What Prompted Erdogan to Come to Terms with Putin? What Will be the Consequences?

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Labyrinth, courtesy René De Bondt/Flickr

This article was originally published by the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM) on 13 July 2016.

Dimitrios Triantaphyllou | Professor, Director of the Centre for International and European Studies (CIES), Kadir Has University, Istanbul

As if out of the blue, but not really a surprise at all, Turkey has in the last week announced both a rapprochement process with Israel and an attempt to mend relations with Russia. It has also made overtures to Egypt to improve bilateral commercial and economic ties, though its relations with the Sisi regime remain politically complicated. The flurry of diplomatic activity on the part of Turkey’s government indicates that the situation before diplomatic overtures was becoming increasingly unfeasible, and that Turkey’s isolation was growing. This isolation found Ankara increasingly at odds with its neighbours and partners, threatening Turkey’s self-cultivated image as a soft power. This image has been eroding with the escalation of the Syrian crisis, the surge of violence in the country’s southeast in the state’s fight against the PKK, and the series of bombings both by Kurdish militants and the Islamic State across the country. In other words, Turkey was becoming an unreliable and ineffectual contributor to the region’s security.

Reaching out to Israel and Egypt implies that the AKP government is turning away from its proclivity for ideology-laden foreign policy. It also suggests a realisation by Ankara that, based on a power politics assessment, its continued ambivalence toward the Islamic State was further marginalising Turkey and weakening its ability to shape and influence the future of the region, especially the eastern Mediterranean (including the resolution of the Cyprus problem), together with the other relevant stakeholders. The latest terror attack at Istanbul’s main airport, although planned and orchestrated before diplomacy took centre stage, suggests that the policy reversal in now complete. Although further attacks are a very real possibility, Turkey is bound to expect more empathy and support from its allies. The reopening of the airport the day after the attacks indicates a degree of state and regime resilience that it will not easily be broken. The turn toward Tel Aviv and Cairo also suggests an understanding that Turkey has potentially much to gain from a developing Western regional security complex in the eastern Mediterranean, which should also include Greece and Turkey together with Israel and Egypt. The opening of a new chapter in Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU during the same week is also indicative of its enhanced status.

The effort to remedy relations between Ankara and Moscow is an attempt both to enhance the bilateral economic ties between the two countries, which had been damaged by the seven-month hiatus in trade, and to put an end to an anomaly which served neither country’s interests well. Both Ankara and Moscow realise that they have too many common interests that bind them in their opposition to any challenges to the Montreux Convention, which regulates sea traffic in the Dardanelles and the Bosporus to the energy sector where Moscow projects itself as a key producer and Ankara as a key transit hub. Thus, closer ties between Turkey and Russia in this respect would put the attempt to get closer to Ukraine over the last few months on hold.

Another point of interest was the recent NATO Warsaw Summit of 8-9 July, where many Alliance members were seeking to place the Black Sea on the agenda in order to counter growing Russian assertiveness there. By playing the Russia card when it did, Turkey was attempting to ensure itself a stronger hand in shaping the conclusions drawn at the Warsaw summit, as Ankara, like Moscow, views the Black Sea as a region of privileged interest. By virtue of its geography, rapprochement with Russia also strengthens Turkey’s hand in terms of the developing regional dynamics in the eastern Mediterranean. Thus, by virtue of improving its ties with Tel Aviv and Moscow in one fell swoop, Ankara becomes once again an indispensable player in its neighbourhood.

Kerim Has | Expert on Eurasian politics, International Strategic Research Organisation (ISRO, USAK), Turkey

In his first public speech since taking office, broadcast on May 24th, the newly appointed Prime Minister of Turkey Binali Yıldırım said the following: “We will increase the number of friends and decrease the number of enemies”. This was a signal of a comprehensive shift in the core values and interests of that have informed Turkish foreign policy in recent years. President Recep Erdogan’s team has accelerated the normalisation of relations with Israel and begun a new process of re-establishing ties with the critical players in the region, specifically with Russia, but now also with Egypt, and probably later with Syria.

In fact, Turkey’s reasons for such a metamorphosis in its foreign policy strategy with respect to Russia are sufficient. First, the Turkish economy suffered significantly from the embargo imposed by Russia after a Turkish fighter plane shot down a Russian bomber in 2015. Turkey’s exports to Russia dropped sharply, by 60 per cent in the first four-month period of 2016, directly following the incident. No one knows exactly how many billions of dollars Turkeys tourism sector and other Turkish companies’ investments in Russia have lost. No doubt the sanctions have also hurt the Russian people in a significant manner, but this is not comparable to the damage done on the Turkish side.

Secondly, the increasing security threats for Turkey arising from the Syrian crisis pushed Ankara to make peace with Moscow. Many ambiguities in Russia’s regional Kurdish vision, which is yet to be established, gave Turkey room to maneouvre in its last “letter diplomacy” move. Also, the multi-dimensional terrorism threat derived from the Islamic State, the Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian crisis in general, and the activation of PKK terrorism in Turkey in the last year, pushed the Turkish authorities to normalise the relations with Russia as a newly emerging and highly influential player on the ground in the Middle East.

Last but not least, the regional agenda requires Turkey to pursue a more balanced and cautious policy with respect to Russia. The increasing militarisation of the Black Sea in the last months, the fragile stability in the South Caucasus threatened by the recent tension between Azerbaijan and Armenia, along with the damage caused to Turkey’s trade ties with the Central Asian republics as a result of the bomber crisis, are all key motives behind the new dialogue between Turkey and Russia, in the regions where the interests of Ankara and Moscow intersect.

After such experience in Turkish-Russian relations, it is possible to anticipate a “cautious normalisation” process between the two sides in the coming period. As both suffered from the sanctions imposed by Russia, it will not be surprising if most of them, specifically in the trade, investment and tourism sectors, are lifted within a short period of time. In the medium term, much will depend on “rebuilding mutual trust” between not only the heads of both countries but also whole political elites and societies, as perceptions on each side have been severely damaged by intensive and negative propaganda in the last seven months. However, the degree to which relations between Turkey and Russia are truly repaired will be determined by the extent to which both sides will find a lingua franca and act jointly in key regional issues, firstly and urgently in Syria.

Maria Przełomiec is a journalist, and a graduate of Jagellonian University in Cracow, Poland. From February 1990 until December 2006 she worked as a lead correspondent on the states of the former Soviet Union for the Polish section of the BBC. Since February 2007 she has worked as an anchor for the Polish public television channel TVP where she runs ‘Studio Wschód’, a programme dedicated to the politics and society of the former Soviet Union.

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