How Western anger helps Russia woo Turkey

A renewed push by U.S. lawmakers to sanction Turkey is likely to move Ankara further towards Moscow, again highlighting President Vladimir Putin’s smart, opportunistic policies in the Middle East.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill last week to sanction Turkey for its incursion into northeast Syria, which some observers have described as an attempt at ethnic cleansing, and its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defences, which U.S. and NATO officials have said pose a security threat.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu responded by saying such sanctions could lead Turkey to request U.S. forces withdraw from Incirlik Air Base, where some 50 U.S. nuclear missiles are stored.

The latest rift underscores growing ties between Turkey and Russia, which agreed the $2.7 billion S-400 deal, discussed deals for Ankara to buy more S-400s as well as Su-35 fighter jets, and ramped up cooperation in Syria.

U.S. Defence Secretary Mark Esper last week expressed his fear that Turkey was withdrawing from NATO’s orbit and drifting toward Russia. A few days later Turkey and Russia agreed with Iran to work together to clear Syria’s Idlib province of hardline jihadist rebels and establish security in the area.

“With S-400 becoming operational in April 2020, as Turkey has made clear, and discussions ongoing for Su-35 and more S-400, the writing is on the wall for more Turkey-Russia cooperation,” Aaron Stein of the Foreign Policy Research Institute said in a series of tweets, responding to the sanctions bill approval. “It’s time to get serious here. Prudence dictates thinking about where this is going.”

Dimitar Bechev, research fellow at the Atlantic Council, acknowledged that Putin was undoubtedly enjoying the renewed tensions.

“Certainly purchasing the S-400 and putting it in place sends a very strong signal that Turkey is pursuing an autonomous foreign policy, which is music to the ears of the Kremlin,” he told Ahval in a podcast.

But Bechev also saw a limit to Russia-Turkey cooperation, as the two are partners at times and foes at others. He pointed out that the Russian forces operate in Syria, in Crimea and in Armenia, as well as in the Black Sea.

“Turkey is being encircled by the Russian military presence,” said Bechev, adding that the Turkish navy was over-stretched with its commitments in the Black Sea as well as the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, where tensions have been rising with Greece and Cyprus.

“Turkey has to juggle many conflicts, and despite its naval capabilities, it’s on the back foot vis-a-vis Russia,” he said. “Facing Russia, Turkey has to find a way to balance it, to engage but also have options. Certainly, confrontation is not in the cards.”

The two actually came to blows in Syria in 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet it said had crossed into Turkish airspace. Russian sanctions soon brought Ankara into line. “This is the lesson learned by (Turkish President) Erdoğan and Turkish foreign policymakers: you do not challenge Russia, you have to work with them,” said Bechev.

The result is a marriage of convenience, with the two collaborating on weapons sales and in Syria, but backing opposing sides in Libya, for example. Russia supports General Khalifa Haftar and has sent some 200 mercenaries to fight with his forces in their assault on Tripoli.

Turkey backs the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and Erdoğan has expressed a willingness to send Turkish forces and urged Putin to withdraw the Russian fighters.

Turkey is also developing the Trans-Anatolian natural gas pipeline (TANAP) to counter Russia’s regional energy dominance. Bechev said he would not be surprised if Russia found a way to move, in Libya, from confrontation with Turkey to collaboration, as the two have done in Syria.

“Is there another player that is able to be friends with both Israel and the Iranians, with the Kurds, but also Turkey?” Bechev wondered. “Russia keeps all doors open, it can shift its policy partially because it’s not embedded in the region ...It’s far away from home, and that’s what works in your favour, you can make U-turns pretty easily.”

This general lack of deep alliances enables Moscow to make itself available to potential partners when they become available, like Turkey during its continuing rift with the United States and its NATO allies. These tensions are likely to rise further still if the United States levies sanctions and Turkey continues its aggressive posturing in the eastern Mediterranean.

“Even if Turkey is not decoupling itself from NATO, the outward appearance of a deep rift and the periodic crisis is what serves Russia more than anything,” said Bechev. “Benefiting from other peoples’ crises is a very smart strategy. Without moving a finger the Kremlin is accruing all kinds of political benefits.”


© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.

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