The Uneasy Alliance Between Putin and Erdogan

The relationship between the Russian and Turkish presidents that emerged out of crisis has unsettled the West and surprised with its endurance. But can it last?

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The Uneasy Alliance Between Putin and Erdogan
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the Kremlin on March 5, 2020 in Moscow, Russia/ Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin is usually frugal in his praise of foreign counterparts, but on this occasion he was generous.

“This is a person who keeps his word — a man,” Putin said about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at his marathon annual press conference in December. “He does not follow his tail. If he believes it is advantageous for his country, he goes to the end. There is an element of predictability, and it is very important to understand who you are dealing with.”

Putin’s macho praise showed the tightness of the alliance forged between the two men over the last half decade, which goes well beyond a bromance.

In Turkey, Erdoğan lost no time in returning the compliment. He said that Putin’s words were “exactly how I have known Mr. Putin since I first met him. He is straightforward and keeps his word.” Making clear the alliance goes well beyond the personal, he added: “It is rare to have such strong relations with any state.”

This alliance between Turkey and Russia, historical rivals going back to Ottoman and czarist times, has been one of the most dramatic geopolitical developments in recent years, upending years-old strategic calculations and constantly taking observers by surprise by overcoming crises that could have pushed it off course. It has raised questions about the future of Turkey within NATO, swayed the outcomes of conflicts from Syria to the Caucasus, and emerged as a near-constant headache for Western policymakers. But is the partnership an enduring strategic alliance that will continue to sway geopolitics in the Eurasian region for years to come? Or is it a temporary gesture of political expediency by two historical rivals whose fundamental differences will never be overcome?

I have watched with mesmerized fascination the relationship between Putin and Erdoğan over the last decade, first during a posting in Moscow and then in Istanbul. There are differences between their political personalities and how they handle contrasting societies.

In public, Erdoğan is bombastic in his rhetoric, bluntly seeking to skewer opponents with tirades beginning with his favorite “Ey!” (Hey!”). Putin is far more quiet-spoken, drowning viewers on state TV with technocratic details and only very occasionally raising his voice. His venom usually comes out in a hissed, pithy one-liner.

But this reflects the different systems they preside over. Russian politics, to put it mildly, lacks competition. There is a more genuine choice in Turkey, despite the well-chronicled decline in democratic standards. Every election campaign, Erdoğan tours the country giving raucous speeches, dominating airwaves, and driving himself hoarse. His party even lost 2019 election races for the mayorships of Istanbul and Ankara. Putin, in his campaigns, takes a backseat and stays out of the television debates as the other candidates squabble among themselves.

But the similarities are startling. Both, now in their mid-to-late 60s (Putin is 68 and Erdoğan 67), have ruled their countries for around two decades. They took control of post-imperial societies searching for prosperity and confidence in the wake of devastating economic crises. In the late 1990s, both Turkey and Russia suffered devastating crises of self-belief as Russia staggered in the alcohol-addled twilight of the Yeltsin era and a succession of coalitions brought chaos to Turkey.

In order to stretch out their grip on power into a timescale of historic proportions, they have both switched from premier to president. They preside over authoritarian systems where democracy only provides a veneer of legitimacy. And in politics they are ruthless and – at least in the short term – successful strategists, guided by an assessment of national and self-interest.

But the mutual backslapping seen in December has not always characterized their relationship. On Nov. 24, 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet over Syria, resulting in the deaths of two Russian soldiers and prompting a sometimes spine-chilling war of words. At his annual press conference in December that year, Putin’s description of Erdoğan was quite different from the one he gave five years later. He said he did not “see any prospect of improving relations with the Turkish leadership,” whom he accused of trying to “lick the Americans in a certain place.”

Sinking the knife in even deeper, Putin accused Erdoğan of betraying the secular system put in place by Turkey’s national hero, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. “The creeping Islamization would probably cause Atatürk to turn in his grave,” he said. Erdoğan, for his part, lambasted Russian “war crimes” in Syria. Russia imposed sanctions, with the package holidays that brought hundreds of thousands of tourists to Turkey’s Mediterranean coast halted and goods like Turkish tomatoes no longer welcome in the other direction.

