Aykan Erdemir, Boris Zilberman
10 August 2016 – Politico
The failed coup in Turkey pushed Recep Tayyip Erdoğan into the arms of a man he now hails as a “valuable friend” but who was until recently a bitter enemy.
Russo-Turkish relations had reached a new low following Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in November 2015 — as Vladimir Putin coldly reminded his Turkish counterpart during their meeting in St. Petersburg Tuesday, Erdoğan’s first trip abroad since the military attempt to remove him.
Trying to break his country out of its international isolation, the Turkish president took steps in June to normalize relations with Moscow, while also repairing ties with Israel and the UAE. The existential threat posed by July’s coup attempt appears to have strengthened his resolve to do this, and pushed him back toward Russia.
The coup attempt also provided Erdoğan with an invaluable opportunity to reshape the Turkish public’s hostile attitudes toward Russia. Although Erdoğan had proudly endorsed the downing of the jet in November, since the coup his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has begun to reframe the incident as conspiracy by putschists to damage Russo-Turkish relations.
In contrast to Turkish jubilance, the St. Petersburg summit was met with skepticism by a Russian public exposed to intense anti-Turkish propaganda since November.
Earlier this year, a poll showed that Russians listed Turkey as their country’s third-greatest enemy after the U.S. and Ukraine.
The rapid rise of anti-Turkish sentiment among Russians is not surprising given the strength of the Kremlin’s state-controlled propaganda machine. Almost immediately after the November incident, state TV started broadcasting documentaries on the bloody Russo-Ottoman wars of centuries past, and cautionary tales about the Turks’ historical treachery.
Now, Erdoğan hopes Putin’s messaging machine can spin in reverse — in order to launch a new era of cooperation.
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Key to this dramatic turnaround of events is the worsening relationship between Turkey and the U.S. in the aftermath of the abortive coup. A majority of Turkish citizens believe that Fethullah Gülen, a U.S.-based Sunni cleric in self-imposed exile, was behind the attempt.
Erdoğan’s campaign to extradite Gülen to Turkey has been accompanied by rampant anti-Americanism. Turkey’s pro-government media published blatant conspiracy theories, even going as far as to accuse President Obama of being the coup’s mastermind.
Erdoğan has also been unhappy about what he sees as tepid support from the U.S. and the E.U. following the coup. During Tuesday’s press conference, he emphasized his gratitude to Putin for being the first leader to call him. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu earlier thanked Moscow, noting that Ankara had received “unconditional” support from Russia — “unlike other countries.”
This is not the first time Ankara has turned to Moscow to hedge against a potential fallout with Washington. In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson threatened Turkey against a military intervention in Cyprus, and Ankara quickly approached the Soviet Union.
The subsequent Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement of 1967 paved the way for robust bilateral cooperation that led to Russian investments in steel and aluminum plants and an oil refinery in Turkey. The cooperation, however, remained limited to economic issues, as Ankara continued to play a crucial role in NATO missions around the world.
Erdoğan’s current dialogue with Moscow is similarly economically focused, remaining purposefully silent on the thornier issues of Syria, the Kurds and Islamist terror.
Overall, the Turkish president’s major concession to Putin seems to be the provision of “strategic investment” status to the Russian nuclear project in Akkuyu and the decision to revive the Turkish Stream gas pipeline along with a vague reference to defense cooperation.
Previous rumors of Russian-Turkish defense cooperation included procurement of air defense systems and a Russian presence at Turkey’s İncirlik air base. Still, issues of NATO interoperability and lack of consensus on the Syria question will likely stifle such developments.
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The last time Erdoğan reached out so warmly to Putin was in November 2013, also in St. Petersburg. Erdoğan was growing frustrated with the slow-moving and demanding EU accession process, and appealed to Putin to allow Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
It was exactly two years after that appeal that Turkey downed the Russian jet, leading to a seven-month crisis in bilateral ties. It is therefore no wonder that in St. Petersburg, Putin seemed cautious and reserved while Erdoğan appeared enthusiastic.
Putin is keenly aware of Erdoğan’s economic, political and psychological desperation. Having learned his lesson with the Turkish president, the Russian leader will undoubtedly proceed with caution. He will, however, also be keen to exploit the opportunity presented by an anxious Erdoğan.
Russia’s president knows that getting his Turkish counterpart to pivot to Moscow on geopolitics and economics will go a long way towards undermining the E.U. and NATO. Turkey, after all, can be of greater service to Putin as a rogue NATO ally than a Russian satellite.
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament, and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Boris Zilberman is the deputy director of congressional relations. Follow them on Twitter @aykan_erdemir and @rolltidebmz.