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    Middle East
     Dec 1, 2012

Putin, Erdogan sashay into Syria
By M K Bhadrakumar

The Kremlin has formally announced that President Vladimir Putin will visit Turkey on Monday, December 3. A substantive announcement in Moscow said that it would be in the nature of a "working visit" to Istanbul.

The agenda includes talks on "the full range of bilateral relations" as well as an "exchange of views on key international and regional affairs". A "number of bilateral agreements" would be signed.

The statement singled out the "implementation of strategic projects in the energy sector." The situation in the Middle East, Trans-Caucasus, Central Asia and the Balkans would be key agenda items for discussion.

Without doubt, the Russian-Turkish relationship is at a


crossroads and how it evolves will have major bearing on a vast swathe of geopolitical space. The two countries have striven to sequester their bilateral cooperation from the recent rifts in their regional interests and concerns.

But the danger is that these rifts are widening, and the two countries increasingly appear as if they are engaged in a sashay by circling each other while taking sideways steps.

One way of steadying the relationship will be by giving verve to the content of the bilateral ties, which in turn could generate a new dynamic of partnership and help harmonize or at least temporize some of the differences that have surfaced in their regional policies.

Aside from a warm personal relationship, Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan also share a strikingly similar approach to politics imbued with the conviction that business ties should be the locomotive of inter-state relations, and indeed both are "go-getters" who do not brook hurdles.

In the bilateral sphere, the big-ticket items lie in the energy sector. The implementation of the nuclear power project, which Russia secured in Turkey amidst stiff international competition, was a breakthrough but its implementation has run into difficulties. It will be the focus of attention in Putin's talks with Erdogan.

Presumably, there is some degree of convergence on the pending issues, paving the way for Putin and Erdogan to give the formal stamp of approval. The project worth anywhere around $25 billion holds the potential to transform the strategic partnership.

The nuclear cooperation could signify a quantum leap and maturing of the mutual trust and confidence. Indeed, it can give stimulus to the overall partnership in new directions. Thus, Russia has been knocking at the Turkish door for cooperation in the military field.

Not a zero-sum game
Russia is Turkey's number one supplier of energy and the two countries have wide-ranging cooperation. Turkey has allowed Russia to lay its South Stream gas pipeline project, which proposes to link the southern European energy market and is a strategic project for Russia in cementing its partnership with the West, especially at a juncture when Moscow's cogitations with the European capitals have run into difficulties, including with Berlin, which has been a steady friend.

Quite obviously, some interesting trade-offs are to be expected. Russia's Gazprom has been eyeing participation in the development of Israel's offshore Leviathan gas fields in the Mediterranean, which also includes Cyprus. Turkey, on the other hand, resents the growing Israeli-Cypriot-Greek axis (with the tacit blessing of Washington) that is rapidly forming in the eastern Mediterranean, which would isolate it in its region. Ankara has warned third parties - mainly Russia - that their involvement with the new geopolitical axis will be regarded as a "red line" and there will be a price to pay in their bilateral relations with Turkey if they got too involved with Cyprus and Greece.

Putin visited Israel in June and President Shimon Peres paid a "working visit" to Russia last month. Moscow has been pushing hard for the Gazprom bid but Israel has not taken a decision so far. Peres made it clear that Israel would, conceivably, expect some moderation by Moscow with regard to its support for Iran on the nuclear issue. Russia kept quiet and that is unlikely to happen, but Moscow took a somewhat neutral stand on the recent conflict in Gaza that favored Israel.

Meanwhile, there are unconfirmed reports that Israel may have placed a big order for Russia's advanced Sukhoi fighter aircraft. Again, Moscow is trusting that the new Israeli government to be formed after the January election will be led by the coalition between Benjamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman.

A growing factor in Israeli politics is the ascendancy of the Russian emigrants like Lieberman who harbor an affinity with their "homeland"; and there is wide admiration for Putin among the Russian emigre community in Israel.

In sum, Russia-Israel ties are definitely on an upswing and this coincides with the deep chill that has descended on Turkey's relations with Israel. Although this is not a zero-sum game, it is bound to give rise to unease and disquiet in Ankara.