With the antagonism proving deeply damaging to Turkey and a hammer blow to the economy in regions dependent on Russian tourists, Erdoğan, in June 2016, sent a letter to Putin expressing condolences over the deaths of the service members in the downing of the jet. A reconciliation was agreed upon, and by the end of the month the two men finally spoke again by telephone.

Then came the event that has colored every aspect of modern Turkey in its domestic and foreign policy: the failed coup attempt on the night of July 15, 2016. Erdoğan found the United States and the European Union were slow to come out and offer support, with some senior members of his administration even claiming the U.S. was involved. But Putin’s reaction was different. On July 17 he called the Turkish leader to offer his unequivocal support, in probably the most significant of the dozens of conversations they have had over the past several years. It no doubt helped that an attempt to usurp power by renegade elements within the military was the stuff of Putin’s own nightmares.

“After the attempt to violently overthrow the democratically elected authorities of Turkey, Vladimir Putin emphasized Russia’s fundamental insistence on the categorical inadmissibility in the life of a state of anti-constitutional actions and violence,” the Kremlin said in its readout of the conversation.

In a move whose significance was probably underappreciated at the time, [Erdoğan’s] first foreign trip after the failed coup was not to Brussels or Washington but to Russia.

For Erdoğan, a leader who values loyalty, such words were never forgotten. In a move whose significance was probably underappreciated at the time, his first foreign trip after the failed coup was not to Brussels or Washington but to Russia. Turkey was already immersed in its ruthless crackdown on opponents of Erdoğan that caused a further chilling of ties with the West after the failed coup. But Russia under Putin shared no such qualms about a roundup of political rivals.

Putin hosted Erdoğan at the imperial Konstantinovsky Palace outside St. Petersburg on Aug. 9, 2016, just three weeks after the failed coup attempt, at a time when the Turkish president needed a very good reason to take the risk of leaving the country. Putin declared both sides now wanted to “overcome the difficulties” prompted by the plane downing. Stressing the significance of Putin offering his support in the immediate aftermath of the failed coup, Erdoğan confidently, and it turned out accurately, predicted: “We will bring our relations back to the old level and even beyond.”

Whatever transpired behind closed doors at the meeting, a partnership emerged at a speed that went well beyond reconciliation. Despite being on opposing sides in the conflict in Syria, Russia and Turkey began cooperating in a declared joint search to find peace after half a decade of war. Turkey stood aside as Russia’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad, regained control of Aleppo, and the two sides launched their own peace process independent of the talks backed by the United Nations. A similar pattern was later seen in the Libya conflict, where Russia and Turkey, again backing different sides, preferred to talk directly and leave the West on the sidelines.

Work resumed on the TurkStream pipeline under the Black Sea between Russia and Turkey to pump Russian gas to Europe and on Turkey’s first nuclear power station, naturally Russian built, in Akkuyu. And most importantly of all, in spring 2017, the two sides declared that Turkey was going to buy S-400 air defense systems from Russia, an unprecedented step for a NATO member and a symbol of a growing breach between Ankara and the West.

Since then, the partnership has managed to overcome several crises that could have caused it to implode, showing the interest on both sides for it to endure. Often, resolving these issues has depended on the personal relationship between Erdoğan and Putin.

Two events show this. On Dec. 19, 2016, an off-duty police officer, in an extraordinary breach of security, shot dead Russia’s ambassador to Ankara, Andrei Karlov, as he attended the opening of a photography exhibition. Rarely in recent years has a diplomat of a major power been murdered so brazenly while carrying out his functions. Many predicted this would be the end of the rapprochement. Russia dispatched investigators, and Turkey pinned the killing on the movement of the U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom it also blamed for the failed coup attempt. The trial of 28 people — including Gülen in absentia — only got underway last year and finally reached a conclusion on Feb. 9 with five men handed life sentences. But other than in the immediate aftermath of the killing, not a sound of impatience has come from Russia.

On Feb. 27, 2020, 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in airstrikes in Syria’s northern Idlib province, carried out by Russia’s Damascus allies and reportedly involving Russian aviation. It was Turkey’s biggest military loss in recent years. In a fiercely nationalistic society, where the military is the country’s pride even for many who staunchly oppose Erdoğan, such losses are keenly felt. Many again predicted this would be the end of the brittle alliance. But not so. Turkey’s reaction was relatively muted, and even the day after, Erdoğan’s spokesperson insisted that the pair would meet as soon as possible. Officials from both sides held talks in a bid to agree to a cease-fire, but as Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu acknowledged, “It seems that this can only be achieved through Presidents Erdoğan and Putin meeting.” Erdoğan duly held talks with Putin on March 5 in Moscow, and the cease-fire was agreed upon.

