between the US and Turkey and he knows that Turkey getting sanctioned as a result of this S-400 purchase will rupture US-Turkish ties,” Cagaptay said.

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