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Turkish Delight? Putin and Erdogan’s Complicated Relationship

After the Turkish and Russian Presidents met in Moscow to discuss the situation in Idlib, Stephen Komarnyckyj looks at the current relationship between the two countries.

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan met at the Kremlin on 5 March 2020
Turkish Delight?
Putin and Erdogan’s Complicated Relationship

After the Turkish and Russian Presidents met in Moscow to discuss the situation in Idlib, Stephen Komarnyckyj looks at the current relationship between the two countries.

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How did the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Meeting Go?

Horribly, judging by the media briefing they gave to the press afterwards. Both men were slumped awkwardly in their chairs not looking at each other.

The room which Putin had chosen for the briefing was full of reminders of Russia’s triumphs over the Ottoman Empire, with a statue of Catherine the Great looming behind the Turkish delegation. A mantelpiece clock depicted her troops smashing Turkish forces during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1774.

Putin’s signalling was not subtle, but Erdogan has too much at stake.

Haven’t Turkey and Russia Been Getting Along Well in Recent Times?

Yes, Erdogan knows he must keep Russia sweet and that he can no longer rely on the West now that Donald Trump is whining about US spending on NATO and EU leaders talk about a ‘dialogue’ with Putin.

In 2019, he purchased some S 400 missiles from Russia. Erdogan has also helped Russia’s plans to stop delivering gas to Europe through Ukraine’s pipelines. In 2014, he agreed to the construction of TurkStream, a gas pipeline that runs from Russia through Turkey to the EU. He also needs Putin’s help to deal with his Syria problem.

What Syria Problem?

In 2011, Syrians starting protesting against Bashar al-Assad who became the Syrian President in 2000 after ‘inheriting’ the post from his father and winning two undemocratic elections in 2000 and 2007.

The al-Assads are a family dictatorship who largely rely on the Alawite minority, a Muslim sect which numbers about 17% of Syria’s population, to maintain power. When the 2011 protests were crushed, a war broke out in Syria – one which Russia and Iran stepped into to bolster al-Assad.

The Syrian President’s weak army, helped by his Iranian and Russian friends, is winning; bombing and murdering its own people. It has even used chemical weapons against civilians.

Turkey supported the forces which became the Free Syrian Army in 2017 against the Assadists, Iran and Russia. Idlib is the last area al-Assad, Iran and Russia do not control and Syrians are fleeing there. More than a million refugees are gathered in Idlib, next to the Turkish border, with many dying of exposure. They might try to enter Turkey, which already has around four million Syrian refugees and Erdogan is protecting the security of his borders.

Why Did Putin Bother Meeting Erdogan?

Erdogan pressured Putin. He visited Ukraine on 3 February and said that he didn’t recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea and even offered Kyiv weapons. To rub salt into Putin’s wounds, he saluted the honour guard in Ukrainian with the phrase ‘Glory to Ukraine’ – a greeting Putin hates.

In effect, Erdogan was saying ‘support my enemies and I will support your enemies’. When 33 Turkish troops died in a ‘Government attack’ in Syria. Turkey responded with an air campaign using bombers and drones and killed hundreds of al-Assad’s forces and destroyed many of their weapons.

But, Erdogan doesn’t want war and Putin was more amenable to a meeting after some of his troops and armour had been pulverised by Turkish weapons.

Did Erdogan and Putin Agree Anything at the Meeting?

Turkey and Russia have agreed a ceasefire and withdrawal lines.

Will the Ceasefire Last?

It is unlikely. Al-Assad might not call all the shots, but he wants all of Syria. Putin doesn’t want to back down. They are only held in check by the Turkish military.

Erdogan will keep helping Ukraine to weaken Russia. He is also trying to get support from the West by letting Syrian refugees head for the EU across the border. Russia will likely find ways to undermine the ceasefire it has agreed to.

Is Russia Trying to Undermine Turkey From Within?

Yes. Putin has agents in Turkey who spout his propaganda in exchange for cash or junkets and the Russian embassy is a hub for Russian influence in Istanbul.

The assassination of the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, in December 2016 was suspicious. He had been invited to speak at a photography exhibition and was killed by an off-duty policeman, Mevlüt Mert Altintas. Altintas subsequently died in a shoot-out. The joint Russian-Turkish investigation has found flimsy evidence on Altintas’ hard drive that the killer was linked to the Turkish Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen. Gülen and his movement are Erdogan’s main enemy and he blames them for the attempted coup against him in 2016. It would be very convenient if they were behind the killing.

Russia and Turkey do not want an all out conflict and blaming Gülen, which Russia portrays as a CIA agent, suits Putin too. No one will look too closely at whether Altintas was a patsy.

What Happens Now? 

The two countries will keep breaking up and making up.

Turkey needs Russian tourists and gas and for Putin to back off in Syria. Russia needs TurkStream and knows that Turkey’s army could snap al-Assad like a twig and it couldn’t stop them.

The two leaders will keep circling each other like boxers wary of risking a knockout blow. The West, as yet, shows no sign of acting to stop the carnage in Syria. The Turkish offensive gave many Syrians hope but sadly their suffering at the hands of Russia, Iran and al-Assad’s weak but brutal army will continue for now.

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