Year after crisis, Turkey and Russia forge uneasy alliance

Ankara’s rapprochement with Moscow is a signal to Washington and the EU that the Nato member has other potential strategic allies

Gulf News

Istanbul: One year after the crisis that plunged relations between Russia and Turkey to a post-Cold War low, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan have overseen a spectacular revival in ties at a time when both are facing new tensions with the West.

The shooting down of a Russian military jet over the Syrian border by the Turkish air force on November 24, 2015 was the culmination of months of tensions over the civil war, prompting Moscow to impose retaliatory sanctions on Ankara.

Erdogan accused Russia of war crimes in Syria in its support of President Bashar Al Assad while Putin said the Turkish strongman would make Turkey’s modern founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk “roll in his grave”.

But after a reconciliation deal in June that saw Turkey express regret for downing the jet, the recovery in relations has been rapid and stunning.

Erdogan visited Putin’s home city of Saint Petersburg in August and then hosted the Russian strongman for talks at an energy forum in Istanbul in October.

At that forum, Putin and Erdogan clinched an accord to build a pipeline under the Black Sea that will pump Russian gas to consumers in Turkey and Europe.

Meanwhile, even though both countries remain on opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, Ankara’s criticism of Russian support for Al Assad in pushing rebels out of Aleppo has become remarkably muted.

Analysts say Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia is a clear signal to Washington and the European Union that the key Nato member and longstanding EU candidate has other potential strategic allies.

The EU criticised the magnitude of Ankara’s crackdown in the wake of the July 15 attempted coup while Erdogan is furious Washington has so far failed to extradite the alleged mastermind, the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen.

“Ankara is using this movement towards Russia to re-evaluate its position towards the Western countries, especially the Americans,” said Jean Marcou, Turkey expert at Sciences Po in the French city of Grenoble.

Erdogan recently even suggested that Turkey could join the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a military-economic bloc led by China and Russia, in a move that could end its EU bid and Nato membership.

But Marcou said the rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow was above all “tactical” and, for now, did not amount to a turning point that could cause a rupture with the EU or Nato.

Analysts said Erdogan’s biggest priority was to re-establish full economic cooperation at a tricky moment for the Turkish economy and end sanctions on its key tourist industry that saw Russian visitor numbers plummet.

As well as the pipeline plan, half of Turkey’s natural gas imports come from Russia while Moscow is supposed to build the country’s first nuclear power station.

Meanwhile, there is a long list of issues that will continue to cause problems in ties — notably the Syrian conflict and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea which has raised alarm over the welfare of the Turkic Tatar minority on the peninsula.

“An aim was to redress the economic and energy collaboration and seek the termination of the Russian sanctions that have negatively affected Turkey’s economy and particularly its tourism industry,” said Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy (Edam).

“But the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia should not be read as a strategic re-alignment,” he said, adding Erdogan was keen to show the West his displeasure over its reaction in the wake of the coup.

The Kremlin rushed to back Erdogan on the night of the coup and since then has not uttered a whisper of criticism about the magnitude of the crackdown, unlike Turkey’s Western allies.

Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that with Erdogan firmly eyeing a presidential system in Turkey, an alliance with fellow strongman Putin had become a far more tempting prospect.

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