In September 2015 the Moscow Times reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to overthrow Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, telling him that “the Russian and Turkish armies have friendly ties and, if necessary, we can in Moscow stage a swift military coup against you unless you desist from your desperate acts of supporting violent al-Qaeda terrorists and harboring the injured ISIS fighters inside Turkish territory.” Even for Putin, who is known for his over-the-top, sometimes graphic statements toward his enemies, both real and imagined, this seemed particularly harsh, especially directed in person to a sitting head of state. Relations between the two nations would deteriorate further two months later when Turkey shot down a Russian Su–24 bomber that had entered Turkish airspace without permission. However, in April 2016, when, during his annual televised question-answer session Putin was asked: “Who would you rescue first if they were drowning, Erdoğan or Poroshenko?” Putin answered: “If someone is determined to drown, you can’t save them, but we are willing to extend a hand to anyone, as long as they want that.” Whether this was an attempt to extend an olive branch to Erdoğan remains unclear, but relations between Russia and Turkey have taken a bizarre turn for the better in the last two months.
Two days following the unsuccessful coup in Turkey on 15 July 2016, Putin called Erdoğan to express his hope for “order and stability” in Turkey – coded language Putin often uses to justify a crackdown at home. After this phone call Erdoğan announced he would visit St. Petersburg on 9 August 2016.
On Turkey’s side, the desire to improve relations is straightforward: economics and pique. Turkey’s economy, already hurting, received a further hit by the decline in Russian tourism and Russia’s imposing of economic sanctions, primarily on food imports. Moreover, Erdoğan is angry at the European Union (EU), the United States, the West in general, for reasons stemming from issues related to Syrian refugees, to Obama’s delay in condemning the coup and continued desire to support Syrian Kurds to the general dissatisfaction expressed by the West over his domestic crackdowns. He sees an improvement in relations with Russia in part as a way of reminding them that he might have other options. As a result of the meeting, both sides agreed to remove the sanctions over time, while Russia also agreed to build a natural gas pipeline through Turkey and to construct its first nuclear power plant. In addition, Erdoğan found it helpful that Putin, unlike the West, did not condemn his cracking down on intellectuals, the police, and the military in the previous month.
On Russia’s side, the desire to improve relations is more complicated, as it’s intertwined with a number of issues.
On the domestic front, Putin faces another presidential election in 18 months. Duma elections were held on 18 September and perhaps not surprisingly Putin’s United Russia Party is on track to secure a two-thirds majority. In this ‘victory’ Putin would like to show that he has stabilized the borders, has the ability to make peace with his neighbors, and is able to bring them (back) into the Russian fold. This is particularly important for domestic consumption after the continuing economic and financial turmoil brought about as a result of his invading and seizing of Crimea, as well as recent revelations that Russia has the most unequal distribution of wealth of any major country. Improvement in foreign relations could, Putin hopes, distract from further revelations of internal economic inequality and turmoil.
On the international front, Putin has similar desires: 1) demonstrate that Russia is, once again, a powerful and global player in world events, so powerful, in fact, that it can draw former enemies into its orbit, and 2) reassert Russian influence over its near abroad. His reaching out to China Iran, Japan, South Korea, among other nations, including Turkey, are attempts at both.
With Turkey in particular, there are two reasons Russia wants to improve relations beyond the widely known desire to draw them away from the West, thus neutralizing their membership in NATO and relations with the EU.
Turkey monitors Russia’s access to the wider world by controlling the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Without this egress, Russia’s Black Sea fleet is patrolling a rather large pond. While shutting down access in violation of the Montreaux Convention could be regarded as an act of war, unless a state of war already existed, and Turkey cannot be certain that its NATO allies or others in the region or the world would support them in doing this, Putin cannot be certain that they wouldn’t support Turkey, especially if he uses this fleet to support further adventurism. By improving relations with Turkey, after having shown what can result from broken relations, he hopes to mitigate the chances of this happening, regardless of the government in Ankara.
In addition, Russia knows that Turkey is a key gateway to Central Asia, a fact they were reminded of again when it was the Turkish Prime Minister who announced the death of Uzbek President Islam Karimov during a televised meeting, while the Kremlin still had no official word as to Karimov’s condition. Turkey shares an ethnic heritage with much of Central Asia that Russia does not, and Turkey does not have the stigma of having been a centuries-long colonizing power there. If Turkey were to put forth a concerted and organized effort, they could have a enduring effect on the development of Central Asia, possibly to Russia’s detriment. In addition, Russia has to worry as to what would happen if Turkish-based Islamist extremists were to export their activities to Central Asia, causing instability there, which could then trickle across the Russian border. Better relations would include working together to stem the tide of terrorism into Central Asia and beyond.
Here though, is the heart of the problem with long-term improvement in Russian-Turkish relations, if improving relations means supporting Erdoğan in a way the West will not. It is widely accepted that Erdoğan’s ultimate goal is to fully Islamize Turkey through a process that has only accelerated since the July coup attempt. Russia does not want another Islamist country near its borders. For Putin, supporting Erdoğan is supporting a kindred spirit who is cracking down at home, but one who is promoting those who could become enemies of Russia as they attain power in that same home. Moreover, they could then influence those in Central Asia who would, in turn, take the same approach to Russia, leaving Russia surrounded by more aggressive opponents, rather than neutral countries or countries tempered by their relationships with others, such as Turkey’s with NATO.
Thus, neutralizing Turkey as a member of NATO and encouraging them to move further afield from the West, might be to support the creation of a fully Islamist Turkey that would pose an even greater danger to Russia in the future than a NATO-tied Turkey has up until this point.
As for Turkey, the 7 August 2016 issue of the Financial Times quoted an unnamed European diplomat who noted: “Erdoğan can lash out all he likes, but he needs us. He knows he cannot trust Putin. How many Turkish-Russian wars have there been over the last three hundred years? How many did the Turks win?” Turkey’s relationship with the West is now at an all-time low in the last half century, but history does not favor a long-term positive relationship with Russia. Just recall Putin’s comments in 2015 as a reminder of how quickly things can change for the worse.
This is Putin’s greatest challenge in dealing not only with Turkey but with other countries in his near abroad. He can easily continue to play the opportunist, drawing countries from the West or other alliances temporarily, but for a continuing relationship he has to be able to offer them something positive and long term. So far he hasn’t shown that he or his nation is able to do that, just as he hasn’t been able to demonstrate that he is truly trustworthy; this includes following through on the promises he makes, rather than just making them – it is far from certain, for example, that either the pipeline or the reactor project will actually come to pass – and not threatening his neighbors or indeed invading them.
Author: Dr Jonathan Z. Ludwig
Dr. Jonathan Z. Ludwig is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, OK, USA and a member of the SIA Advisory Board.
***Views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of SAGE International Australia ***