What was praised to become a breakthrough meeting which would get Russia-Turkey relations back to their pre-November 2015 incident times and even better, did not deliver any surprises. Moscow and Ankara will both benefit from restoring bilateral relations. The signals to the west are clear: Moscow demonstrates its successful approach in dealing with a NATO ally while Ankara shows that it can quite easily change its policies and keeps all doors opened. Besides, Moscow is likely to be more assertive with Ankara now, getting more economic levers on Turkey.
What was praised to become a breakthrough meeting which would get Russia-Turkey relations back to their pre-November 2015 incident times and even better, did not deliver any surprises.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in St. Petersburg on August 9 to meet with his counterpart Vladimir Putin for the first time since G-20 meeting in Antalya in November, 2015. Shortly after the relations between the two countries got frayed after Turkey downed the Russian bomber jet Su-24 along Syria-Turkey border. Earlier in June, 2016 Erdogan sent a letter to Putin expressing regrets about the downed jet and offering condolence to the family of the killed pilot. That gesture laid down the road towards reconciliation between Moscow and Ankara which resulted in both leaders pledging to repair ruined relations during the latest meeting in St. Petersburg.
Firstly, the mere fact that Erdogan’s Russia visit comes against a backdrop of rising tensions between Turkey and the West over Ankara’s harsh response to the failed coup attempt and over Turkish approach to Syrian Kurds is very telling. Secondly, it is the first visit Turkish president makes after the failed coup attempt which underlines, among other things, the special relations between the two leaders which they decide to set against the current dissatisfaction of the West with both, Moscow and Ankara.
Besides, Turkey being a NATO member makes this moment quite awkward for the United States. In couple of weeks the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit Ankara to deliver some important messages or proposals to Erdogan, which makes Washington look quite lagged behind the unfolding changes in Turkey and in its improving relations with Russia.
Some can justly argue that Turkey, being a NATO member, is dependent on Washington and its decisions to some extent, so Ankara will ultimately act in line with NATO’s policies. However, it would be more accurate to say that it is a two-way road, and the U.S. also depends on Turkey especially when it comes to dealing with the Middle East and regional conflicts there. Let’s not forget, that Turkey is NATO’s outpost in the Middle East having the second largest army in the Alliance and playing the role of a buffer between this volatile region and Europe. Besides, Turkey hosts U.S. troops and warplanes at its Incirlik Air Base, an important foothold for the U.S.-led fight against Islamic State terrorists in neighboring Iraq and Syria.
This is why despite being somewhat regionally and globally isolated Turkey still has some room for manoeuvre when it comes to playing on the differences between Russia and the U.S., Russia and Europe.
During the last month Turkish political establishment was sending mixed signals with regard to sensitive foreign policy and security issues which very much indicates that Ankara is testing waters in a complicated regional and international environment. It wants to understand and clarify who will be the easiest partner to negotiate on Syria and issues connected with it (terrorist, refugees flow, Kurds, etc.), so, it has to compromise less.
On the one hand, there are calls from Turkey to normalize relations with all its neighbors and to come back to its old formula “zero problems with neighbors” (even calls to normalize relations with Syria were voiced) which basically means Turkish foreign policy U-turn. On the other hand, Erdogan still insists that Syria’s future is impossible with Assad and Syrian Kurds Democratic Union Party (PYD) is an offshoot of the ‘terrorist’ Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which is supported by the U.S. and Russia. Besides Erdogan uses refugee crisis in Europe and EU-Turkey deal as a lever on the EU. Such approach gives Turkey more flexibility while negotiating, exploiting different sensitive issues.
As for Russia-Turkey relations, the most fundamental disagreements lie in political and geopolitical spheres, mainly concentrating around Syrian crisis and include Assad's fate, Syrian Kurds, terrorist groups designation and Turkey-Syria border. It means that Russia-Turkey economic relations are quite easy to restore as there are no obstacles for them to come back to the pre-crisis level and even to develop further except for political will of both leaders.
In fact, this is exactly what happened in St. Petersburg. Parties started their talks discussing economic, trade and humanitarian issues which even did not experience any significant misunderstandings or problems before November 2015, despite Russia-Turkey disagreements on Syria.
So, statements made by Putin and Erdogan on restoring Russia-Turkey relations in all spheres should not be perceived as something outstanding. Resumption of strategic projects like Akuyyu nuclear power plant construction in Turkey and Turkish Stream gas pipeline is mutually beneficial for Moscow and Ankara and meets both parties’ long-term interests. Lifting Russia’s food embargo and tourist ban on Turkey is also a matter of time. However, as politics often drives economics, Russia received certain leverage over Turkey. Most likely, Moscow will tie restoration of economic relations with Turkey to Ankara’s policy change in Syria.
Nevertheless, big progress on Syria is quite unlikely as both Russia and Turkey have already invested too much in the settlement process to change their positions substantially. However, such technical aspects as pilots' code of conduct and military and air force cooperation to avoid incidents like the one with Russia’s Su-24 in November of 2015 are relatively easy to agree on. Russia's Defense Ministry prepared a package of such documents for Turkey prior to Erdogan’s visit.
Moscow and Ankara will both benefit from restoring bilateral relations. The signals to the west are clear: Moscow demonstrates its successful approach in dealing with a NATO ally while Ankara shows that it can quite easily change its policies and keeps all doors opened. Besides, Moscow is likely to be more assertive with Ankara now, getting more economic levers on Turkey.