A mutually convenient ‘new page’
Never failing to surprise, even in the most difficult of times, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made headlines once more with a visit to Russia.
The meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin carried much symbolic and diplomatic weight. That the Russian capital was Erdogan’s first foreign destination after the botched coup was significant in terms of Turkey’s ever-fading relations with the West.
Since the coup attempt, Erdogan’s prime targets, apart from his demonised foe, US-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, have been the administration of US President Barack Obama and European leaders.
Their support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government was far too delayed and timid, Erdogan kept saying, while some of his ministers openly accused the Americans of being behind the putchists.
Praise was meanwhile directed at Putin, whom Erdogan once more thanked while shaking hands, after seven months of name-calling between Turkey and Russia after Turkish jets shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015. In Erdogan’s eyes, Putin was the swiftest to express his solidarity.
Although much more restrained than Erdogan, Putin was happy with the ways things turned out. The Turkish delegation’s visit had followed Erdogan’s apology for the incident that cost a Russian pilot’s life and told the world that Putin was not only able to define the future of Syria but also capable of unsettling Turkey’s decades-long membership of the NATO alliance and its traditional ties with the West.
Erdogan emerged as the obvious winner of the arm wrestling that lasted for months, causing the Turkish economy considerable damage through trade sanctions and the suspension of Russian tourist flights to Turkey. The trade volume between the two countries was about $35 billion when the Russian jet was hit and, according to Putin, has decreased by 43% since.
Now Erdogan hopes to target $100 billion in trade as soon as possible. He seemed in a mood for maximum appeasement towards Putin, declaring that the jointly planned but frozen Akkuyu nuclear plant in Turkey be raised to “strategic project” status. He was also ready to reset economic relations by having Russian trade sanctions and visa restrictions lifted and charter flights beginning to fly to Turkish holiday resorts.
Nobody believed that the acrimonious stalemate would be sustainable. That is the reason why both sides’ media unanimously welcomed the rapprochement, as eyebrows were raised in NATO and European capitals. “Turkey is a valued ally, making substantial contributions to NATO’s joint efforts… Turkey’s NATO membership is not in question,” the military alliance said in a rapidly issued statement.
It is the military dimension of the bilateral talks that will lend the most significance to the Turkish-Russian thaw. During the meetings, Russian Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov was present — a strong gesture. In addition, the two leaders agreed that direct hotline communications be established between the army chiefs of staff, and delegations consisting of diplomats, military officers and intelligence staff will visit each other regularly.
This side of the talks bears a distinguished symbolism over how both leaders may be intending to challenge the West from their own vantage points.
For Erdogan, this tango in Russia, he hopes, will be useful to break his isolation. In this, the Turkish leader, who emerged even more powerful at home after the coup attempt, is staging a delicate balancing act between global power blocs. Whether Erdogan is willing to dig deeper for a new Eurasian strategic alliance as a replacement for NATO seems premature.
For Putin, it may be seen as another efficient tool in his neo-expansionist moves to twist loose the unity of Europe and weaken whatever remains of its leadership.
Syria remains a divisive issue, although both agree, from different perspectives, that its territorial unity should be protected.
Ankara is determined to battle against any Kurdish advance that may end in a self-rule along its border and Putin is equally decided to continue to disagree with Erdogan that Assad must go.
Yet, as Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said: “It is a new page.”’ Both sides will be careful not to rock the boat. They will battle their chosen enemies while debating Syria’s future: Ankara against the Kurds, Moscow against the jihadist forces that threaten the Syrian Ba’athists in Damascus.