How serious is the reconciliation between Russia and Turkey?

While trade and investment cooperation might have been removed from the back burner, differences on regional geopolitics, namely Syria, are still a prominent obstacle to  bilateral dialogue.

While trade and investment cooperation might have been removed from the back burner, differences on regional geopolitics, namely Syria, are still a prominent obstacle to bilateral dialogue.

Russia and Turkey appear to have patched up their differences following the quarrel over the downing of a Russian jet in late 2015, but just how solid is the relationship between the two countries now and what are the threats to further reconciliation?

The U-turn this summer by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who apologized in late June for the incident on Nov. 24, 2015 in which the Turkish air force downed a Russian Su-24 jet along the Syrian border, has unfrozen bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey.

But while trade and investment cooperation might have been removed from the back burner, differences on regional geopolitics, namely Syria, are still a prominent obstacle to  bilateral dialogue.

In fact, Erdogan vouchsafed no more than a half-apology, which was as much as he could afford in view of the traditional importance of saving face in the Middle East. He then delegated the task of healing the psychological trauma to his administrative team.

Russia “isn’t just our close and friendly neighbor, but also a strategic partner,” said Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek on the eve of his boss’s visit to St. Petersburg to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and seal the reconciliation. Moscow, acting out of long-term pragmatism, rewarded the half-apology with a full pardon.

The two main rationales for Turkey and Russia to revive their marriage of convenience amount to business sense (economic interdependence) and the necessity to avoid confrontation at a time when the national borders and nation-states established by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Asia Minor Agreement are crumbling.

Interdependence rediscovered

It took five months in total until chief of staff Hulusi Akar, a four-star general, who later was credited with crushing the organizers of the July 15-16 coup attempt against Erdogan, suggested patching up the quarrel with Moscow at the end of April, as the Turkish daily Hurriet reported.

Erdogan consented and kick-started shuttle and silent diplomacy involving a Turkish businessman, Putin’s foreign policy advisor Yury Ushakov (once the Russian ambassador to Washington, D.C.), and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.

Five months seemed to be enough for both sides to realize the actual extent of their mutual interdependence and the scale of the self-inflicted damage.

Energy-hungry Turkey had much to lose if Russia’s state nuclear agency Rosatom, which had won the tender to build a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu in Mersin Province, pulled out. Ankara has also staked its claims on becoming a regional energy hub by welcoming Russian Gazprom’s Turkish Stream pipeline, which is designed not only to feed the local industrial and residential clients but also potentially to ship natural gas to end-consumers in Europe.

So far, Turkey envisages the construction of only one string, which is enough to substitute current deliveries along the Ukraine-Romania-Bulgaria route and complement Russian gas flowing through the Blue Stream pipeline. In early September, Ankara issued the first permits for Turkish Stream.

The network of filling stations along major auto routes in Turkey, owned and operated by Russia’s largest private oil company, Lukoil, is yet another pillar of mutual interaction, as are a number of Turkish businesses – Enka, Vestel, Beko, Şişecam, Garanti Bankası, and Pegas – that have established a secure foothold on the Russian market.

The final stroke might be this: Turkish developers have landed more than $10 billion worth of Russian construction contracts. Not to forget the 3.5 million Russian vacationers who in 2015 enjoyed the “all-inclusive” hospitality of Turkey’s seaside resorts.

Snubbed by the West

The poorly masterminded coup d’état in July turned out to be a moment of truth and revelation for Erdogan and his team. Both the U.S. and the EU were slow to issue a timely condemnation of the plotters and celebrate the survival of the legitimate government.

Moreover, the current Turkish ruling elite attributed the conspiracy to Fethullah Gulen, a religious cleric who has been living in Pennsylvania since 1999. Ankara sought the extradition of the alleged chief plotter, who Erdogan considers his archenemy, but the request was met by a firm rebuff from the U.S. administration.

In sum, despite formal NATO membership and the somewhat privileged relationship between Turkey and the United States (until the two parted ways over the supply of U.S. arms and armaments to Syrian Kurd paramilitary formations), Erdogan realized he could not count on full-fledged support from the West.

The prospects of becoming one day a EU member state have also dimmed. A poll in Germany held in April, discovered that 68 percent were opposed to granting Turkey a EU membership card while 79 percent subscribed to the view that Turkey “cannot be trusted.”

Feeling unwelcome, Turkish citizens have developed a strong anti-EU sentiment. A recent poll conducted by the Turkish European Foundation for Education and Scientific Studies (TAVAK) revealed a dramatic change of attitude: While in 2015, 48 percent of the public did not believe Turkey would ever join the EU, the figure has now soared to 64 percent.

Snubbed by his NATO allies, Erdogan launched a dual reconciliation with Israel and Russia, and made friendly overtures to Turkey’s long-time regional rival, Iran. Pushed into a corner by the West, the Turkish leader was left with few choices.

Was there a secret trade-off?

Despite the creeping realignment of regional alliances, it is no big secret that Moscow and Ankara do not see eye to eye on the prospects of the war in Syria. The recent incursion of the Turkish military into the northern regions of Syria may spoil all the recent gains.

Ankara’s concerns have solid grounds. The paramilitary units of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), reportedly linked to the Kurdish militant group PKK (the Kurdistan Workers’ Party), have become a force to be reckoned with. Erdogan is apprehensive that the PKK, which is conducting a war of terror against Turkey in its struggle to achieve self-determination for the country’s Kurds, might profit from the institutionalization of Rojava (Western or Syrian Kurdistan), the proto-state of the Syrian Kurds, which proclaimed its establishment on March 17, 2016.

However, Russia and the U.S. view the PYD Kurdish militia as an indispensable ally in the fight against Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.

One might well speculate that one of the secret trade-offs between Ankara and Moscow could have been an agreement by Russia to limit its support for the PYD. However, there are no concrete grounds for coming to this conclusion.

An argument in favor of a “secret protocol” can be found in the admittance of Turkish Defense Minister Fikri Isik that the operation launched on Aug. 24 against both ISIS and the PYD in northern Syria had been agreed with the Russian, Iranian and even Syrian authorities.

Moreover, since it is well known that there the Turkish leader has something of an allergy to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is supported, at least formally, by Russia, this fell short of being a complete reconciliation between the two neighbors, who have fought at least 10 wars in the past.

At the end of August, however, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that “Turkey may consider al-Assad as a future intermediary,” signaling a softening of its previous inflexible position.

It all counts. The pace of rapprochement between Russia and Turkey after their mini Cold War is measured but gaining momentum – and for quite logical reasons.

The opinion of the writer may not necessarily reflect the position of RBTH or its staff.

Special section: Troika Report>>>

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