A good title for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s political biography will be ‘How Russia became the pivot for anti-West nations’. As Ian Bremmer wrote in HT earlier this week : “Russia’s president may not have created this recent string of international good fortune, but he’s an accomplished political opportunist who is no doubt looking for creative new ways to seize the day”.
On Tuesday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced in a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that “the Moscow-Ankara friendship axis will be restored”. That Erdogan’s first overseas travel after the failed coup on July 15 was to St Petersburg throws light on Turkey’s deteriorating ties with the West.
Bilateral ties had soured after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in November 24 near the Syria-Turkey border. However, a lot has changed in the past nine months.
While world events have shifted the winds in favour of Russia, Turkey has been often at the receiving end. The continuing conflict in Iraq and Syria has led to an international refugee crisis, and much of this has been flowing through Turkey. The European Union (EU) might have struck a deal with Turkey to check the flow of refugees, but it looks precariously delicate with every passing day. Strong ties with Russia will pull Turkey further away from the EU, which in many ways was treating it as a pariah. Turkey’s entry into the Union seems to have been pushed to the backburner, and during a Brexit debate former British PM David Cameron put it bluntly: “They [Turkey] applied in 1987. At the current rate of progress, they will probably get round to joining in about the year 3,000, according to the latest forecasts”.
Erdogan’s visit to St Petersburg adds to West’s paranoia about Moscow and its ways. It is this same fear that sees the Kremlin being dragged into discussions and debates on the US presidential elections. That Turkey is a Nato member only heightens this fear.
Washington and Brussels were late to condemn the July 15 failed coup in Turkey. The delay, in one way, was understandable given that Erdogan is seen by many as Islamising Turkey’s democracy and taking it away from Europe’s democratic standards. But while the West chewed over a response, Putin was quick to call Erdogan and condemn the attack. International diplomacy is all about making the right move at the right time and Putin seized the moment. It should not be forgotten that Putin called Erdogan at a time when Russia-Turkey ties were cold.
The real test of this rapprochement will be the stand both leaders adopt towards the conflict in Syria. While Putin supports the Bashar al-Assad regime and the Kremlin is helping Damascus fight anti-government forces, Ankara is not on the same page — at least until now. Many attribute Turkey’s porous borders through which scores of jihadis have walked into Syria and Iraq as the main reason for this current mayhem in the region. Russia and Turkey could reach a point of consensus over the future of Syria and Assad if the two agree on containing the Kurds, who have used the unrest to revive their demand for a separate nation. Though the Kurds in Iraq and Syria have been successful in resisting the Islamic State (and in turn become reliable allies for the West), Turkey sees them as terrorists.
Another factor is the economics. Russia’s sanctions on Turkey greatly affected its tourism industry — Russian tourists form a majority of those visiting Turkey. Moreover, repeated terror attacks and a failed coup prompted many western governments to caution its citizens against visiting Turkey. Russia is also a big market for Turkey’s fruits and vegetables.
The West should not rush in to condemn Ankara and further push it into Moscow’s arms. Rather than sticking to the Cold War dichotomy, it should be able to customise its approach depending on the situation: A good example would be the tacit understanding Washington has with Moscow in Syria at the moment.
It’s an irony that Turkey, which survived an attempt to derail its democracy, does not turn to the West, but to Russia, which is not always a paragon of democracy.