The West might be questioning Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's visit to St. Petersburg. Yet it should be seen in a broader context, as a pragmatic attempt to bring stability to the Middle East and resolve the Syrian crisis.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during his talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Konstantin palace outside St.Petersburg, Russia, on Tuesday, Aug. 9,. Photo: AP
On Aug. 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited St. Petersburg, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. It was Erdogan’s first visit abroad after the failed coup, and Western analysts carefully analyzed what it might mean for the future trajectory of Turkish foreign policy.
Indeed, Erdogan himself has described his visit to Russia as a symbol of the “New Turkey,” a way to move ahead with new foreign and domestic policies for a nation in turmoil. In recent years, Turkey has experimented with different approaches to spreading its influence in the region. These led to an overestimation of the nation’s power and capacities and, then, to relative isolation.
Given the crisis at home, leaving Turkey even for an official visit abroad was a very challenging step for Erdogan. That's why the meeting in St. Petersburg should be seen as a symbolic and important decision. For Ankara, it is vitally important to return to pragmatic policymaking after a period of crisis.
Exactly because of that, talks between Erdogan and Putin in St. Petersburg mainly focused on their economic partnership and the restoration of large projects, including the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and the Akuyyu nuclear power plant, both of which were frozen after the incident with the downed Russian bomber jet along the Turkish-Syrian border last year.
A continuous supply of energy is crucial for energy security. Russia, Turkey and the EU all have a stake in the energy security of the region extending from the Middle East to Europe. This is why the Turkish Stream project is beneficial for everybody except the U.S. Washington seems to be worried about a Russia-Turkey rapprochement and those fears are not groundless.
Erdogan’s visit to Russia represents a potential challenge to the West. Europe’s constant but fruitless promises of Turkish accession to the European Union were met with scepticism in Turkey. In addition, Turkey had become dissatisfied with playing the role of the U.S.’s right-hand man. This, in fact, started happening after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the U.S. was looking for a junior partner in the region.
Since then, Ankara has developed economically and politically, and it now requires a new type of relationship with Washington. Turkey also has a lot of questions for NATO, which has been using it as a foothold for ambitious plans to transform the Middle East.
Moreover, anti-American sentiments in Turkey are on the rise today, with the U.S. refusing to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who has been living in the U.S. since 1999. The Turkish authorities accuse Gulen of orchestrating the recent coup and view his extradition as a matter of national security.
As a result, public sympathies are shifting from the U.S. to Russia, Iran, and other Arab countries. Partly, it results from the fact that Turkey has become less secular. However, at the same time, anti-Americanism in Turkey stems from disappointment with the West, which has been trying to maintain its leadership in the unipolar world.
This indicates that the role of Erdogan inside and outside the country seems to be growing. It also means that Turkey’s foreign policy is becoming more independent. A more independent foreign policy, though, poses more hidden threats and risks, given its unpredictable nature.
However, despite the fact that Moscow and Ankara are trying to restore economic cooperation, they also have to deal with pressing challenges, including the creation of mechanisms that could alleviate or prevent political crises such as the downing of the Russian jet in November 2015. In addition, Russia and Turkey have to find common ground in order to come up with a compromise solution on Syria.
While the West sees any dialogue between Turkey and Russia as a serious challenge, more extensive cooperation between the two countries could actually be a good recipe for bringing stability to the Middle East region and to the global system of international relations.
Moreover, the U.S. appears unfocused on how to proceed with the volatile situation in the Middle East. To cope with the standoff in Syria, Washington seems to be looking for collaboration with Moscow and such tactics are only driving Ankara to cooperate with Russia as well.
It is very challenging to find easy answers to difficult questions, but sometimes decisions can be found on the surface. One of them is to find common ground with other stakeholders on the list of terrorist organizations and to stop providing all military groups in Syria with weapons. Weakening arms and financial flows could contribute to alleviating the threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). Russia and the U.S. could also benefit from it from the point of view of their interests in the Middle East.
Recommended: "Turkey and Russia, partners by necessity not by choice"
Actually, resolving the problems in this region will also have a positive impact on Turkey, which is starting to rebuild its national policy from scratch, as Erdogan himself noted. In this case, Ankara could establish effective economic cooperation with its neighbors and finally implement the so-called “zero problems with neighbors” policy, which Turkey had been promoting aggressively until recently. The policy largely failed because Turkey tried to impose its agenda on its neighbors.
Today, the Middle East is experiencing great turbulence. This affects the stability of Europe as well, given the current situation in Turkey. The hope is that Erdogan’s visit to Russia can help to implement the untapped potential of the Middle East region. And the fact that the Turkish president described Russia as one of the key stakeholders that — together with Iran and Turkey — can contribute to resolving the Syrian crisis is a good sign.
Thus, Erdogan’s visit to St. Petersburg should not be seen as the challenge to the West. In contrast, it is a call for searching out pragmatic solutions to the protracted crisis in Syria as well as other geopolitical and security problems. Although the meeting between Russian and Turkish leaders failed to bring any breakthrough agreements, it indicates that it is possible to come up with compromise solutions to common challenges despite numerous differences and unresolved problems.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.