The meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in St. Petersburg is a good sign for the development of bilateral Russian-Turkish relations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Konstantin palace outside St.Petersburg, Russia, on Aug. 9. Photo: AP
On Aug. 9, in St. Petersburg’s Konstantinovsky Palace, the presidents of Russia and Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, finally met after months of tensions. The meeting took place in a warm, friendly atmosphere, as if it had not been preceded by almost a year of real enmity and mutual accusations. As a result, Russia and Turkey declared a full restoration of their formerly friendly relations, resumption of key strategic projects, and a willingness to raise their cooperation to a new level.
However, there did not appear to be any groundbreaking announcements. The two sides only agreed on a gradual lifting of the sanctions and resumption of a few projects. No decisions were taken on such key problems as the conflict in Syria, restoration of the visa-free regime for Turkish citizens, political cooperation in resolving conflicts in the Caucasus and the Middle East, or compensation for the downed Russian jet in November 2014.
Since the beginning of the Russian-Turkish crisis, Turkey has experienced significant turmoil. The country has faced serious security problems on its southern borders, an unprecedented growth of terrorist activity as a consequence of its near-sighted policy in the Middle East, an economic crisis and a worsening of relations with its traditional partners, the U.S. and the EU.
By March, Ankara finally realized that Washington’s position on Syria was not having the desired effect. This was further evidenced by the military coup of July 15 – among those implicated in the coup were leaders of the Incirlik military base, where NATO troops are deployed.
After the coup, Erdogan managed to steer the population’s anger against his main political opponents. That enabled him to free himself from blame for the destruction of the Russian bomber and shift it onto the Hizmet movement, the global organization of Fethullah Gülen, who is a Turkish religious leader residing in the U.S.
Currently the relations between Turkey and its main NATO partner, the U.S., are at their worst since 1974. Ankara’s relations with Europe have deteriorated as well. In 2016, it has become definitively clear that Turkey is hardly likely to become a member of the EU. What influenced the Europeans’ attitude the most was the influx of migrants from Syria, which headed into Europe with the implicit support of the Turkish authorities.
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Brussels gave little thought to its own role in fomenting the Syrian conflict that created those refugees, but was quick to blame Turkey for everything instead. To underscore Turkey’s shifting relationship with Europe, the German Bundestag made a unanimous decision to recognize the tragedy of 1915 as genocide of Armenians. [In April 1915, Turkey’s Ottoman government began carrying out the extermination of 1.5 million Armenian citizens, an event that remains a deeply contentious issue in Turkish politics today – Editor’s note]. An experienced politician, Erdogan had no choice in that situation but to revise his own policy and seek new partners.
In Moscow, which has been under Western sanctions since 2014, Turkey’s reconciliation initiatives were accepted graciously. As a result, the Turkish president’s first international visit after the coup was to Russia. Most analysts view this as an attempt to prove to the world Turkey’s special role and the independence of its foreign policy.
The world’s mass media were seriously concerned with the preparations for the visit. In the West, the visit was seen almost as a betrayal by Turkey of its longstanding aspiration to be integrated into Europe. While Russia had always been perceived as a profoundly alien element, great hopes had been placed on Turkey.
There is one notable result of the meeting in St. Petersburg - the Turkish leader repeatedly called Putin his dear friend. This goes somewhat beyond the diplomatic protocol of the relations between the two states, which only recently were on the brink of armed conflict.
The rest of the decisions were quite predictable and had already been discussed by the Russian and Turkish officials long before the summit. The main result was the return of the sides to a dialogue within the framework of strategic partnership, and the resumption of annual meetings at the highest political level. This opens great prospects for both economic and political cooperation in the future but does not promise anything essentially new for the present.
Putin announced a plan for developing relations up to 2019, which implies the gradual lifting of the sanctions and enhancing contacts in all areas. This means that there will be no immediate lifting of the ban on Turkish agricultural imports, launching charter flights or introducing a visa-free regime on the part of Russia. According to Putin, all the restrictions will be removed gradually, following the development of bilateral relations.
This decision shows that Moscow is going to monitor closely how Ankara keeps its promises. Parallel to the signing of commercial contracts (which are primarily beneficial to Russia), the Turkish side will be granted positions on the Russian market. First of all, Turkey and Russia undertook to start the immediate implementation of the Turkish Stream gas pipeline project. This entails not only increasing the export of gas to Turkey but also constructing a pipeline to Europe. The two sides also agreed to resume the construction of the first Turkish atomic power plant, which was suspended after the incident with the Russian jet.
During the meeting the questions of technical-military cooperation were also discussed but no details of that were released. By all appearances, Turkey promised to take a closer look at some new types of weaponry that performed well in Syria, and insofar as long-term contracts are concluded, Moscow will be opening new opportunities for Turkish business in Russia.
Regarding the most important problem in the bilateral relations — the settlement of the Syrian crisis — it was not given due attention at the meeting. It certainly was discussed on the sidelines of the summit as the broader group of participants included the head of Turkish intelligence, Hakan Fidan, and the head of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia, Valery Gerasimov. However, no resounding, mutually acceptable compromises were declared during the meeting except for promises to make every effort to fight terrorism.
In fact, neither of the sides has a lot to boast about recently. Militant formations allied with Turkey recently won some important strategic victories to the south of Aleppo. Based on Syrian sources, though, that was done without any considerable aid from Ankara. After the coup and keeping in mind the upcoming St. Petersburg meeting, Ankara has tried to minimize its involvement in the conflict.
In turn, the Russian forces have limited their support of the Syrian authorities in recent months. This has only led to militants regaining the initiative and to the growth in Russian losses. In contrast, the pro-American forces in Syria — primarily, the Kurds — achieved great successes in the struggle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS), which might accelerate the disintegration of the country in the Iraq-style and could lead to the emergence of a de facto independent Kurdish state on the border with Turkey.
Such a prospect is perceived negatively both in Russia and in Turkey, as it leads to the prolongation of the conflict and growth of terrorism. Moscow and Ankara need a stable Syria capable of dealing on its own with its problems. Thus, the Syrian issue could provide a unique chance to show to the world the prospects of Russian-Turkish regional cooperation.
One day before the summit in St. Petersburg, the leaders of Azerbaijan, Iran, and Russia held a meeting, in which they decided to join forces in the struggle against terrorism. In St. Petersburg, Putin and Erdoğan also expressed their hope for a continuation of the trilateral cooperation involving Russia, Turkey and Azerbaijan.
All those are just first steps that can, potentially, result in a long-term strategic plan to settle the conflicts in the Middle East and Caucasus in a trilateral format (Ankara, Moscow and Tehran), with the participation of Baku as a neutral site.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.