Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin are set to meet in St. Petersburg tomorrow in what many analysts are setting up as a pivotal summit.
The thaw in relations had started before the recent failed putsch in Turkey, when Erdogan wrote a letter to Putin in June, apologizing for Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 fighter late last year. In exchange, Russia lifted a ban on tourist charter flights to Turkey, and made noises about looking at lifting further trade sanctions imposed after the fighter jet incident.
During and after the recent coup attempt, Putin made every effort to ingratiate himself with the Turkish leader, repeatedly announcing support for the regime. Meanwhile, Western leaders hemmed and hawed, wringing their hands about Erdogan’s response in the aftermath. As a result, Erdogan has been heaping scorn on his Western allies, and his first post-coup trip is to Russia, and not to any NATO country.
So what’s likely to happen? The Financial Times:
But diplomats worry that Ankara could use Russia as a lever in its relations with the west, including over Syria. Turkey cut off power to the Incirlik air base, from which the US launches bombing raids against Isis, for a week after the coup.
Russian and Turkish diplomats said they expected Turkey would now tone down public criticism of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, and privately acquiesce to Moscow’s position that his regime is one of the guarantors of preserving Syrian statehood at least during a transition period. Ankara has backed rebels battling forces loyal to Mr Assad, while Russia supports the Syrian leader’s regime.
In return, Turkey will hope that Mr Putin will agree to moderate his support for Syria’s Kurds, although one Russian foreign policy expert said any policy revision would be “tricky” in practice. “Ties with the Kurds run deep throughout Russia’s diplomatic community, and we will never give up this asset,” he said.
For various reasons, immediate worries about some kind of earth-shattering geostrategic realignment are probably overstated. It’s true that Erdogan is looking for leverage over the West, but he is dealing with Putin from a position of relative weakness, and Putin is not the kind of negotiator who gives up something for nothing.
Turkey has symbolically unblocked access to the Russian propaganda website, Sputnik, ahead of the summit, presumably as a goodwill gesture, but there’s not much else the Turks can actually give the Russians to have them distance themselves from the Kurds. As Adam Garfinkle reminded us a few months ago, the Kurds are pressure point on Ankara that the Moscow has cultivated since the depths of the Cold War. Turkey publicly acquiescing to what is increasingly a foregone conclusion—that Assad in some guise will likely stick around—gains Moscow very little. After all, Assad has been doing just fine without Turkey’s assent, and if current trends continue, Ankara will eventually have to come to terms with facts on the ground without Moscow conceding anything.
Instead, whatever progress will be made will likely be in the realm of economic cooperation—a realm where both countries stand to benefit. Erdogan will be pressing Putin to lift the rest of the economic sanctions still in place. Expect real progress, perhaps even some kind of an official timeline being announced, on the lifting of the food embargo. Furthermore, a joint statement on the resumption of talks over the construction of the long-discussed Turkish Stream project is also not out of the question, though expect any such announcement to be very short on details. Such a move would rattle capitals across Europe—a result both Putin and Erdogan crave—without costing either country much immediately.
This is not to say that tomorrow summit is inconsequential—far from it. Relations between Turkey and the West are at a nadir, and any additional friction among NATO members can only make Putin smile. But a truly consequential geostrategic shift is not the matter of a single summit. Turkey’s turn from the West is well underway, and will likely continue. But its extent will manifest over the course of months and years, not in one single meeting between leaders.