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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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
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
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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