The odd couple: Putin and Erdogan

The Russo-Turkish thaw is bad news for Washington, Brussels and Syria’s Kurds.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks to Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) during their meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 9, 2016
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian czars and Ottoman sultans were mostly enemies, and this time-honored history’s latest pair, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was no exception – until this week.
In a diplomatic about-face fraught with Machiavellian geopolitics, the two enigmatic leaders sealed a 10-month crisis with a deal that affects not only their embattled countries but also the war-torn Middle East and a very perplexed West.
Crisis erupted last year after Turkey downed a Russian warplane that strayed into its airspace. Russia responded by banning Turkish imports.
Erdogan, for his part, accused Russia of “playing with fire” and demanded that Moscow apologize for violating Turkish airspace.
That was then. Ultimately, it was Erdogan who apologized sheepishly, in a phone call last June that ignited a rapprochement process that inverted Turkey’s recent diplomatic deal with Israel.
Following his apology and his agreement to compensate the fallen Russian pilots’ families, Erdogan traveled to Putin like a vassal to his master. Once in Putin’s chambers, he addressed him as “my dear friend” as the two set out to normalize their countries’ bilateral ties.
Both had little strategic choice, but whereas Erdogan’s somersault seemed cumbersome, in Putin’s there was elegance.
With news of the attempted coup against him breaking less than a month after Erdogan called to apologize, Putin now called Erdogan to express his solidarity. It was a stroke of brilliance.
First, Putin’s support arrived well before any Western leader’s.
Second, the authoritarianism for which the West keeps attacking Erdogan now won a potent fan.
ERDOGAN’S ASSUMPTION that Western leaders were rooting for his enemies is hard to refute. Putin evidently understood this in real time, and made a gesture that cost him nothing and will benefit him greatly.
The cost is negligible because Erdogan’s apology and compensation are effectively a note of surrender.
Russia has flexed its muscle, and Erdogan will avoid messing with it again. And the benefit is big because Erdogan’s journey effectively accepts Russia’s status as the Middle East’s major power broker.
This is besides the deal’s economic benefits.
Before the crisis Russia was a major buyer of Turkey’s produce and the top supplier of its tourists.
Turkey’s refusal to join anti-Russian sanctions following Crimea’s annexation in 2014 was therefore priceless for Moscow, economically and diplomatically. For Russia, breaking the sanctions became a major strategic goal, which Turkey helped it achieve.
For Turkey, the Russian blows to its tourism and agriculture were harsh enough, but the threat to its industry was even harsher, as Russia is Turkey’s sole gas supplier. Though Russia stopped short of shutting the spigots, Erdogan had to consider such a prospect, because Russia had displayed elsewhere its willingness to do such things.
Having said this, the deal’s economics are but its appetizer. The main course is about America, Europe and Syria.
FOR ANKARA, rapprochement became urgent following the failed coup, which sparked a major assault on Turkey’s military, judiciary, academia and media. In its current state of matter, Turkey can’t afford enmity with a neighbor as powerful and unpredictable as Putin.
Yet there is a deeper reason for Putin and Erdogan to fall in each other’s arms: Both have a problem with America’s global hegemony, and both feel personally betrayed by Barack Obama.
Putin’s anger stems from Washington’s conduct vis-à-vis Ukraine and Libya. As he sees it, the White House first stole from him a North African outpost and then cheered Europe as it tried to snatch Ukraine from his bosom.
Erdogan, for his part, is convinced the US masterminded the coup against him through his nemesis, self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen.
These circumstantial concerns are fueled by the ideological misgivings about the current world order.
Erdogan and Putin want it changed, and they sniff a Western weakness which they are out to exploit.
No, the two men don’t at all see eye to eye on the international arena. Russia’s imperial designs remain a thorn in Turkey’s side, as they have been consistently since the days of Peter the Great.
This is what Erdogan implied when he said this week that he remains concerned about Crimea’s Tatars, a Muslim and Turkic minority, and that is why in the war on the Black Sea’s opposite shore, Ankara is backing Ukraine.
