Although Turkey and Russia may not share the same strategic vision for the Middle East, and that fact puts their quasi-friendship at some degree of risk, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Turkey this week, prompted by the growing crisis in Syria, is still a telling symbol of their pragmatism and that each is trying to preserve bilateral relations.
Putin made a trip to Turkey on Monday, after nearly two months of a severely limited schedule of public events and travel. He met with PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to discuss their respective positions toward Syria, and more precisely, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Due to ill health, Putin’s foreign trips to India, Bulgaria, Turkme-nistan and Turkey that had been planned for earlier were all pushed back to December.
Putin hadn’t been out of Russia since Oct. 5, when he paid a brief visit to the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan. During the talks in Istanbul, the Kremlin maintained its stance and showed no inclination of easing its support for Syria, its last ally in the Middle East. Russia has staunchly protected Syria from international sanctions and continued to provide a supply of weapons during the growing civil war.
Putin and Erdoğan still disagreed on Syria at the conclusion of these most recent talks on Monday. Speaking at a press conference on Monday in Istanbul, Putin said both Russia and Turkey share the same goals for the future of Syria but differ on how to reach those goals.
“The positions of the Russian Federation and Turkey completely correspond regarding what has to be attained [in Syria], but as of yet, no shared approach regarding the methods of how to attain it has been reached,” Putin said.
Turkey and Russia face irreconcilable contradictions in their foreign policy on the issue of Syria. Ankara is manifestly showing its support for the Syrian opposition and calling on the international community to act against President Bashar al-Assad. Putin, however, maintains that while he is not an “advocate of the Syrian regime,” he disagrees on the methods proposed to end the crisis in Syria.
While many in the region may believe that Ankara would prefer a military solution to the crisis in its backyard, the Turkish government frequently puts forward a stance in different regional and international platforms that it is in favor of non-military answers to the crisis in Syria. Ankara is troubled by Assad and sees Syria’s future without him. Moscow, however, says that the principle of non-intervention in sovereign states should be preserved, and that only Syrians should decide if the future of their country is to be with or without Assad.
But both sides understand that each needs the other. Each makes important contributions to the other’s independent foreign policy on other issues. Despite their differences, Turkey and Russia understand each others’ concerns and are interested in reducing tensions and improving their bilateral relations.
“It is pragmatism. Following the escalated Syrian crisis in its neighborhood, Turkey’s ‘zero problems with neighbors’ policy failed, so Ankara will do its best to keep its relations with neighbors firm, and at least try to prevent the crisis from worsening,” said Bayram Balci, a visiting scholar in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Middle East program, adding that Turkey does not want to have weakened relations with Russia at this stage.
Economic cooperation comes before politics
It is true that the Turkish interception of a jet en route to Damascus from Moscow with 35 passengers on board, including Russian nationals, damaged bilateral relations. After Erdoğan announced Russian ammunition was discovered on the plane, Putin delayed his trip to Ankara, giving the impression of suspending bilateral ties, but both Russian and Turkish officials acted carefully so that the incident did not create too large a shadow on the public face of the relationship.
Soon afterwards, Russia expressed its harsh critique of the deployment of NATO Patriot missiles on the Turkish border with Syria saying it will escalate tension in the region. During his visit to Turkey, however, the Russian president, one of Syria’s few remaining allies, surprisingly said he understood Turkish concerns about border security after Syrian shells hit Turkish territory in recent months, and signaled Moscow’s willingness to accept the deployment. Putin said it was normal for any country to take measures in response to a violation of its borders, a move that is considered by experts as the only positive change in Moscow’s Syria policy.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also stood by Putin’s position in Brussels a day after Putin’s visit to Istanbul, saying Russia wouldn’t object to NATO’s Patriots.
Despite their apparent disagreement over Syria, Russia and Turkey have robust economic ties, and those were the true focus of Monday’s talks. The two countries are linked economically and they illustrated that by signing 11 cooperation agreements following the talks.
“Russia is a major market for Turkish construction companies, while Turkey is a paradise for Russian tourists, plus Turkey needs Russian natural gas, so Ankara will do its best to prevent any split with Moscow,” Balci said.
Turkey is a top consumer of Russian natural gas and also a top travel destination for Russians, with more than 3.5 million Russian tourists visiting last year.
Trade between the two countries, which totaled $32 billion last year, is expected to grow to $100 billion in the coming years. Among other projects, Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.