The first meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin since the downing of the Russian jet in November 2015 was a much-anticipated event. A few hours before the encounter Aug. 9, the Turkish media released a story on the details of the clandestine shuttle diplomacy to end the Russia-Turkey crisis. Interestingly, all of the alleged back-channel negotiators were also present at the meeting, to demonstrate the immense political will behind the talks.
The underlying motive for the rendezvous between Erdogan and Putin was best framed by Russia’s leading political commentator, Fyodor Lukyanov, when he said, “[Russia and Turkey] are two great powers with close historical, cultural and geographical ties with Europe that have never been recognized as ‘our guys’ there. After the Cold War both got ‘dropped off’ from the ‘Big Europe’ project. Paradoxically, it was Putin and Erdogan who at the early stages of their rule invested the most efforts to ‘fit in the project.’ Thus they both have similar trajectories of disappointment.”
It needs to be added that for more than nine months the two leaders have experienced equal disappointment with one another. That’s why once the political decision to “normalize” the relations was made, Moscow and Ankara maintained “diplomatically neutral” rhetoric on the past grievances.
The “stage sets” were rather rich with theatricality. Putin never went to meet Erdogan at the airport; instead, a crowd of Turkish construction workers building infrastructure at the St. Petersburg airport took a break to greet Erdogan waving Russian and Turkish flags. The language was even more interesting: Putin referred to the downed jet as “the tragedy,” while Erdogan referred to it as “what happened.” As Putin maintained “friendly composure,” the Turkish leader twice called his Russian counterpart “my friend Vladimir” and twice “my dear friend.” However, Putin reaffirmed his support for Erdogan that he initially signaled soon after the failed coup attempt by saying, “Russia is always against unconstitutional actions. … I hope that under your guidance the Turkish people can handle this crisis.”
On a more substantive note, the talks focused on two issues: One had to do with areas where cooperation could be augmented, and the other with problems that both nations still disagree upon. On the first, Putin and Erdogan demonstrated clear political intent to breathe new life into the Turkish Stream project. Russian energy officials insisted that since the inception of the project, market conditions have changed and the initial idea of supplying more than 63 billion cubic meters with four supply strings can no longer be realized. Nevertheless, Russia is still Turkey’s largest gas exporter — in 2015 it supplied 23 billion cubic meters. Given the current contract for the gas supply to Europe through Ukraine and Romania — part of which goes to Turkey — and limited potential of alternative sources such as Norway, Ankara had all the reasons to embrace Moscow’s proposal that looked mutually beneficial anyway. The parties will now hasten to prepare the documentation to move forward.
Another big deal on the table was relaunching the construction of the first nuclear power plant in Turkey — Akkuyu, a 4,800 megawatt, $20 billion project in which the Russians have already invested $3 billion. As a result of the negotiations the Turkish government granted the project the status of a “strategic investment.” It will be essentially built by the Russians and serviced by Turkish specialists, most of whom for this reason will travel to Russia for an intensive training program.
Moreover, Russia will lift the ban it had put in place on operations of Turkish companies and allow for tourist flights from Russia to Turkish resorts — a significant boost to the Turkish economy that suffered from a drastic drop in the number of Russian tourists from 4 million last year to 100,000 this year. There was also a particular intent on the Turkish side to increase the bilateral trade turnover to $100 billion. But given that it plunged by 40% over the last year, this figure might be ambitious to reach within a short period.
The problem-related basket produced more modest results. Speaking with Russia’s top interviewer ahead of the meeting with Putin, Erdogan outlined his three key principles on the Syrian problem. First, he said that Russia “is the key player in the Syrian solution,” and that Turkey is looking for ways to engage its potential. “We share a 950-kilometer (590-mile) border with Syria. In cooperation with Russia we can take ‘certain steps’ without violating the territorial integrity of Syria,” he said. Second, Erdogan’s position vis-a-vis the Syrian president is firm. He said, “We aren’t looking for ways to break up Syria, but whatever measures we take, departure of [Syrian President Bashar al-] Assad is a necessary condition. The unity of Syria with Assad in power is impossible.” Finally, Erdogan’s position on other forces fighting in Syria reflects his domestic concerns. He called it a “wrong approach” to list Jabhat al-Nusra as a terrorist organization while not doing the same with the Syrian Democratic Forces. “If fighting [the Islamic State] is the criteria of an allied group, then Jabhat al-Nusra shouldn’t be considered a terrorist group,” he said.
This obviously did not sit well with Moscow, and it has proved difficult for the two presidents to find common ground. Nevertheless, Russia and Turkey agreed on a greater coordination of the military and intelligence on Syria — most likely to prevent another incident such as the downed jet. Though this is certainly not a breakthrough, it is an interesting development. The two leaders concluded that “coordination of our approaches in Syria is possible since we have a common goal there — to have democratic transformations in the country.” Since Syria is now virtually the major stumbling block between the two states, Putin and Erdogan decided to have a separate meeting on this issue sometime in the future. Meanwhile, the respective parties in both countries will work together and separately to brainstorm on what joint initiatives may be discussed further.
On a much bigger level, Russia and Turkey are rediscovering Eurasia. Prior to his encounter with Putin, the Turkish leader met with Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who played a significant role in normalizing Russia-Turkey relations. In turn, Putin visited Baku for a historic summit — which may now acquire a regular format — with the leaders of Azerbaijan and Iran. The parties agreed to deepen economic cooperation, strengthen regional security and unite efforts in fighting terrorism. As if this is not enough, the president of Armenia visited Moscow the day after Erdogan left Russia. There is more talk in Moscow on a possible attempt to moderate yet another reset of Turkish-Armenian relations that would ease the overall tensions in the South Caucasus. From the Kremlin’s point of view, Russia-Turkish normalization fits into a larger framework that would make Turkey a third engine to the Eurasian grand integration project.
The relationship is no longer going to be based on a “men’s friendship,” but rather on a more solid ground of what some Kremlin insiders called “constructive opportunism.” Thus, regardless of the ambitions of the two authoritarian leaders, the respective policies will be crafted based upon “ad-hoc opportunities.” But for this to happen too many different — often opposite — issues have to converge. This bears great risks for both Russia and Turkey, but makes this subject all the more interesting to watch.
Maxim A. Suchkov