Only one and half year ago, Turkey and Russia were on the brink of a military confrontation after Turkey's downing of a Russian jet. The whole world, especially NATO, held their breath for fear of an outbreak of a war that would drag in great powers.
The jet saga did not unleash a war despite overwhelming concern over unpredictable nature of rulers of the two countries, both are strong men with authoritarian tendencies. A few months ago, Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov was killed in a shocking assassination in Ankara. That fueled fears of breakdown in Turkish-Russian relations. What otherwise would lead to a war elsewhere, however, did not confirm the worst of the fears, but, surprisingly, sparked flourishing in bilateral relations.
Started as a hard-boiled, thrilling drama soon morphed into a soap opera defined by mutually declared new love affair, geopolitical realignment, and cordial relations. That metamorphosis of the Turkish-Russian story has become source of bewilderment for many, but realities of realpolitik in a conflict-ridden region seemed to contain ramifications of the two incidents as common sense, self-imposed restraints and realism reined in.
In a visit to cement building a strong partnership, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Moscow on Friday to discuss cooperation in Syria and to boost bilateral economic relations.
President Putin hailed cooperation between militaries of two countries and quick restoration of relations which almost broke down two years ago after Turkey’s shoot-down of a Russian warplane at the Turkish-Syrian border. After two years of hiatus, High-Level Cooperation Council meeting took place between cabinet ministers of Turkey and Russia, in a testimony to construction of cordial ties.
“We are very happy our inter-state relations are restoring rather quickly, ” Putin said.
“Many events have happened, and lately we have been working actively to bring the Russia-Turkey relations to the level of worth our countries,” Russian state-run TASS agency quoted Putin as saying.
Mr. Erdogan’s visit came two days after top military brass of Turkey, Russia and the U.S. convened at a meeting in a southern Turkish city to craft a joint working mechanism to de-conflict their operations in crowded Syrian battleground, and to defuse lingering tension between Turkey-backed forces and the Syrian Kurdish militia.
Russia and Turkey have proved to be pragmatic players despite conflicting policies and strategies, backing opposite sides in Syria’s rapidly shifting geopolitical theater. They once came closer to brink of a military confrontation after the jet incident. But a set of timely calculated diplomatic moves helped them manage to thaw strained relations.
Mr. Erdogan’s apology to Putin last June for jet downing, and the Russian president’s unwavering support to his Turkish counterpart during a coup attempt from which Mr. Erdogan barely survived helped reach a rapprochement.
“They have totally different agendas, and yet despite this, their relations have improved remarkably in the past months alone,” James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia Program at London’s Chatham House, told CNN International.
Even Russia’s killing of three Turkish soldiers in an accidental air strike did not throw relations into turmoil, or reverse the progress recently made.
Turkey backs rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Russia has deployed its fighter jets and other cutting-edge military hardware in Syria to shore up its ally in Damascus. Moscow also cultivates close ties with Syrian Kurds whose aspiration to form a small statelet, a separate polity in northern Syria is the cause of gravest concern for Ankara as Turkish forces plunged into Syria to blunt Kurds’ bid.
During Mr. Erdogan’s visit, both leaders contemplated on joint efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict as Ankara and Moscow sponsor talks between the Syrian government and the armed opposition.
Though, they have divergent positions sometimes clash with each other’s policies, Turkey and Russia have emerged as two powerful actors with diplomatic clout to shape the course events in Syria’s multisided six-year war. In December, the Turkish-Russian coordination has produced a ceasefire, which according to many observers, appears to be the most effective to this day. The truce between rebels and the Syrian government troops largely takes hold despite some local violations.
Mr. Putin exulted at Turkish-Russian efforts bearing fruit. He said “Russia and Turkey have made a major contribution not only to securing a cease-fire between Syrian government forces and the armed opposition, but also to launching direct, concrete talks” between them.
Whatever differences between two countries’ Syria policies are, preserving Syria’s territorial integrity is a common goal shared both by Ankara and Moscow.
Mr. Putin underscored that Syria’s territorial integrity is a “necessary condition for the full-scale peace settlement in this country.” Mr. Erdogan voiced a similar view, describing maintaining Syria’s current borders as Turkey’s major diplomatic objective.
The Russian president also hailed progress in trade and economic relations, which were hit hard by Russia’s punishing sanctions after the jet incident. Defense industry and energy field are main elements of cooperation, the Turkish president added.
Turkey and Russia ramped up efforts to accelerate building Turkish Stream gas pipeline project and construction of Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant. “As far as implementation of the Turkish Stream and Akkuyu NPP projects are concerned, cooperation returns to its previous path and is increasing developing,” TASS quoted Mr. Erdogan as saying.
One of the crown jewel of the meeting was the decision to establish a joint investment fund to further economic ties. Mr. Putin also pledged to reverse sanctions for Turkish companies and their employees in Russia.
Removal of sanctions would foster a robust recovery in bilateral trade as Turkish companies are desperately coveting to revive their stalled business operations in Russia.
Turkey's cozying up to Russia comes with deterioration in relations with its Western allies, most notably the U.S. and EU.
Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin mold similar view of international relations. Their disdain for liberal umbrage voiced by the West, their shared enmity and animus toward international criticism over handling of domestic opponents, their crushing of media freedom and critical voices mold them into a similar line of thinking, common governing practices defined as authoritarianism.
The Turkish president's post-coup crackdown on political rivals and opposition earned him an upswell of criticism in the West, but acclaim from the leader in Moscow. Whenever Mr. Erdogan had expressed his desire for a shift to presidential system in Turkey, it was Mr. Putin whom he portrayed as a role model, an ideal embodiment of a functioning presidency.
While his presentation of Mr. Putin as a model president was met with trepidation in the EU, it was cheered with elation in Russia where Kremlin is delighted to see that its divide-and-rule policies against Western alliance pay dividends. For Russia, partnering with Turkey is blowback to NATO and the U.S. as Ankara grows skeptical of its Western allies in aftermath of the abortive coup.
Both countries want to show to the West that they are not without options. Russia's relations with the West plunged into an ensuing dispute. A state of geopolitical competition and tension emerged after Russian annexation of Crimea, its covert operations and backing of rebels in eastern Ukraine, and its involvement in the Syrian civil war. Its regional muscle-flexing stirred a new NATO buildup in eastern Europe to deter Russian aggression and to ensure frightened small allies, while expectations for reset in the American-Russian relations under President Donald Trump's administration run low.
But no partnership is without its perils and hazards, and "Turkish-Russian honeymoon" is no exception. There are remaining points of contention between Turkey and Russia which have to tread carefully on a number of issues ranging from NATO's robust posture in the Black Sea, lingering flash-points in Caucasus that concern both countries, the pitfalls of cooperation and coordination in Syria's shaky battleground. Avoiding another accidental airstrike or jet incident is a must for both countries to preserve the cordial state of their recently mended ties.
This piece was originally published on The Globe Post.