What a difference two years make. Turkey and Russia were on the brink of war in 2015 after the Turkish military shot down a Russian fighter-bomber that strayed into Turkish airspace for a mere 17 seconds at the start of Russia’s campaign in Syria. Moscow retaliated by slapping extremely painful sanctions on Turkish imports and banning its holiday-loving population from visiting the country, which is easily Russians’ favourite tourist destination thanks to a visa-free entry requirement. Fast-forward to March 10, and presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan were fawning over each other during a state trip to Russia by the Turkish strongman.
"We are very happy our inter-state relations are restoring quite quickly," the Russian leader said during a meeting at the Moscow Kremlin with Erdogan, reported TASS. "Many events have happened, and lately we have been working actively to bring Russia-Turkey relations to a level worthy of our countries."
The leaders began the process of mending the rift at a meeting last August in St. Petersburg. But maybe more importantly now, the two men have increasingly similar political agendas. Erdogan, who addressed Putin as "dear friend" during their meeting, is starting to look more and more like his Russian counterpart as he attempts to ram through laws at home that will make him an all-powerful president.
The two share a lot of the strongman traits. Press freedoms in Turkey are far worse than those in Russia; Turkey has more journalists in jail than any other country, according to Freedom House’s most recent report. Erdogan has ridden roughshod over Turkey’s democratic institutions and after a purge of tens of thousands of state employees following a coup attempt last summer he now has an iron grip on the politics of the country.
Russia has also become a natural ally after the EU made it transparently clear that it has no intention of admitting Turkey into its club. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said explicitly that she doesn’t want to see Turkey join, but the rest of Europe kept dangling the possibility in front of Erdogan’s nose in the hope it could sway domestic politics. That pretence has evaporated now, highlighted by Erdogan’s extremely offensive comments this week equating practises of modern Germany to the Nazi era.
More worryingly for the West, Erdogan appears to be undermining Nato, of which his country has been a member since 1952. One of the items on Erdogan’s hopeful shopping list while in Moscow is an order for the Russian S-400 surface-to-air anti-missile system. This state-of-the-art system is much sought after and is as good or better than anything Nato has - but Russia tends to only sell it to its very best allies.
Military cooperation is crucial to Turkey’s ambitions in its own backyard. A staunch opponent of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan was hoping to bully his Nato allies into removing him, but the US baulked and instead backed Kurdish rebels. They have been the most effective fighters against the Syrian government forces, but are sworn enemies of Erdogan.
Putin has played a subtle game with Erdogan. Although Russia is firmly behind Assad, Putin has hinted that he will be eased out eventually and that creates some breathing space for Erdogan’s ambitions.
As for Putin, he has become a trouble maker in Europe and is happy to do anything that sows discord there. Turkey may not be a candidate for EU membership, but it is still a player in European politics and Putin has been quietly gathering more and more allies in Europe to the Russian flag in the last two years. To bring a significant Nato member over to his side – Turkey has the largest standing army in Europe – would be a major coup at undermining what the Kremlin sees as an existential threat that has been moving more and more troops and materiel up to its western border over the last two decades.
Finally, Turkey will probably host the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, forming the third prong of a trident of pipelines delivering Russian gas to its main customers in Europe. While the economics of the pipeline have been questioned, the politics of it are clear: Turkish Stream allows Russia to effectively bypass the Ukraine that still carries the bulk of Russian gas west and will vastly increase its leverage over Kyiv, which earns significant revenues from the gas transit business. The pipeline will also increase Russia’s leverage over Turkey which has almost no gas storage facilities of its own and is entirely dependent on Russia to deliver gas in exactly the amounts its requests from Moscow to run its economy.
The Turkish parliament approved the €11.4bn pipeline deal at a session in December, but it still has to be ratified by Russia’s State Duma legislature. However, if the pipeline is built it will lend a permanence to Russo-Turkish relations that is missing now. Moscow has also offered to build Turkey a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu.
But despite the display of bonhomie in the Kremlin on March 10, Russia is restoring relations slowly. Aware of the gadfly nature of Russo-Turkish relations, the sanctions are being lifted piecemeal. The tourists have been allowed to book holidays in Anatolia again, but many of the imports are still barred – partly as Russian industry has received a boost from what are de facto protectionist measures.
Putin said that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev informed his counterpart on the steps that Russia had undertaken to restore cooperation in the economy "in the full-format scale". Putin also stressed the continuing investment cooperation between the countries and implementation of major projects.
The Russian leader pointed to the trustful and effective work of the military authorities and intelligence services of Russia and Turkey on Syria.
“We are working actively on the settlement of the most acute crises in the world, first of all in Syria,” Putin said during his meeting with Erdogan. “I am pleased to say, nobody has expected it, but at the level of military authorities, intelligence services we have a very trustful, very effective dialogue,” TASS quoted him as saying.
RFE/RL reported Erdogan as saying during the meeting that cooperation in implementing two energy projects, the Akkuyu nuclear plant and Turkish Stream, was returning "very rapidly to previous levels."
Prior to the talks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said “topics related to security, to Syria, to the investigation of the murder of our ambassador Andrey Karlov in Ankara will be of great importance”.
Peskov also said that on the Syrian issue, the presidents would talk about political settlement and interaction in the course of implementing military tasks. “The Turkish military is present in Syria and carries out military operations there, and the Russian military continues activities to support the Syrian armed forces - this requires very close interaction and coordination,” Peskov said according to TASS.