Report

Here’s Why Erdogan Is Cozying Up to Putin

Turkey is trying to mend fences with Russia to contain Iran, fight the Islamic State, and improve its standing in an evolving Middle East.

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Turkey’s push to make nice with Russia, as it did this week with Israel, is part of Ankara’s drive to shore up as many friendships as it can throughout a region roiled by the Syrian civil war and the rise of Shiite Iran.

And, like Turkey’s reconciliation with Israel, better ties with Russia could jump-start stalled energy projects in Turkey, from a huge natural gas pipeline to a $20 billion nuclear power plant.

The deadly suicide bombings Tuesday at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, which experts blame on the Islamic State, and which left 44 dead and hundreds hospitalized, have underscored Turkey’s need to rebuild frayed friendships to bolster its domestic security.

“The Istanbul attack, I think, increases the urgency of normalization for Turkey,” said Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Relations between Turkey and Russia — which just two years ago were on track to morph into a “strategic partnership,” fueled by multibillion-dollar energy deals — went into deep freeze last November, when a pair of Turkish jets shot down a Russian plane that violated Turkish airspace near Syria. Since then, Russian restrictions on trade and travel have hammered the Turkish economy, the energy projects have been iced, and the Turkish military has been effectively locked out of northern Syria, where the Islamic State still has a stronghold.

This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan offered a written apology to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the jet incident, and two days later, Russia responded by rescinding its travel ban. That puts the two countries on a path to normalize relations, much as Turkey did this week after a six-year spat with Israel over the latter’s attack of relief flotilla headed for Gaza. Erdogan described the olive branches to both Israel and Russia as a “win-win” for all countries.

The driving force behind Ankara’s diplomatic push is the disintegrating security situation in the eastern Mediterranean and wider Middle East and the need to assemble a stable of like-minded countries that could act as de facto partners in the fight against the militants operating throughout the region.

The Syrian civil war, more than 5 years old, has created a safe haven for a terrorist group that has repeatedly struck at soft targets in Turkey, as well as in other cities in Europe. The war has also flooded Turkey and other countries in Europe and the Middle East with hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians.

At the same time, Iran has thrown off years of economic sanctions and international isolation — thanks in large part to a nuclear deal inked with the Obama administration — and is making a bid to restore its regional leadership by pushing back against Saudi Arabia, the standard-bearer of Sunni Islam. Tehran has actively backed Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the Syrian war and is supporting groups in Yemen fighting against the Saudis. At the same time, Iran is working overtime to restore its oil industry to the days of glory, boosting production and exports in an open challenge to the Saudis for leadership of OPEC.

“Turkey’s main driver of the reconciliation is the need to contain the expansion of Iran’s hegemony in the Middle East,” said Michael Tanchum, an expert on energy and geopolitics in the region.

“The reconciliation with Russia is one component of a larger Turkish strategy that includes restored cooperation with Israel and deepening strategic cooperation with Saudi Arabia and Qatar,” he added.

But Turkey’s also got some domestic reasons to bury the hatchet with Moscow. Erdogan, with aspirations to be a strong national leader, has struggled to crack 50 percent in any national vote; burnishing his strongman credentials requires defeating both domestic and international terrorist groups that have sown havoc in Turkey in recent years, namely the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and Kurdish militants known as the PKK.

Ankara’s decades-old Kurdish problem has only gotten worse due to the Syrian civil war and the seven-month spat with Russia. Moscow is arming some Kurdish militant groups fighting in Syria, and many in Turkey feel the PKK, which had Marxist origins, could end up a Russian proxy, which would make it much harder to stamp out at home.

“Turkey wanted to delink the Kurds and Russia, and to do that, they needed to make up with Russia,” Cagaptay said.

And now, the Islamic State has become a much bigger priority for Turkey, after years of halfhearted efforts to combat the group. The terrorists have launched more than a dozen attacks in Turkey, most recently the triple suicide bombing this week at Istanbul’s main airport, which Turkish officials said was carried out by men from Russia, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The Islamic State has thousands of recruits from Russia and former Soviet states, and terrorism experts note the so-called “Uzbek battalion” is one of the group’s toughest.

The problem is that since last November, after the shooting down of the Russian jet, Turkey has been all but blocked from carrying out military operations in northern Syria, making it harder for Ankara to tackle the Islamic State at its source.

“If Erdogan now wants to go after ISIS infrastructure in Syria, he needs Russia’s blessing, so this makes Turkish-Russian reconciliation even more necessary,” Cagaptay said.

The question is whether warmer ties between Ankara and Moscow will be enough to resuscitate the huge energy deals that were the linchpin of the strategic partnership the two announced in late 2014. That included a big natural gas export pipeline, dubbed “Turkish Stream,” from Russia across the Black Sea to Turkey. The two are also working on a $20 billion Russian-built nuclear power plant, Turkey’s first, that could help meet the rising demand for electricity.

“Russia needs to finish constructing the Akkuyu power plant as a showcase to preserve its global market share in civilian nuclear technology from advancing Chinese competition,” Tanchum said. Russia’s state-owned nuclear power firm, Rosatom, has landed scores of deals all over the world, from Hungary to Jordan to Vietnam, but has struggled to actually build the expensive power plants. Meanwhile, China is building more nuclear reactors at home than any other country and is eagerly eyeing the export market.

The future of Russian-Turkish gas cooperation is a little trickier. Turkish Stream seemed destined to feed only the Turkish market, rather than serving — as Moscow once hoped — as an export conduit to the wider European market. But Turkey has also tried to reduce its heavy reliance on Russian energy, especially natural gas.

That’s one reason the rapprochement this week with Israel raised hopes around the region: Israel is looking for buyers for the gas from its big offshore gas fields, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stressed the role Israeli energy exports can play in cementing regional peace, especially with Turkey.

“I think Turkey has learned a lesson about over-reliance on Russian energy,” Cagaptay said.

Photo credit: YASIN BULBUL/Andalou Agency/Getty Images

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

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