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Erdogan Goes To Russia: Turkish Leader Seeks To Mend Fences With Kremlin

  • Mike Eckel

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2012, when relations between the two men were more cordial than they have been of late.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2012, when relations between the two men were more cordial than they have been of late.

What a difference a few months can make.

Last November, a day after Turkish jets shot down a Russian Su-24 along the Syrian border, an angry Russian President Vladimir Putin lashed out, calling the incident "a stab in the back by the terrorists' accomplices."

His Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, responded with his own chest-thumping and finger pointing: "I think if there is a party that needs to apologize, it is not us. Those who violated our airspace are the ones who need to apologize."

Fast forward to August 9, when Erdogan is to meet in St. Petersburg with the man he called "my friend Vladimir" in an interview with Russian state news agency TASS ahead of the trip. "This will be a historic visit, a new beginning," Erdogan said.

After several weeks of contrite signals like that from Ankara, the Kremlin is confident that Erdogan wants to bury the hatchet and restore what had been a relatively robust trading relationship between the two Black Sea neighbors.

"This testifies that the Turkish partners are indeed interested in the renewal of multifaceted cooperation with our country," Putin's foreign-policy adviser, Yury Ushakov, said -- friendly language that indicates Russia is equally eager to mend ties.

Economic Incentive

Economically, Turkey has largely been on the losing end of the standoff with Russia, which, among other punitive measures, barred its citizens from flocking to Turkey's Mediterranean beaches.

Russians were the second-largest group of tourists, after Germans, and spent an estimated $3 billion in 2014, or around 0.4 percent of the country's gross domestic product, according to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), fueling a vital tourism industry.

Russia also banned many Turkish food and consumer goods, cut permits for truck traffic, and took other measures that the EBRD estimated would, taken together, shave between 0.3 and 0.7 percentage points off Turkey's economy over 2016.

By contrast, Russia would see minimal economic impact from the standoff, the bank said.

Turkish leaders "really did underestimate the Russians last year," says Halil Karaveli, a Stockholm-based analyst who heads the Turkey Initiative, a program affiliated with Johns Hopkins University.

For many Turkey watchers, what will matter most is the geopolitics bubbling under the surface of the Putin-Erdogan meeting, along with the attempted coup in Turkey that Erdogan and his allies managed to put down last month.

Both Putin and Erdogan hope to advance their interests -- with each other's help.

"This isn't about one having an upper hand; they're really working in tandem here," says Anna Borshchevskaya, a scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "The coup is helping Erdogan consolidate power, and he is essentially blackmailing the West, moving closer to Putin, and all of this works to Putin's advantage."

Complex Calculus

Turkey's overtures to Russia insert new variables into the complex calculus of Middle Eastern politics, Karaveli says -- particularly where Syria is concerned.

Erdogan has long been a vocal foe of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Russia has backed in the more than five-year civil war and saved from potential defeat with a bombing campaign that began in September 2015.

Ankara's opposition to Assad, plus Turkey's membership in NATO, has motivated its involvement in the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State extremists -- and its support for anti-Assad rebels.

But Erdogan, and much of Turkey's security establishment, also opposes the growing prowess of Kurdish militias, whom the United States has relied upon heavily to wage the ground fight in Syria.

That suits the Kremlin, which has given some support to at least one Kurdish militia but would be happy to have a stalemate that would leave the Assad regime in place.

Russia's stepped-up battlefield support for Assad's forces has made that outcome more likely than it looked a year ago, seemingly strengthening Russia's hand and weakening Turkey's. In the TASS interview published on August 8, Erdogan was quoted as saying, "Without Russia's participation it's impossible to find a solution to the Syrian problem."

Also, like Erdogan, Assad fears a stronger Kurdish presence that could result in carving out a state from territory in Syria, along with Turkey and Iraq.

Fraying Relationship

Meantime, the failed coup has created a potential wedge for Russia to use to its advantage against the United States.

Amid a flood of conspiracy theories, some members of Erdogan's government have suggested the United States had a hand in the coup attempt, pointing to the fact that some jets from the Incirlik airbase, where thousands of U.S. troops and dozens of aircraft are housed, helped fuel Turkish F-16 that attacked sites in Ankara during the coup.

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In a nod to Moscow, Erdogan went so far as to accuse the pilots who shot down the Su-24 on November 24 of being involved in the coup plot. And Prime Minister Binali Yildirim last week gave voice to the conspiracy theory that American one-dollar bills were somehow instrumental to the coup plotters, including a reclusive cleric living in self-imposed exile in the United States.

"With one American dollar, this organization turned the children of this country into monsters," Yildirim said on August 4.

Comments by the head of U.S. Central Command, who publicly fretted that that mass purges in the Turkish military could weaken the campaign in Syria, also outraged Turkish government officials.


Not one to miss an opportunity to turn a foreign crisis to his country's advantage, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov voiced strong support for Erdogan in the wake of the coup attempt -- and likened it to the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine that forced the country's president, Viktor Yanukovych, to flee in 2014. Yanukovych was considered an ally by the Kremlin.

Adding to Turkey's gripes is the cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania and whom Ankara claims was behind the uprising. The United States has repeatedly rebuffed Turkish demands for his extradition.

Worries about a fraying relationship with Erdogan's government was what motivated the top U.S.military officer, General Joseph Dunford, to visit Turkey on August 1.

"This is the subtext...of the meeting" between Putin and Erdogan, Karaveli says: "Demonstrating to Washington that 'Hey, we can also talk to others, you are not our only option.'"

It will serve a similar purpose where Europe is concerned, says Lilia Shevtsova, a Moscow-based analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Grappling with millions of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria and elsewhere, European leaders brokered a deal to earlier this year that essentially pays Turkey -- around $6.8 billion -- to accommodate the refugees, primarily from Syria.

Erdogan "understands that the West is dependent on him, and it cannot fight back. America needs NATO bases in Turkey and its membership in the alliance," she wrote in a commentary on her Facebook page. "Europe is even more dependent, for it is Erdogan who has built a wall that will save the Europeans from millions of refugees."

"If he wants to open the border, then what will Europe do?" she said.

With reporting by Reuters and TASS