As attractive as reconciliation between Russia and Turkey may seem and despite the potential significant benefits, there are risks and problems. Moscow needs to keep a wary eye on the geopolitical moves coming from Ankara.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, November 16, 2015. Photo: AP
It seems only a few years ago that the Turkish government was touting a policy of “zero problems with neighbors.” Russia, which occupies such a powerful position across the Black Sea, would, of course, have been one of the neighbors with which the Erdogan regime was particularly keen to have good relations with, both for geostrategic and economic reasons.
Indeed, for a long time relations between the Putin and Erdogan governments were good. However, their productive cooperation, which frayed somewhat with the war in Syria, unravelled dramatically last November when Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter aircraft on the Turkey-Syrian border, which then crashed in the Jabal Turkmen area of Syria, killing the pilot and resulting in the loss of a Russian marine who was killed in the attempted helicopter rescue.
The confrontational Turkish leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, refused Russian demands for an apology and the Kremlin imposed severe sanctions, ranging from a ban on Turkish imports of key products, to barring Turkish tour operators from offering Russian tourists tour packages in Turkey, to restrictions on Turkish citizens working for companies registered in Russia.
Given the acrimony between the two states, at first blush it may seem surprising that Erdogan has now decided to personally apologize to Russian President Vladimir Putin. True, it was apparently an oblique apology which expressed sympathy, condolences and regret, but coming from the mercurial, ultranationalist Islamist leader of Turkey, who has relentlessly restricted democratic freedoms in his own country and continues to harshly condemn domestic and foreign opponents alike, it does seem to be a remarkable climb down.
Also read Russia Direct's debates: "Will Turkey's apology for downing the Russian jet alleviate tensions?"
Yet, this apology should not have been entirely surprising. Several factors have been at work that created compelling reasons for the usually unbending Erdogan to apologize now.
First, despite the seeming projection of strength, the Erdogan regime is under growing domestic political strain not only from opposition parties and significant segments of the population that object to the President’s increasingly dictatorial rule, but also from the mushrooming violence between Kurdish elements and the regimes forces.
Second, this domestic political instability also comes at a time of major economic difficulties. Current economic growth has tremendously dissipated, corruption is even more corrosive and foreign investment is drying up in Turkey. Russian sanctions are biting and the loss of the very large-scale Russian tourism has hit the Turkish economy especially hard. If Erdogan is to continue to use economic progress as one of the key sources of legitimacy, he would need to revive the economy, and here Russia can play a vital role.
Third, Erdogan surely must be realizing that the Russian intervention in Syria to help support the Assad regime has been rather effective and Turkish hopes of removing President Bashar al-Assad are fading. Consequently, in reconciling with Moscow, Ankara may also wish to find a way to calm the situation in Syria and diminish the risk of Syrian instability moving into Turkey on a truly large scale.
Fourth, Erdogan is well aware of the unpredictability of democratic elections – witness his constant attempts to skew the process in favor of his own party in Turkey. With the upcoming elections in the fall in the United States, this would be an opportune time to try and safeguard himself against the effects of potential major changes in American foreign policy under a new Washington administration by resolving one of his major regional problems.
Fifth, though the attempt to reconcile with Moscow has been going on for some time, the shock of “Brexit” may well have been an additional incentive for Erdogan to find a way to protect himself against the effects of European instability. As the EU has to cope with the enormous stress of the dramatic choice by the British people to leave the European Union, Erdogan may have fewer opportunities to manipulate the Europeans and to extract major concessions from them in exchange for keeping Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees out of the EU.
These multiple interconnected reasons consequently made Erdogan’s concession both reasonable and timely. Undoubtedly, he hopes for a very major improvement in Moscow-Ankara relations that will help him domestically as well as regionally. There are also possible opportunities for Russia to improve its own economic position by restoring full economic relations with Turkey as well as a chance to use Turkish help in trying to stabilize Syria and find a political solution in that country.
Nonetheless, as attractive as reconciliation may seem and despite the potential significant benefits, there are risks and problems. Undoubtedly the Turkish apology can lead to alleviating some tensions but this is quite different from true reconciliation.
To a significant degree the problem rests with Erdogan and his unlimited ambitions. He has evidently recognized that the political constellation has and is changing in pivotal ways but this does not mean that he has given up his long-term ambitions, both domestic and regional. Erdogan remains an exceedingly difficult and unpredictable partner. His increasingly dictatorial rule, again, means that there is an inherent domestic instability, one that he may at some point wish to resolve or compensate for with some risky foreign adventure.
In Syria itself, we should recall, Erdogan has played a double game where he has (as Putin rightly accused him) at times supported the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) while simultaneously drawing heavily on NATO support. He has also shown himself masterful at exploiting the fears and weaknesses of the EU when it comes to refugees and he has the capacity to unleash new waves of refugees that would create further regional instability that in turn could complicate matters for Moscow.
Erdogan is very likely acting tactically now and should he manage to stabilize and solidify his position domestically, he could quickly alter relations with Russia. Consequently, it would be wise of all international actors, including Russia, when dealing with Erdogan to recognize the multiple negative variables involved, whether it is the inherent instability of the Erdogan regime, or the unpredictable and cynical character of the Turkish leader himself, to exercise extreme caution in improving relations and to insist at all stages on clearly defined quid pro quos.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.