Why Putin and Erdogan need each other

Peter Akopov

A three-hour meeting between Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan would be important only because it became the first in a year and a half, and after all, Russian-Turkish relations are one of those (few) that are important not only for partner countries. The previous meeting of the two presidents was like in a different world – at the beginning of March last year, when the planet was just beginning to plunge into the era of coronavirus. Of course, with the onset of quarantine, ties did not stop: over these 18 months, Putin and Erdogan talked on the phone 22 times (they do not communicate with anyone else so often). But, as Putin noted yesterday in Sochi, you cannot discuss everything on the phone, and there are plenty of topics for discussion in bilateral relations.

Because every year they cover a wider range of issues that cannot be trivially reduced to one-dimensional “cooperation” or “conflict”. As a rule, the former include the economy – from nuclear power plants and tourism to the S-400 or the Turkish Stream, and the latter include regional conflicts – from Syria to Libya, and now also Nagorno-Karabakh. And if everything is very good with bilateral projects, then everything seems to be very bad with the confrontation on the planet.

For eighteen years of Erdogan’s rule, Turkey has been actively promoting its interests all over the world, mixing pan-Turkism, neo-Ottomanism and pan-Islamism in different proportions (depending on circumstances and time), that is, playing on national, imperial and religious factors. The Turkish expansion has become for some in Russia a reason for panic: the Turks are advancing, including in the zone of our national interests, and we cannot oppose anything, we are giving in and retreating! The Turks are the winners, and we are the losers! Such sentiments became especially vividly manifested after last year’s Azerbaijani-Armenian war, which many interpreted almost as the defeat of Russia and the beginning of the seizure of Transcaucasia by Turkey…. Although in reality control over the line of contact between Armenians and Azerbaijanis in Karabakh is exercised by Russia – with the symbolic participation of the Turks.

At the same time, in Turkey itself, Syria is considered the main problem in relations with Russia – after all, Idlib and the Kurdish region are located directly at the Turkish borders, that is, they are connected with the issue of national security. Russia, although it takes into account Turkish interests there, is nevertheless determined to restore full-fledged Syrian statehood, that is, the return of the entire territory of Syria under the control of Bashar al-Assad. So far, there are no simple or even complex solutions to the problem – primarily in the Idlib issue. And shifts in the “Kurdish issue” are complicated by the fact that Americans continue to be present in Syria. But they will leave – sooner rather than later (both Moscow and Ankara are interested in this), – but Russia and Turkey will work in Syria anyway (Erdogan correctly noted that peace in Syria depends on Turkish-Russian relations, and it must be added that not only peace, but also post-war reconstruction). And it will be better for everyone if they can do it, if not together, then certainly not against each other.

Moreover, Russian-Turkish foreign policy topics are not limited to Syria and Karabakh: Afghanistan has also been added, elections will soon be held in Libya, where we were betting on different players, but at the same time we were equally interested in ending the split and restoring Libyan statehood. Because to restore Libya, both Russia and Turkey will need help – our countries have always been close partners for Tripoli. By and large, we have nothing to share there (there will be enough orders for everyone). Rather, it is in our common interest to ensure that a reunited Libya does not fall under the influence of the West, which wants to cash in on the reconstruction of what was destroyed through its fault.

As a matter of fact, such a crowding out of the West (from the Greater Middle East and not only) is one of the most important motives for Russian-Turkish interaction. Even when it looks more like a confrontation, Putin and Erdogan are able, if not to find a compromise, then soften their differences. Yes, Turkey remains a NATO member, but its contradictions with the United States and Europe are only growing – and pra-ctically unavoidable. And trusting personal relationships with Western leaders Erdogan is not: it is enough to see how the Americans are, in fact, denied the Tu-rkish President during his recent visit to the General Assembly of the UN in a meeting with Biden.

Of course, the Anglo-Saxons are habitually trying to play the card of the Turkish-Russian contradictions – as they say, to aim Turkey at Russia, to knock the heads of Putin and Erdogan against each other. But 18 years of relations between the two presidents have shown that they know how to separate the contradictions between our national interests from other people’s manipulations. Because both have long ousted the West from their own geopolitical thinking and their policies – guided in it only by their own understanding of the national interests of their peoples. Yes, the Turkish manner of foreign policy behavior differs from the Russian one, hence all Erdogan’s public statements on Crimea – but this in no way hinders the building of strategic relations between the two countries.

We are united not by hatred of the West, not by the desire to profit from its weakening, but by the belief that we can cope with our problems (including internal ones) on our own, without external “help”, that is, someone else’s interference. And in the same way (only together) we can become stronger through mutually beneficial cooperation and solve the problems that arise between us.

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