Russia and Turkey remain on different sides of the Syria conflict, with Turkey backing the anti-Assad rebels. They did not see eye to eye on Libya, as Russian mercenaries helped Gen. Khalifa Haftar while Turkey sent in troops to prop up the Tripoli government. In Ukraine, Turkey, in theory, vehemently opposes Russia’s annexation of Crimea, home to the Turkic Tartars. Yet still the alliance endures.

As condemnation rained down on Russia from the EU following the arrest of opposition campaigner Alexei Navalny on his return from Germany, the Kremlin could take some comfort from the fact no such expression of concern could be expected from Turkey. Yet this is not an equal partnership. Russia is a nuclear power, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and the holder of the world’s largest hydrocarbon reserves. Turkey is resource poor and always seeking to leverage its strategic position to its advantage. Russia has built up levers it could use against Turkey were Ankara to turn against Moscow. A new Russian-backed assault on Idlib could send millions more Syrian refugees into Turkey and stoke tensions inside the country. Ankara depends on Russia on issues ranging from its future nuclear power supplies to its Mediterranean tourism industry. And the Kremlin has built up a significant Turkish-language media presence in Turkey through the state-run Sputnik news site and radio station.

These could easily be used against Erdoğan come a rainy day. It was only a half a decade ago that Russia accused Erdoğan and his family of benefiting from the illegal smuggling of oil from Islamic State-held areas in Syria and Iraq, claims vehemently denied by Erdoğan.

A bizarre manifestation of the unbalanced nature of the partnership was evident in those March 2020 talks on Syria in which Erdoğan had been summoned to the Kremlin following the deaths of the Turkish soldiers. Erdoğan and his delegation arrived in the antechamber but realized they could not yet access the room where the talks would be held. They crowded around nervously and, weary of standing up, Erdoğan eventually sank into a chair. Around the delegation were portraits of the Russian imperial generals who fought against the Ottoman Empire.

It is nothing extraordinary for foreign leaders to be kept waiting for an audience with Putin. But what was striking here is the Turkish delegation’s wait was filmed by Russian state television. It played up the episode in its news broadcast by adding a timer to the bottom-left corner to show how long the Turkish delegation had been kept waiting — a full two minutes — to imply that Erdoğan had been humiliated.

So far, the tensions have been kept in check, the various disagreements compartmentalized to allow the wider alliance to proceed. But the flaring of the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh represents a new kind of challenge, with Turkey pushing its presence in an area that Russia sees as part of its post-Soviet sphere of influence and not an Ottoman remnant.

Turkey emerged as a key winner in the Nov. 9 cease-fire deal brokered by Russia, its ally Azerbaijan winning back control of land taken by Armenians as the USSR broke up. Ankara gained access to a corridor linking the Azerbaijani exclave of Nakhchivan — with which Turkey has a crucial land border — to the rest of Azerbaijan and thus the Caspian Sea. Turkish support, especially in the shape of high-tech drones, was crucial in Azerbaijan’s victory.

But while granting this, Russia drew a line at Turkey’s desire for its peacekeepers to oversee the cease-fire, a job only being done by Russian soldiers. A Turkish-Russian center for monitoring the cease-fire has been set up in Azerbaijan – with 60 Russian and 60 Turkish troops working there – that allows Turkey to claim it has some say in what happens on the ground. Putin and Erdoğan discussed the establishment of the center in recent talks on Jan. 13. But this is not mentioned in the cease-fire deal, which does not mention Turkey once. Strikingly, the International Crisis Group has named Russia-Turkey as a 2021 conflict to watch, saying that the “frenmity” risks imploding, especially in Syria, and warning that a downturn in relations could result in “more than one war zone.”

The alliance has proved remarkably enduring, and rarely have Russia and Turkey enjoyed such a stretch of fruitful cooperation. But so much hinges on the personal relationship between Putin and Erdoğan. Not even they can change the brittle nature of a relationship between two powers that have been rivals for centuries. It just takes one unforeseen crisis to push it to the edge.

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