Alexander Shumilin, Director, Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts at the Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences (Moscow)
Putin and Erdogan find themselves only at the beginning stages of a practical (following a declared) rapprochement. The parameters and priorities of this development will be decided at their meeting in St. Petersburg. The top priority – after “turning the page” on the question of compensating Russia for the downed jet – will be to balance what can be called the political-strategic interests of Russia against the political-economic interests of Turkey.
If we factor out the common “political” denominator, then it turns out that Moscow’s main interests in its normalization with Ankara come down to issues of a military-strategic nature. These include:
- In Syria, to avoid new clashes with Turkey (first of all in the air), as well as to prevent Turkey’s participation in a potential “Plan B” that could lead to significant Russian losses in the conflict;
- Within NATO, to promote the formation of a Turkish “special position” in regards to Russia in order to minimize the potential of a military or political escalation between Moscow and Ankara. Such an escalation could lead to Turkey closing off maritime access to Russia’s military vessels, which would fundamentally devalue the significance of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, Crimea;
- To maintain and expand Turkish cooperation in the “South Stream” pipeline project, intended to supply Russian gas to Europe while bypassing Ukraine.
Erdogan’s interest in drawing closer to Putin appears to boil down to two factors: the economic one (including tourism, trade, and construction) and the political one. In the latter case, Erdogan wants to use his improving relations with Russia to a) discourage Russia’s activity in stoking anti-Turkish sentiment among the Kurds and b) as a lever to regulate Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. and EU, who currently find themselves in a state of political and military tension with Russia.
It is hard to imagine that Erdogan has the ability to violate any of the norms – both formal and informal – that tie him to Western institutions. For him, Russia is more likely a convenient card to play in order to both overcome the current tensions with the West and to start a new and advantageous stage of the relationship. Erdogan’s ability to “pivot East” to the detriment of the West is constrained by the domestic political situation in Turkey, as well as by demographic realities: as the failed coup showed, a significant part of the Turkish population – as well as a good number of military and government officials – see their future in an alliance with Europe. This could include some kind of combination of Europeanism and soft Islamism.
In other words, the convergence between Putin and Erdogan resembles more of an attempt by two leaders, who have found themselves in a tight spot, to use each other in order to solve their own, quite large and even fundamental, problems.