In a sign of rapidly deepening ties, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will welcome his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to the presidential palace in Ankara Thursday for talks on Syria and a growing range of other issues that are prompting the two to set aside their differences.
A packed agenda is testament to an improved and growing relationship between the two countries. “Talks will focus on the Turkish decision to buy a Russian made S400 anti-missile system, but it's not limited to that; the future of Syria will be discussed," said Sinan Ulgen, an analyst at Carnegie Europe in Brussels. "The consequences of the Kurdish regional government independence referendum will be discussed. There are also large projects, one being Russia’s building of Akkuyu nuclear power plants in Turkey,” Ulgen said.
Turkey last month announced the purchase of the S400 system, raising concerns among the country's NATO partners. Adding to those concerns is the speed of the courtship. Bilateral relations were in a deep freeze following Turkey's downing of a Russian bomber that was operating from a Syrian airbase in 2015.
Signals to NATO and Washington
Rapprochement efforts with Moscow coincided with Ankara’s growing disenchantment with some of its Western allies, especially Washington. “Erdogan will want to use Thursday's meeting (with Putin) to demonstrate, to its partners in the West, that Turkey has the option of becoming more convergent with Russia if the relationship with the West continues to be under duress,” Ulgen said.
Washington’s support of the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG in its fight against Islamic State militants remains a major point of tension with Ankara. The Turkish government considers the Kurdish militia terrorists who are linked to the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a separatist group that has been waging a decades-long war in southeastern Turkey.
The Syrian civil war will be the focus of Thursday’s talks between Putin and Erdogan. While Ankara and Moscow are backing rival sides in the conflict, the two sides are increasingly cooperating. Erdogan and Putin are expected to discuss the enforcement of last month’s three-way deal with Iran to introduce a de-escalation zone in the Syrian Idlib region, the last major center of opposition.
A pragmatic approach
What matters for Turkey is avoiding what Ulgen said could be a nightmare scenario in the region.
“The nightmare scenario is (if) Russia-backed regime forces would attack Idlib. Turkish forces would be faced with a quandary: some of the forces that Turkey backed in the past have now found refuge in Idlib; either Turkey would have to move into Idlib to protect them or open its border to save some of these people," Ulgen said. "At the same time, Ankara knows full well that most of these people are affiliated with groups of extreme Islam, radical Islam, so Ankara doesn't want to open its border to these people,” he said.
Many observers see Moscow as having the upper hand in its relations with Ankara, something that will be put to use as Russia seeks to protect significant commercial interests in the region. They say Putin will want to use his leverage to defuse growing tensions following the Iraqi Kurds' referendum vote in favor of independence this week. Erdogan has condemned the poll and warned that Turkey may close an oil pipeline that carries Iraqi Kurdish oil to world markets via the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.
“Russia has become the No. 1 partner of Iraqi Kurdistan,” said Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat, pointing to lucrative deals between Iraqi Kurds and the Russian state-owned oil firm Rosneft. “Rosneft boss, Mr. Igor Sechin, is one of the closest allies to Putin and the (Iraqi Kurds)."
Analysts said Thursday’s meeting, and the images of two leaders getting along, suit the current agendas of both men. "This is a pragmatic and transactional relationship which we see,” Ulgen said, “but with a political underpinning, where both leaders Putin and Erdogan are almost instrumentalizing this relationship, to demonstrate and to make a point to the West.”