Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Russia to meet with Vladimir Putin indicates that Ankara is serious about restoring relations with Russia. At the same time, it sends a warning signal to the West and, specifically, NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the Russian-Turkish talks in expanded format, St. Petersburg, Aug. 9, 2016. Photo: Kremlin

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s meeting with Vladimir Putin during his visit to Russia on Aug. 9 is important for several reasons. Ostensibly, Erdogan wanted to thank Putin personally in front of the cameras as part of an attempt to rebuild Turkey’s damaged relationship with Russia. However, there is another, unspoken reason behind the visit: Turkey’s relations with the West are not in the best shape today, to put it mildly.

Both countries were already taking steps to restore relations but the Turkish coup attempt in mid-July has accelerated the process. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin was one of the first leaders to call Erdogan after the coup to express his support while most of the NATO member countries didn’t even bother to call. No wonder Erdogan chose Russia as the first foreign country to visit after the unsuccessful coup attempt.

As Erdogan has stated several times, he is looking forward to restoring his personal relationship with Putin - a leader that he was addressing not only as a strong partner but also as a good friend.

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Why is Erdogan turning his back to the West?

After the coup attempt, thousands of people have been arrested due to their connections with the Hizmet movement, a global organization led by Fethullah Gulen, a well-known Turkish Islamic cleric who has been living in the United States since 1999.

According to Ankara, Gulen was at least indirectly behind the failed coup attempt. Gulen’s ties with the U.S., his political ambitions and his long-standing rivalry with Erdogan are among the reasons why Turkey accuses him of orchestrating the coup. The possible implication of the U.S. in the coup attempt, combined with the refusal to extradite Gulen, have hampered relations between Turkey and the U.S.

However, Erdogan and his American counterpart Barack Obama failed to find personal chemistry with each other long before the coup attempt. Obama’s characterization of Erdogan as “an authoritarian who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria” was not well received by the Turkish leader and might even be perceived as a personal insult.

On the other hand, Turkey believes that it was not only rejected by the European Union, but also misled and cheated. All hopes to become part of the EU didn’t come true.  Before the meeting with Putin, Erdogan accused the EU of a “double standards” policy when it came to choosing which nations to accept as a member.

Moreover, Erdogan rebukes the U.S. for supporting the Kurdish authorities in Syria, represented by the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Although the PYD is fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) in Syria, they are also a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered to be a terrorist group in Turkey, the U.S. and the EU.

According to this logic, any attempts by the U.S. to support the Kurds in Syria also represents at least an indirect threat to the stability of the Turkish state. This threat was made all the more real by skirmishes between Turkish forces and the PKK in the eastern part of the country. The fact that support for PKK was coming from the PYD did not escape Ankara’s attention.

After a longstanding disagreement with the United States about the Kurds, Turkey started bombing the PYD, a group that was backed by the U.S. – even when Washington warned Ankara against such an action. Shortly thereafter, the bombings stopped. This sent mixed messages to the key stakeholders, each of them interpreting this move according to their own interests.

When some critics in the U.S. implied that Erdogan should leave his presidential post, their Turkish counterparts interpreted it as a warning message, as a sort of prelude for the coup attempt. However, such accusations tend to oversimplify matters. After all, the U.S. sees Turkey as a very valuable partner and a strong ally. While the U.S. may be willing to lose Erdogan as a partner, it is not willing to lose Turkey’s army, which is the second largest in NATO. 

However, as indicated by Erdogan’s visit to Russia, the West might lose Turkey. Whether these assumptions are viable or not, Erdogan’s willingness to build relations with Russia indicates that the Turkish President was at least thinking about turning his back on the West to make a pivot to the East. His recent meeting with Putin is a clear sign of this.

However, Erdogan is not shutting his nation’s doors to the West completely. Turkey’s intricate and complex relationship with the U.S. wouldn’t let him make such a brash and reckless move. Yet, it is clear that Erdogan has already changed the country’s direction after the coup attempt. Now it remains to be seen if Ankara’s new foreign policy vector will bring positive results.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.