The meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg has concluded, and it was much heavier on symbolism than actual agreements.
The most progress was made on the economic front, with the centerpiece being a three-year program for improving trade. “We will gradually be lifting the measures implemented in regards to Turkish companies, the sanctions,” Putin said, though he offered no firm deadline for when that might happen. The stalled Turkish Stream pipeline was also mentioned as being back on track, though again in very general terms. Before relations had broken down, final terms had not yet been agreed to. Turkey had been driving a hard bargain with Gazprom, demanding substantial discounts as part of any deal. Nothing in yesterday’s announcement indicated that any progress had been made on such specifics.
The most breathless predictions before the event—that Erdogan might offer some kind of grand bargain to Putin wherein Ankara grudgingly accedes to Assad staying on if Moscow abandons its Kurdish clients—proved to be premature. Syria, it appears for the time being, will remain an area of serious disagreement between the two countries.
Ditto for Turkey announcing any meaningful security reorientation away from NATO—it didn’t happen. Putin and Erdogan vaguely gestured at increasing cooperation in the defense sector, but gave no specifics. No surprise, as Turkey’s military order of battle is completely Westernized, and Ankara still relies on the United States for its nuclear deterrent.
But that doesn’t mean the meeting was anything like a failure—far from it. The New York Times notes that the meeting “raised alarms in Western capitals,” which arguably was the primary goal of both Putin and Erdogan. For example, the Turkish Stream pipeline announcement, even though the project is far from certain, presents a direct challenge to Europe’s Trans-Adriatic Pipeline project, which would help the EU diversify away from Russian gas by tapping Azerbaijan’s reserves.
And even if Russia and Turkey remain very far apart on Syria, both Putin and Erdogan must be very tempted to come up with some kind of common approach that freezes the United States out. Some kind of lasting ceasefire around Aleppo, Assad recognizing a privileged security zone for Turkey along its border, perhaps in exchange for Russia agreeing to rein in its Kurdish proxies in Turkey—anything that smacks of progress but leaves the United States on the sidelines might be worth trying for.
Finally, similar logic applies for NATO. Turkey’s military might well start diversifying its weapons purchases as Ankara slowly readjusts its orientation. After all, the precedent for playing the field is already there: Turkey was threatening to buy a Chinese air-defense missile system until it nixed the deal earlier this year.
That said, any putative long-term shift will take some time to realize. Even a leader volatile as Erdogan is unlikely to immediately put all his eggs in one basket. Russia has historically been one of Turkey’s main antagonists, and Erdogan surely knows as well as anyone just who he’s dealing with in the person of Vladimir Putin. As our own Lilia Shevstova noted yesterday, “authoritarian regimes never forge sustainable friendships.”