As we continue to sort through the aftermath of the failed attempt at a military coup against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, one unexpected (and potentially unwelcome, from a U.S. standpoint) development is that this botched attempt to remove Erdoğan will further the reconciliation process between the Turkish leader and Russian president Vladimir Putin.
For years, the two men had enjoyed not only a strong personal relationship (cemented by shared views opposing the idea that Western values represent a universal template for all societies), but had presided over the transformation of Russia-Turkey relations, from a highly adversarial position at the end of the Cold War to a full-fledged strategic and economic partnership between NATO’s easternmost member and the Kremlin. After the start of the Ukraine crisis, Turkey not only eschewed joining Western sanctions against Russia, but even offered an alternative to the now-stillborn South Stream project, the “Turkish Stream” line, which, if built, would give the Kremlin the ability to end its dependence on Ukraine as a transit state for Russian energy heading for central and southern Europe.
These warm and friendly ties—reaffirmed for the world to see in fall 2015 at the G-20 summit in Antalya—came to a sudden and screeching halt when a Turkish warplane shot down a Russian fighter jet conducting operations in support of Syria’s embattled leader Bashar al-Assad after briefly straying into Turkish airspace.
Putin’s response was sudden and immediate. Sanctions were imposed on Turkey, the Russians proceeded to massively build up their outpost in Syria and Putin made it abundantly clear that he regarded Erdoğan’s actions as a personal betrayal of the highest order. For Western strategists concerned about the implications of a closer Russia-Turkey entente, the shootdown pushed Turkey back into the Western embrace, as Erdoğan, in turn, demanded assurances from his NATO allies that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had Turkey’s back. The subsequent agreement negotiated with European Union leaders for Turkey to control migration into Europe in return for new concessions (including putting Turkey’s membership in the EU back on the agenda) further seemed to signal that Turkey was returning to its traditional role as the West’s bulwark in the Eastern Mediterranean, both against the chaos emanating from the Middle East but also to check and contain Russian expansionism.
Of course, the shootdown of the Russian plane was only a symptom of a larger problem that had been festering in Russia-Turkey relations: the Syria crisis. After the uprising to oust Assad began, Turkey moved to support the opposition, throwing its support to the Sunni Arab opposition in the hopes that Assad and his regime (with its troublesome ties to Iran) could be replaced by a more sympathetic government in Damascus. Russian support for Assad was always a problem, but once Moscow decided to move from simply resupplying Assad to actual on-the-ground intervention to prop up Assad from collapse (after it appeared in summer 2015 that, after four years of struggle, Assad was on the ropes), Turkey saw the Kremlin’s moves as directly inimical to its own interests in Syria.
Yet, by late spring, Erdoğan was already beginning to shift course. He finally offered a belated apology for the loss of the Russian aircraft—a public statement that Moscow had been demanding as the price for starting the normalization of relations. Moreover, the Turks could read the map: Assad had been strengthened by the Russian intervention and was now in far less danger of falling, but the ongoing civil war in Syria—and the need for the United States, in particular, to find reliable local allies to battle the forces of Islamic State—was immeasurably strengthening the position of Syria’s Kurds and its politico-military movements with their close ties to the Kurdish Workers’ Party in Turkey. A continued stalemate in Syria makes the emergence of another Kurdish entity, a Syrian Kurdistan to accompany Iraqi Kurdistan, much more of a possibility. Moreover, not only was the United States aiding the Kurds, but Moscow signaled a shift and began to also reach out to the Kurds, allowing their political movement to open a liaison office in the Russian capital at the beginning of this year. Over time, a political settlement in Syria that leaves Assad in place may prove to be a lesser evil for Turkey to live with than Ankara helping to midwife a Syrian Kurdish statelet.
The flare-up of fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh earlier this year also created headaches. Turkey was not looking forward to a proxy clash in the Caucasus with Russia, and continued fighting would help to doom a critical energy transit program Turkey is very invested in: the Trans-Anatolian line, which will bring Caspian gas to European markets, bypassing Russia’s pipeline network. With Turkish Stream seemingly cancelled, the Southern Energy Corridor is vitally important for Erdoğan’s hopes to develop Turkey as the indispensable energy transit state for Europe—as well as marketing Turkey as the transit state for the development of Israel’s own massive natural gas reserves (thus a key reason for improving Turkey-Israel ties, which have also languished).
So Putin and Erdoğan were already beginning to patch things up, with the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers conferring on how to revive the Russia-Turkey strategic agenda. Then the coup attempt happened.
The United States has continually denied that it played any role in encouraging or supporting a coup attempt. No matter. Putin can easily play on Erdoğan’s suspicions that the Obama administration was open to seeing Erdoğan’s removal. It fits a narrative that Putin himself has articulated: that the United States preaches partnership with other nations while looking for the first available opportunity to replace their problematic governments (Putin’s own interpretation of the abortive “White Revolution” against his decision to return to the presidency in 2011, and his insistence that then secretary of state Hillary Clinton had given the “signal” for action). It is easy to envision how Putin, in his phone call to Erdoğan on Sunday, might take up this line of interpretation—and find a ready and receptive audience on the other end of the phone. No doubt a similar message is being conveyed to Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev, who will be meeting with Putin and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani for a trilateral summit in several weeks.
Will the coup attempt push Erdoğan closer to reaching a compromise deal with Putin on the future of Syria? Does it put the Turkish Stream project back on track, and with it, Russia’s efforts to finally rid itself of the need for Ukraine as a transit state? We’ll have a better sense of how those questions will be answered in the coming weeks.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a contributing editor at the National Interest, is the incoming Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College. He is also a nonresidential senior fellow in the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed are his own.
Image: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin. Kremlin.ru