The point is, these crosscurrents also have a larger backdrop. Russia and Turkey have major differences in their approach to the upheaval in the Middle East and the rise of political Islam. The present government in Turkey favorably regards the rise of Islamism in the Middle East whereas Russia has dark forebodings about what is happening in countries like Tunisia and Libya, and their impact on Trans-Caucasia and Central Asia where Russia has abiding interest in regional stability.

Over the crisis in Syria, sharp differences have appeared and neither side cares to hide it. Moscow is critical of Ankara's active support of the Syrian rebel fighters who use Turkish territory as their main lifeline for getting weapons, money and recruits, apart from logistics and intelligence backup and training. And Erdogan has lashed out more than once at Russia's support for the Syrian regime.

Revisionist tendencies
Moscow has objected to the Turkish move to seek deployment of NATO's Patriot missiles on the Syrian border and suspects that Ankara is persisting with its objective of setting up a "no-fly zone" in northern Syria. The Russian foreign minister is scheduled to hold talks with his NATO counterparts in Brussels in the coming days.

On a broader plane, Moscow also bristles at the revisionist trends in Turkish foreign policy that have appeared lately. Erdogan's decision on the deployment of the US missile defense system in central Anatolia upset Russia.

Moscow used to appreciate the independent foreign policy that Erdogan pursued in the early years of his prime ministership when he came to power in 2003, which seemed to promise a level playing field for Russia in what used to the West's privileged turf during the Cold War era. But Erdogan has had a change of course since then, particularly during the past couple of years after the eruption of the Arab Spring with the western propaganda playing on Turkish vanities regarding its neo-Ottoman legacy in the Middle East.

Having said that, Turkey today has far from reverted to the Cold War-era role as a US proxy undercutting Russian interests. Perhaps the apt description of Turkey would be the coinage by the influential US think tank Center for a New American Security, which in a major report co-authored with the German Marshall Fund of the United States named it as one of the "global swing states" in the international system. (The other three are Brazil, India and Indonesia.)

The Americans have a way of coining eye-catching phrases, but in this case there is some merit. The CNAS report argues that these global swing states "hold the potential to renew the inter-national order on which they, the United States, and most other countries depend", and, therefore, Washington should evolve a strategy "to seize the opportunity to enlarge the international order's base of supporters to include Brazil, India, Indonesia and Turkey."

Suffice to say, Russia too factors in that the consolidation of the nascent strategic partnership with Turkey can deliver a large geopolitical payoff. But the big question is how the two regional powers bridge the serious differences that have appeared with regard to the security issues.

Arguably, Moscow is preparing for a political transition in Syria (which is only logical) but there are no signs of any fundamental shift in its assessment of the overall situation or of any inclination to soften its resistance in the United Nations Security Council to any Western attempt to force "regime change" in Syria.

As for Turkey, its adherence to the policy of seeking "regime change" in Syria; its covert support to the Syrian rebels; its axis with Qatar and Saudi Arabia - these continue to remain the cornerstones of its approach although Ankara could have its grievances regarding the shortfalls in the support Erdogan expected from the Barack Obama administration.

Erdogan made the observation this week, "Putin is coming to Turkey on December 3, and we will discuss the Syrian crisis. At the moment, Russia is holding the key. Iran is not in a position to hold the key anymore. Russia's attitude is very crucial." Significantly, Erdogan also publicly voiced in the same breath an embittered opinion: "
The US has not shown a satisfactory attitude so far. Some expressions used were, 'wait for the elections, after the elections the situation may change.' The elections are over and they say 'a new Cabinet will be established. After the new Cabinet we can talk.'"
To be sure, Putin and Erdogan will make a renewed attempt to narrow their differences over Syria. But the time is not ripe for a joint Russian-Turkish initiative, although Moscow and Ankara are the two key capitals that can make a big difference to an easing of the current stalemate.

Both Putin and Erdogan harbor huge ambitions for their countries' respective roles in the emergent world order. But they are realists as well. Their priority will be to ensure that the critical mass that developed in the Russian-Turkish strategic cooperation becomes sustainable when the two countries' interests grate against each other. Putin and Erdogan are savvy enough to achieve that.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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Russia bridges Middle Eastern divides (Oct 11, '12)



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