However, Erdogan and Putin are very much on the same page when it comes to authoritarianism, and they are not alone on this front. In a 27-year retrospect, it is now fair to say that democracy’s global charge since 1989 has been reversed.
What began in Tiananmen Square, with China’s resistance of the democratic winds unleashed by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, later proceeded to Russia, where Putin undid his predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s relatively liberal legacy, and has now arrived in Turkey, which has long been celebrated as history’s first Muslim-majority democracy.
The result is a tri-continental counter-Western juggernaut that puts global democracy on the defensive again, for the first time in more than a generation.
In fact, the Russo-Turkish rapprochement challenges not only Western ideas but also Western interests and assets.
Turkey has been at the heart of the European migrant crisis, for geographic, diplomatic and cultural reasons.
Geographically, because its location between Syria and Greece has turned Turkey into an Arab-European bridge. Diplomatically, because Turkey hoped to use the crisis to promote its historic goal of joining the European Union. And culturally, because when watching Christian Europeans reject Muslim refugees, many Turks identify with the latter.
On the coup’s eve Ankara and Brussels drafted a deal to grant Turks visa-free travel as well as billions to their government in turn for helping block the migratory influx.
Now, with Turkey suppressing freedom and also mulling a restoration of the death penalty, Europe can’t sign this deal. Yet even if such a deal is somehow signed, the purge in Turkey means it has effectively given up on the idea of joining the EU.
Putin understands this tectonic shift in Turkish thinking and is out to exploit it. For him, the EU has become a menace, ever since its attempt to bring Ukraine into the EU.
Deeply aware of the fissures within the EU, and now buoyed by its loss of Britain, Putin is believed to consider the EU’s ultimate unraveling a strategic aim. Turkey can help him promote this cause, by failing to block refugee traffic into Europe.
The more Brussels frustrates Ankara’s accession requests and scolds it on issues of political freedom and human rights, the more Turkey will join Putin in seeking the EU’s dissolution.
Where, then, does all this leave Israel?
THE RAPPROCHEMENT’S simplest and happiest aspect, as seen from Jerusalem, is its economic side.
De-politicized trade anywhere in the Middle East is an Israeli interest. Besides that, Israel’s future gas sales to Turkey should not be affected by the Putin-Erdogan deal, as Ankara’s need to end its dependency on Russian gas remains unchanged.
Equally simple, though less happy, is the rift between the two and the West. Israel will in this regard have to do as it has done concerning the Ukrainian conflict, where it has remained neutral despite American displeasure.
Surely, Israel wants a democratic world. However, like democratic Finland during the Cold War, which remained neutral toward its Soviet neighbor’s rivalry with the West, Israel will remain mum about Turkey’s and Russia’s internal affairs, and also about their confrontation with the EU.
Israel will also be a bystander as Putin and Erdogan continue cockfighting in Syria.
The Russian-backed Assad forces’ setbacks this week in Aleppo, where Turkish-backed rebel forces broke the city’s siege, underscored the impossibility of total victory for either side. It remains to be seen when and how a new Syria will be mapped and built, but chances that postwar Syria will be engineered jointly by Putin and Erdogan have this week grown.
Such a deal will likely secure the interests of the Turkish-backed Sunnis and the Russian-backed Alawites.
It will leave exposed the Syrian Kurds, whose evolving autonomy Ankara sees as a threat, due to their contiguity with Turkey’s own restive Kurds.
Israel has long championed the Kurdish cause, mainly through quiet trade and aid, but that was in Iraq. Syria’s Kurds, like Turkey’s and Iran’s, are more difficult to back from Jerusalem, which will likely remain neutral on that front as well.
There has been some speculation in recent weeks that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been cultivating his ties with Putin and has now also mended fences with Erdogan, is seeking a Russian-brokered deal on Syria that will somehow involve the Golan Heights.
That is, of course, speculation; even more than a Putin-Erdogan embrace was only last month.