What a difference nine months and one failed coup can make in geopolitics. Not that long ago, Russia and Turkey seemed on the verge of at least a limited war, as each country saw the other as a direct threat to its interests in Syria.
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It wasn’t just Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi 24 jet that had strayed across the border in November; the pilot and a marine trying to rescue him were killed. There was a fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin was about to test the unity of NATO with an attack on Turkey – a major, if wayward, member of the Western security alliance. In some Western capitals, there were already concerns that Turkey, in the event of a border clash with Russia, could trigger Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, forcing other NATO countries to come to its aid.
That at least can be taken off the table for now following the meeting between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday in St. Petersburg. Erdogan repeatedly called Putin a “dear friend” and thanked him for Russia’s support in recent weeks following the coup attempt against him. Putin promised to end the financial sanctions against Turkey that have hit its tourism sector, which has largely relied on Russian tourists, not to mention Turkish food exports and the renewal of a large energy deal.
Relations were already on the mend since June, when Erdogan agreed to send a letter of apology to Putin for the shooting down of the plane and the two deaths. But it took a dramatic turn for the better when Putin called Erdogan after the July 15 coup to express his solidarity – before the leaders of any of Turkey’s NATO allies did so. Now Erdogan has just made his first visit abroad since the coup, to Russia.
The sudden friendship between the leaders may have removed the threat of an armed clash between Russia and Turkey, but it isn’t necessarily good news for the West. The tense relationships between the Erdogan government and the major Western countries has taken a turn for the worse since the coup. Turkey’s ties with the European Union are being tested by the post-coup purge – the arrest of thousands including journalists and jurists – and the talk of reimposing the death penalty. All this contradicts Turkey’s commitments to democratize as part of the never-ending process of candidacy for becoming an EU member one day.
The same is true for NATO – Turkey has the second-largest army in the alliance, but it has been reluctant to cooperate with other members, especially the United States, in the fight against the Islamic State. That began to change last year, but some of the coup plotters used Incirlik Air Base, which is also used by the United States and other NATO members for operations against the Islamic State. And the Turkish government has claimed that Fethulla Gulen, the U.S.-based Islamic preacher, was behind the coup. All this has led to accusations by people in Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party and in the government-controlled media that Washington supported the coup.
Discord over Assad
It’s not surprising that Putin, who believes both EU and NATO threaten his influence over Russia’s neighbors, the former Soviet republics, is happy to exacerbate those tensions. This doesn’t mean Turkey is about to leave NATO, which has been its main bulwark against Russian interference since the beginning of the Cold War, or end the accession talks with the EU. (Turkey first applied to join in 1987, and the talks, ongoing since 2005, show no sign of being anywhere close to being finalized over the next few years.)
Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey aren’t on the brink of a strategic alliance. Their strategic rivalry goes back centuries, and they still have serious disagreements in Syria. Putin is the main sponsor of the Assad regime, which Erdogan has repeatedly endeavored to replace, and the Russians are supplying and cooperating with the Kurdish fighters in Syria, whom Turkey considers terrorists.
Both leaders acknowledged these differences during their meeting in St. Petersburg. For now, the two countries’ main interests in restoring cordial relations are economic, as they both benefit from the huge volume of trade. But they are both also quite satisfied to put pressure on Berlin, Brussels and Washington, right now.
The deepest immediate concern for the West is that Erdogan can at any moment open the floodgates that will once again let hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries pour into Europe through the EU’s weakest member, Greece. Over a million refugees arrived in Europe during 2015 and the first months of 2016. Many of them took the short sea route from Izmir and Bodrum across the Aegean to the Greek islands. The flow only stopped in April, magically, when following a deal between the EU and Turkey, the Turkish police suddenly began arresting smugglers who were working almost openly on the country’s western coast.
Turkish organized-crime groups have used the sea route to Greece for decades. In recent decades, drugs including heroin and marijuana have been smuggled from Afghanistan through Iran, Iraq and Syria on to Europe. The spread of the Islamic State, the return of the Kurdish underground PKK to warfare against Turkey, and the situation on Turkey’s borders have all severely curtailed the supplies of drugs from Afghanistan (and the PKK also played a central role in drug smuggling).
Meanwhile, the Turkish smugglers found new lucrative contraband: hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees prepared to pay hundreds of dollars per head for the short but dangerous passage in leaky rubber dinghies to Europe. It’s a journey that has often ended in death by drowning.
Germany’s 2017 election
Until the EU offered the Turkish government 6 billion euros for aiding the refugees in its territory and an agreement on visa-free throughout Europe for Turkish citizens, Erdogan had scant interest in reaching a deal on the “readmission” of refugees to Turkey and, unofficially, finally clamping down on the smugglers. But the agreement has yet to be finalized, mainly due to opposition in the EU against granting Turkish citizens visa-free travel. So far, the refugees have yet to return to the sea – there are at least 2 million of them in Turkey, according to relief organizations, and more are trying to get in.
Erdogan holds this threat over the EU leaders, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is blamed by her European colleagues and many Germans for causing the refugee surge a year ago by promising that every refugee who reached Germany would be allowed to stay. She hasn’t reneged on that promise, though she’s much less enthusiastic now. Next year she faces a general election, and though there is still no candidate in Germany who seems likely to endanger her, in Europe’s volatile political situation nothing is unthinkable.
It isn’t clear whether the refugee issue came up in the talks between Erdogan and Putin, but there’s no doubt the Russian president would be happy to see the multitudes streaming back into Europe. The Kremlin’s propaganda channels routinely puff up the smallest allegations of crime, particularly of a sexual nature, carried out by refugees in Europe, especially in Germany. Sometimes they invent them as well. This is clearly designed to undermine both Merkel’s leadership and unity between EU governments, which are deeply divided over how to do deal with the refugees. If there’s one thing Erdogan can do for Putin, it’s to stop arresting people smugglers.
Meanwhile, while the Russia-Turkey rapprochement doesn’t directly involve Israel, it follows an interesting pattern whereby Erdogan is trying to improve his relations with other countries in the region – including Israel – as he mends fences with Russia. By flying to meet Putin, Erdogan is following in the footsteps of both Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, who have both beaten a path to Putin’s door in recent months.
This reflects a much wider feeling in the region that under President Barack Obama the United States is much less invested and involved in the Middle East, and until this situation changes under a new president in Washington, if it changes, Putin’s game, is the only one in town. Under Sissi, Egypt has never cooperated as closely as it’s doing now with Israel, and even Erdogan, considered by most observers anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic, has realized he’s better off with a rapprochement. Putin, who’s always eager to foster any power base leaving Washington out of the picture, is happy to receive them all.