Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travels to Russia today for a meeting with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, which will be Erdogan’s first meeting with a foreign leader following the recent coup attempt. Significantly, as if to lend more symbolic weight to the meeting, it will take place in St. Petersburg – Russia’s former capital and Putin’s home city.
Erdogan’s visit is understandably enough causing growing concern in the West as talk intensifies of a possible Turkish realignment with Russia and the Eurasian Powers at the expense of Turkey’s traditional links to the West. In advance of the meeting Turkish diplomats in Western capitals have been working overtime to calm nerves. As I have said previously an outright secession by Turkey from NATO is not on the cards and Turkish diplomats will be assuring Western governments of this and of Turkey’s continued loyalty to the US and to NATO.
However that does not mean that the Russian – Turkish rapprochement is of no significance though only time will tell how deep it will be or how far it will go. Erdogan is however known to be furious that no Western leader has visited Turkey since the coup attempt to show support, and he has made it completely obvious through his ministers and officials and through the Turkish media that he suspects that the US had a hand in the coup attempt.
It is almost certainly not a coincidence that directly on the eve of Erdogan’s visit to Russia pictures surfaced in the Greek media supposedly showing the US ambassador to Turkey amicably meeting with a Turkish military officer identified as Colonel Ali Yazici, one of the alleged coup plotters, at a cafe the day before the coup.
At this point it is essential to say that the significance of these pictures as evidence of a US hand in the coup is open to doubt. Firstly it is not absolutely certain that the Turkish military officer is indeed Colonel Ali Yazici. Also we do not know what the two men in the pictures were saying to each other. We cannot even be absolutely sure when the pictures were taken. The very fact that the two men are shown meeting in a public place, making it possible for pictures of them to be taken together, argues against this being a meeting to plot a coup.
What we can however say with certainty is that whoever is behind the leak of these pictures is clearly someone who on the eve of Erdogan’s visit to Russia wants to draw attention to the US’s links with the coup plotters in a way that can only strengthen suspicions in Turkey that the US was behind the coup. That points either to the Russians or conceivably to Erdogan’s intelligence services being behind the leak.
Putting the question of these pictures to one side, just as Erdogan has made his suspicions of a US role in the coup only too obvious, so he and his officials have gone out of their way to make their gratitude to Putin and to Russia for their support during the coup completely clear. Of course if it was a Russian tip-off that caused the coup’s failure – as is almost certainly the case – then Erdogan and his government have a particular reason to be grateful to the Russians for the very fact of their survival.
What however can be expected to come out of the visit?
The Russians have said that there will be no formal agreements. However Erdogan and Putin will work to re-establish their personal relationship with each other, which became badly frayed last year following the SU24 shoot-down. Erdogan and Putin will surely also work together towards each other on the three critical issues of mutual interest that most affect their two countries’ relations with each other. These are (1) the gas pipeline project known as Turk Stream; (2) Turkey’s steps towards integrating with the Eurasian institutions; and (3) the Syrian war. What progress can we expect in respect of each?
(1) Turk Stream
Whilst many technical problems still dog this project, whose importance to the Russians has diminished following the agreement with Germany to build North Stream II, this is the least problematic issue between the two countries. It is a virtual certainty this project will be revived and taken forward. It is quite possible that the meeting in St. Petersburg will result in a formal announcement of the fact.
(2) Eurasian Integration
The leading advocates of Turkey’s integration in Eurasia have historically not been Putin and Russia but Kazakhstan and its President Nursultan Nazarbayev. Since the failure of the coup Nazarbayev has redoubled his efforts in this direction.
As I have discussed previously, there is a limit to how far Turkey will choose to integrate with the Eurasian institutions. Having said that, Erdogan has now made it clear that he intends to restore the death penalty in Turkey. This is a step which is plainly intended to signal that the anyway deadlocked project of Turkey’s accession to the EU is being abandoned at least for the time being. That leaves Turkey more free to explore options with the Eurasian institutions.
It is possible we will see at the summit the first steps taken towards conclusion of a free trade area agreement between the Eurasian Economic Union (“EEU”) and Turkey. With the EEU in the process of negotiating a free trade area with Iran and Azerbaijan that would bring the whole of Central Asia bar Afghanistan into a free trade area with Belarus and Russia.
It would also mean something else, which so far as I know has not been mentioned in any media commentary. Since Armenia is a member of the EEU a free trade area involving the EEU, Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkey would mean the end the economic blockade Azerbaijan and Turkey have imposed on Armenia because of the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Iranian President Rouhani’s recent statement of support for Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity (ie. for Nagorno Karabakh’s reintegration into Azerbaijan) was clearly intended to make this fact more palatable to people in Azerbaijan.
Though there is likely to be discussion in St. Petersburg between Putin and Erdogan of a free trade agreement between Turkey and the EEU, the negotiations to achieve this will be protracted and far from simple. Any discussion of this issue in St. Petersburg will only be the start of a very long process.
As I have said previously, Turkey is not for the moment prepared to burn its bridges with NATO aby seeking full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, as opposed to the observer status it has now. Turkey’s membership of the other Eurasian security alliance, the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation, which unlike the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is an actual military alliance, is for the moment out of the question.
This is far the most contentious issue between the two countries, with each country too deeply committed to supporting opposite sides in the Syrian war to make an outright policy reversal possible.
In the case of the Russians that option can be completely ruled out. In the case of Erdogan and the Turks, whilst there are signs of growing unease and unhappiness with the policy, with some Turkish officials hinting that they want a change of course, the political cost involved in simply abandoning the Syrian rebels would almost certainly be too high to make it politically acceptable.
Erdogan would also have to consider the possible reaction of the large numbers of Jihadi fighters in Turkey to such a reversal. With the security situation in Turkey already fraught, he will surely be concerned about taking any sudden move that might make them enemies.
The Russians are however certain to press Erdogan on this issue. One particular point of concern will almost certainly be the joint rebel command headquarters which is coordinating the current rebel offensive against Aleppo. The Iranian Fars news agency, in what is surely another leak intentionally timed to coincide with Erdogan’s visit to Russia, has revealed that this headquarters is located in the Turkish city of Antikiya (ancient Antioch). Given that this headquarters is led by Jabhat Al-Nusra – recognised by the United Nations as a terrorist organisation – the Russians will almost certainly demand its closure.
The Russians will also be looking to Erdogan for steps to reduce the flow of Jihadi militants into Syria, and there may be secret agreements for exchanges of intelligence information about their movements, which would make it easier for the Russians to target these militants more effectively.
Ultimately however the Russians are almost certainly simply too realistic to expect Erdogan to repudiate the militants completely or to close the border entirely, which the Turkish military in its present disorganised post-coup state might anyway be unable to do.
Some rumours have also recently been floated of a joint Russian – Turkish diplomatic initiative to end the Syrian war. The basis for doing this is not clear given the wide gap on the conflict between the two sides, and the completely different positions each has taken on the question of the future of President Assad. Having said this the Russians might actually prefer to work on this issue with the Turks rather than with the US, with whom substantive agreement has proved impossible.
The relationship between Russia and Turkey is a complicated one and as I have said previously it is important not to pitch expectations too high. The issues between the two countries are simply too numerous and too intractable to be simply wished away. It is unlikely that the summit in St. Petersburg will lead to any dramatic breakthroughs.
The key point however is that a Russian – Turkish rapprochement is underway and that there is at least for the moment genuine goodwill and a political will on the part of both sides to take their relations to a new level. How far that will go will depend on many factors, not least the consistency of Turkish policy and the stability of President Erdogan’s government.