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Erdogan & Putin: Two Sides Of The Same Coin

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- The Sultan vs The Tsar
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin -- The Sultan vs The Tsar

Are Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin too alike to get along?

After the Turks shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on the Turkish-Syrian border in November 2015, relations hit a historic low; Russia started a number of embargoes and punitive measures against trade and tourism with Turkey; political rhetoric colored with nationalist and "anti-the-other-side" "news" and op-eds became "popular" in the usually loyal media of both countries; and many were even speculating about a possible escalation of Turkish-Russian military confrontation.

It has not happened in the six months since the Su-24 incident. Today there are occasional indications that both sides are willing to get back to some kind of "business as usual" as they had before November.

I would argue that both sides are aware of the need to normalize ties, but in practice it's far easier said than done.

It seems now that it all depends on the two leaders -- Erdogan and Putin -- and on them personally, not their governments, parliaments, or military commanders. After all, unlike Western democracies, the Turkish and Russian leaders have created and are maintaining ultimate personal power in their respective countries to decide major policies.

After the Russian bomber was downed, many Western analysts speculated that the two leaders will never get along because they are too similar in character.

Indeed, both have a strong tendency to brag and to overwhelm everyone (and certainly their own citizens) with their fast and big decisions. Neither of them appears ready to leave room for any doubt or look back and change direction. And they both love to exaggerate and even occasionally fantasize about their governments' and nations' capabilities.

Finally, both Erdogan and Putin seem to dream of themselves as a "modern and republican Ottoman sultan and Russian tsar," respectively.

Erdogan, while speaking about the "tradition of Turkish-Islamic rule," nostalgically points to the Balkans, the Middle East, and North Africa as his geopolitical priority. Before Erdogan, Turkey's foreign-policy orientation was more toward Europe and the West, in general. Putin, for his part, considers the former Soviet region as Russia's backyard and refers to "history" in justifying the annexation of Ukraine's Crimea or the support for ethnic separatism and secessionist movements in former Soviet republics.

Erdogan's chief adviser, Yigit Bulut, even said recently: "From Central Asia to Africa and from the Middle East to the Balkans, nations talk about a new scenario, a unity with Turkey. And yes, they want to be administered from Istanbul."

Erdogan and Putin got along very well for a long time, sometimes even to the extent that Western leaders started to question Turkey's loyalty as a NATO member.

Maybe it was that imperial history that ended in bitter decline; maybe the need for a show of "national pride" vis-a-vis the West; or maybe that close similarity of characters. But certainly it was a mix of all that.

After The Downing Of The Russian Jet

Much still remains unclear about the conditions of the incident. The pilot of the Russian bomber was killed. Putin reacted harshly, described it as a "war crime" and demanded an apology from nobody less than Erdogan himself, something Erdogan did not, and apparently will not do, in full accordance with the behavior he shares with his adversary-turned-old friend Putin.

All records and descriptions lead us to believe that the Su-24 crossed into Turkish airspace for less than a minute, maybe 20-25 seconds, before being shot down by a Turkish F-16 fighter jet.

Nothing like that would have happened between two friendly countries, which is how both leaders described relations prior to that.

Obviously the bilateral crisis cannot be understood outside of the Syrian war context: Turkey together with Saudi Arabia and the West siding with opposition groups, even armed and extreme Islamist ones, to overthrow the current central government of Bashar al-Assad, while Russia sides with Iran to keep Assad in power.

But there's no doubt that simple mathematics, and money, will force Ankara and Moscow to rethink their animosity.

To be clear: The real reason for this animosity is the Syrian war and not directly the Su-24 downing that was a by-product of the war and the current interstate confrontation.

Yes, the war in Syria costs both Turkey and Russia millions of dollars every single day in different ways, involving dozens of states and interest groups.

That is a far more complex and global issue than the smaller-scale Russian-Turkish relations. But still, the Turkish-Russian crisis also hurts bilateral trade and investment, with the Turkish side apparently suffering more than the Russians. Last week 400 shopkeepers and hoteliers from the Turkish resort Alanya gathered to protest the "drastic drop in tourist numbers" caused by Russia's boycott of the Turkish Riviera and held a symbolic "prayer for tourists," raising the pressure on the Turkish government.

It's hard to believe that Turkey and Russia could fully restore their pre-Syria relations after such deep involvement on opposite sides of the conflict, unless there is an international and regional/interethnic settlement that does not look like happening anytime soon.

But certain signs from Ankara and Moscow indicate that both sides are warming up to a level of bilateral relations that would let the Syrian conflict continue with both Ankara and Moscow at least returning to the state before the plane was shot down.

Right after the downing, Turkish media reported that Erdogan personally ordered the plane to be shot down. It was domestically used to appeal to Turkish voters' nationalist feelings for a "show of power" against Moscow. Later, that version changed and the then-prime minister claimed to have given the order. Again later, it was again revised with the blame being put on "technical issues."

In February, Russian media reported that Erdogan through the Turkish ambassador to Moscow had twice asked for a meeting with Putin but that the request had been left unanswered.

Visiting Athens last month, Putin said Russia was "hearing from the Turkish side the desire to normalize bilateral relations." And he added, "We also wish that but we are awaiting concrete steps from Ankara, while we still haven't heard any apology" for the killing of the Russian pilot.

The ball is clearly in Erdogan's court. But will he apologize? Erdogan? Most Turkish analysts and people on the street I talked to clearly say he won't.

Like a vicious circle, you may argue, it again comes to the same point of character -- or the political system you have created to rule. You first do things because of a certain character and the same character prevents you from correcting it. Maybe you realize that you had better change it, but you can't.

You could ask the same question about Putin and Crimea. And would probably get the same answer.

About This Blog

Turkey Notebook is a blog written by Abbas Djavadi, regional director of programming at RFE/RL and a longtime Turkey specialist. The blog presents Djavadi’s personal take on events and is designed for Turkey-watchers and all who want to get the most relevant news, views, issues, and insights on the country that you might not find in the daily news stream. Also check out Turkey Notebook on Facebook or Twitter.