The Other Bridge to Europe: Putin-Erdogan Relations

In today’s Motherland Russia blog I am going to address the conflicting and rather uncertain position of one of the controversial connections between Europe and Asia: Turkey. 

Turkey and all the leaders who have occupied the presidential seat in Ankara have been playing a really long limbo game since the decline and later disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. Both internally and externally. However, even though Turkey’s ties with its Western allies have been usually more influential than those with the East, in the last decade we have seen Erdogan pushing for policies that distance the Middle Eastern country from Western political, economic and cultural matters.

Why is this relevant for us? Because this is relevant to Putin. There are several ways why a great relationship with Erdogan would help to increase Russia’s influence not only in the region but also in Europe.

Erdogan swifting from NATO to Russia

Russia and Turkey have been in confronted sides of history for the past century, with Turkey becoming a NATO member state in 1952 and against the Warsaw Pact (led by the USSR). Turkey sought for aid against the Soviet communist threat in Western power, thus making Russia and Turkey enemies during the Cold War

After the fall of the USSR, relations improved, but there were major setbacks and components of both countries’ foreign policies that did not allow them to pursue friendly relations. Great examples are (in chronological order): the old and ongoing fight for influence in the Caucasus, how both countries chose completely opposite sides during the Syrian Civil War or the escalation of tensions in 2015 with the shootdown of a Russian jet days before the beginning of Putin’s operations in Syria.

Nevertheless, tensions have decreased over the past years. Erdogan and Putin have applied similar policies, such as the support for Maduro and his legitimate position in the Venezuelan government or their call to end the Syrian War (in which Erdogan was left alone in his crusade against the kurds after Trump’s sudden change of strategy and later withdrawal last year). They also have supported each other when it came to US sanctions by making public statements addressed to the American government, defending that they should be revoked. All of these events, without taking into account their several face-to-face meetings, clearly show Erdogan’s swift towards Putin and away from NATO leaders, especially away from Trump.

Economics are always relevant for our leaders

As I have mentioned, both Erdogan and Putin have been rivals in many political and diplomatic issues. Nevertheless, they also have shown that economic relations can flourish even under intense circumstances.

After the de-escalation of relations succeeding the 2015 jet shootdown, there has been proof of improving economic transactions, including lifting sanctions and restrictions in labor and capital. Turkey is one of the most favored destinations for Russian tourists and bilateral agreements place Russia as one of the main exporters of natural gas and daily goods to Turkey, exceeding Germany in some sectors. Both presidents announced their goal to reach a trade volume of $100bn by the end of last year. Official figures have not been published yet, but that is a sum almost 5 times bigger than their volume in 2018… it is a complicated target to meet but a clear message of their cooperation which arrived in the form of a newspaper to the tables of all Western leaders.

It has been established that there are many reasons why Erdogan should (more than why he should not) further his cooperation with Putin. Although they sometimes clash in their policies in the Middle East, since both hope to be the next power in the region, they have close interests regarding their relationship with Western countries. 

Erdogan, by using more conservative and Islamic internal politics, is culturally distancing himself and his country from the European standards, especially with issues such as press suppression. Definitely it does not seem like Turkey will leave NATO tomorrow, but it certainly has found a new ally in Putin. And Putin has found yet another ally in the Middle East.