Accessibility links

Mirror Images: Are Putin And Erdogan Too Much Alike To Compromise?

  • Charles Recknagel

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often look like mirror images of strong, authoritarian nationalists. That could make it difficult for them to compromise over Turkey's downing of a Russian jet.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan often look like mirror images of strong, authoritarian nationalists. That could make it difficult for them to compromise over Turkey's downing of a Russian jet.

He rose to power promising to return his nation to past greatness and traditional values. He is authoritarian and does not happily tolerate opposition. And he has become the unmistakable face of his nation by turning his leadership of his country into an intensely personal affair.

Russian President Vladimir Putin?

Or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan?

The description fits both because, in many ways, the two men are very similar.

For years, their similarities as strong, authoritarian leaders appeared to make it easy for them to understand each other. Now, however, those same traits could make it difficult for either to compromise over Turkey's downing of a Russian jet on November 24.

In the past decade, Putin and Erdogan often praised each other as they forged closer economic ties between their countries.

As recently as December, Putin praised Erdogan as being a "man of strong character." Just months earlier, in September 2014, Erdogan visited Moscow to help the Russian leader open one of the biggest mosques in Europe.

Today, however, the past sympathy between the two leaders looks very likely to turn into enmity. And the same qualities that once made them friendly could play a key role in maintaining their hostility.

Imperial Trappings

"If there is a touch of a tsar in Putin, there is a sultan in Erdogan," a Turkish journalist, Hilmi Toros, observed in 2009.

There are many signs that both men have absolutist characters and they have only appeared to deepen with their long years in power. Putin has effectively been in power 16 years, Erdogan for 12.

"They both have a sense of imperial nostalgia, for the Soviet Union with Putin, for the Ottoman Empire with Erdogan," says Gareth Jenkins, an Istanbul-based political analyst and fellow with the Washington and Stockholm-based Silk Road Studies project.

Just how much so is illustrated by their palaces.

Erdogan last year completed a 1,000-room, $615 million, Ottomon-themed presidential palace that supporters say is meant to signify the country's prosperity and reflect Erdogan's importance as the man remaking modern Turkey.

Putin has a lavish, Black Sea mansion allegedly built for $1 billion in the Baroque style of St. Petersburg's Winter Palace.

But the two men share more than their fondness for imperial trappings. Each has carefully built a strongman image for himself and projected it to his countrymen and each has repressed criticism and asserted control over the media.

Putin, who like Erdogan grew up impoverished and playing sports, cultivates the image of a macho man, with media coverage of him riding horses bare-chested, posing beside tigers, and going on diving expeditions. Erdogan has created his strongman image through his public rhetoric, which is unsparing of enemies.

At the same time, both men project a sense of moral certitude that the way they view the world is sanctioned by higher authorities. Erdogan is a devout Muslim and the leader of the religious-based Justice and Development Party (AKP). Putin, who professes to be personally deeply religious, has developed close ties between the Kremlin and the Russian Orthodox Church.

All this not only makes both men uncompromising in their domestic politics, but also shapes their approach to foreign relations.

"They both to some extent play international politics rather like a 19th-century balance of power, zero-sum game, in which if you win the other side loses," says Bill Park of the Department of Defense Studies at King's College, London. "I don't think they can back down, because that is the kind of people they are."

Room For Dialogue?

Since Turkey shot down the Russian warplane on November 24, both Putin and Erdogan have taken positions that are fully in line with their characters.

Putin has described the downing as "a stab in the back," suggesting he viewed Erdogan's action as a personal betrayal by a former friend. He then upped the ante, saying that the "stab in the back...has been inflicted on us by accomplices of terrorism."

Erdogan said Turkey had shot down the jet to defend its own security and "the rights of our brothers" in Syria. He was referring, first, to defending Turkish airspace against repeated Russian incursions and, second, to defending Ankara-supported Turkoman rebel groups in Syria that Russia has been bombing close to the Turkish border. The groups are not part of Moscow's proclaimed target in Syria: Islamic State.

The downing of the Russian jet is one of the most serious incidents between NATO and Moscow since the end of the Cold War, but where the crisis goes from here is impossible to predict.

The two countries signaled on November 25 that both sides would avoid military action against the other.

"We have no intention of fighting a war with Turkey," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.

Erdogan also said Ankara had no intention of escalating tensions with Russia.

But given the nature of the Russian and Turkish presidents, there is little reason to expect the two countries to go back to their former good relations, despite their economic ties.

"The hope is there won't be an escalation into a hot war, [but] I think we are going to see a cold war now between Russia and Turkey," says Jenkins. "Putin is not going to forgive this, and there are a lot of instruments at Russia's disposal to make things very difficult for Turkey."

Turkey is a major market for Russian gas exports by pipeline under the Black Sea, and Russian visitors make up a sizable portion of Turkey's tourism industry. At the same time, Turkey is battling the Turkish-Kurd separatist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), in its southeast, offering an additional potential pressure point for Moscow.

By contrast, Turkey has little leverage over Moscow. Its main importance to Russia is as a transit state in Moscow's plans to one day pipe gas to southern Europe.

However, that pipeline project -- dubbed Turkish Stream -- was blocked last year over EU charges that Russia's state gas company, Gazprom, engages in monopolistic practices in the European market.