Russian and Turkish strongmen Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan appear closer than ever.
For years Erdogan opposed Putin’s position on Syria, and demanded that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad must go.
No longer does Erdogan voice this demand.
To the contrary, upon conclusion of the latest Syria talks in Astana on January 24, Putin and Erdogan only moved closer by agreeing, together with Iran, to jointly fight ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham.
Russian and Western press reports indicate Turkey and Russia already launched joint strikes in Syria.
Yet the Russian-Turkish relationship is unequal. Putin is in an increasingly stronger position, and it is unclear if Erdogan is aware of this.
Erdogan has eliminated virtually all free press. It is hard to top Russia on freedom of expression crackdown, but Turkey for years now has ranked below Russia on free press according to Reporters without Borders.
Putin and Erdogan share many traits, but the Turkish society is more sharply divided that Russia’s, and the Kremlin’s propaganda efforts are more organized and systematic. Indeed, Russian propaganda is second to none. Since the failed Turkish coup in August, Erdogan has unleashed an unprecedented crackdown on civil society and the military.
In this context it is easier for Erdogan than for Putin to be out of touch with reality.
Meanwhile, Putin retains leverage over Erdogan, especially through his relationship with the Kurds. Broadly speaking, Kurdish nationalism has been long central to Erdogan, first as an object of reconciliation, and now one of confrontation, specifically with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).
Moscow’s deep ties to the Kurds go back two centuries. Russian and Soviet leaders always used them against Turkish leaders to assert control.
The PKK is essentially a Kremlin-sponsored Cold War era creation.
It is partly because of fears of Kurdish nationalism in Syria that Erdogan has come to believe he has no choice than to accept Putin’s position on Assad, especially in the context of years of US absence in Syria.
Putin has serious problems—both real and imaginary, but Erdogan has little leverage over him.
By comparison, the Turkish economy appears to be doing even worse than Russia’s. Putin can also turn on and off the flow of Russian tourists into Turkey.
Turkey grown more dependent on Russian tourists who, by comparison, have greater options.
Putin views diplomacy in zero-sum terms, and in the end, holds allegiance to no one.
He had thrown other leaders under the bus before and can turn on a dime, be it freezing the sale of S-300 to Iran in 2010 when it suited the Kremlin’s interests, or lifting the ban in 2015 despite Israel’s security concerns.
Putin tends to view international affairs as a system of strong-arming others into submission, making offers one can’t refuse, or simply fomenting unrest or confusion through subterfuge.
Russia needs a strong and long-lasting friendship with Turkey for a number of reasons, according to political commentator and journalist Rostislav Ishchenko.
Moscow has already made some important steps toward building an alliance with Ankara.
In recent years, Russo-Turkish relations have gone through several trying times, including a bilateral crisis after a Turkish jet downed a Russian bomber in Syria in November 2015. Since then, however, both countries have significantly improved their relations, boosting cooperation, including on energy, on the fight against terrorism and the Syrian settlement.
Benefits of Russo-Turkish Friendship
“Russia needs Turkey as a friend and partner, not as a rival.
There are several advantages Moscow could win from an alliance with Ankara,” RIA Novosti contributor and political commentator Rostislav Ishchenko wrote in an analytical piece.
First, the Russian Navy would have stable access to the Turkish Straits – the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles – connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea.
Second, Turkey is one of the most important powers in the Black Sea region.
A hypothetical Russo-Turkish alliance would guarantee security and stability in the region, including in Crimea.
“Third, an alliance with Turkey and Iran could guarantee the Syrian settlement, a stable peace in the region and a Russian presence in the Middle East,” Ishchenko pointed out.
Moreover, such an alliance would strip NATO and the United States of the “Turkish leverage” over Russia.
Finally, Turkey has cultural and historical ties to the Turkic people living in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
An alliance with Ankara would help Moscow improve its influence on a territory spanning from the Caspian Sea to Mongolia.
According to Ishchenko, Russia is already taking steps to form a stable and long-lasting partnership with Turkey.
“While political relations are often unstable and the political environment can change in the blink of an eye, there are certain spheres of economic cooperation that could cement a partnership lasting for decades. Moreover, Russia and Turkey have the potential for a promising military and strategic partnership,” the article read.
Moscow and Ankara are currently at the final stage of the talks on the delivery of the Russian-made advanced S-400 missile-defense system to Turkey.
“A missile defense system is what a country builds for decades.
For example, many Arab nations still use Soviet-made air- and missile-defense systems.
They also have Soviet-era aircraft in service. Once established and arranged, such military and technical cooperation still exists, even 25 years after the collapse of the USSR,” Ishchenko wrote.
Furthermore, in 2010, Moscow and Ankara signed an agreement on the construction and operation of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant (NPP) in southern Turkey.
The project is the world’s first nuclear power plant project implemented on a BOO (“build-own-operate”) basis. In accordance with this model, Russia will build, own and operate the plant.
According to Ishchenko, nuclear energy is another field in which countries can build a long-lasting partnership, “at least for 50-70 years.”
Russia has also been increasing its energy supplies to Turkey.
For example, exports of Russian natural gas to Turkey have risen by 22 percent since the beginning of the year.
Moreover, the implementation of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project is underway.
The new pipeline will not only allow for increasing Russian gas supplies to Turkey, but will also guarantee the stability of Russian energy exports to the European Union.
“To sum up, we can see intense Russia-Turkey cooperation in advanced weapon systems, nuclear energy and gas supplies.
Russia is building a solid regional alliance in the Middle East, based on military and economic interests,” Ishchenko concluded.