Exclusive: Behind Closed Doors at the U.N., Russia and Turkey Are Still Battling

Erdogan and Putin are publicly trying to bury the hatchet. Away from the cameras, their cold war over Syria rages on.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend an opening ceremony for the newly restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend an opening ceremony for the newly restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, met early last week in St. Petersburg to repair relations that have sharply deteriorated since Turkey’s November 2015 shootdown of a Russian Su-24 fighter jet it claimed had entered Turkish airspace from Syria.

But there have been few signs so far of a major thaw at the United Nations, where Russian ambassador Vitaly Churkin used a closed-door session of the U.N. Security Council last week to criticize Turkey for permitting what he claims is the continued flow of weapons and terrorists across the border into Syria, council diplomats told Foreign Policy. Moscow’s private criticism of Ankara hasn’t previously been reported.

The rebuke underscored the tensions that continue to define Russia’s interactions with Turkey even at a time when they are trying to put their relationship back on track after nearly a year of public recriminations and threats risked bringing the two countries to the brink of war. It also reflected the fact that Moscow and Ankara remain deeply divided over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is receiving direct military assistance from Russia as he fights rebels armed and backed by Turkey.

The Russians “were very tough” on Turkey in the session, one senior council diplomat said. Churkin’s remarks, added a second council diplomat, echoed “the old Russian argument” that Turkey is the main enabler of extremist forces seeking to move weapons and fighters into Syria. “Churkin was still going on about how all of this stuff is coming across the border from Turkey and none of you are doing anything about it,” the second diplomat said. Churkin also urged opposition supporters, including the United States and Turkey, to cut ties with some of the anti-Assad fighters they support. “Basically, what he was saying was, ‘We really don’t like the opposition, so can you please change it?'” the second council diplomat said.

Following the closed-door session, Churkin also pressed Ankara to reconsider its opposition to a role for Syrian Kurds in the fight against extremists in Syria and urged Turkey to allow the group to participate in U.N.-brokered peace talks. Ankara considers the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that Russia has championed a terrorist organization. Both Russia, which allowed Syria’s Kurds to open an office in Moscow in February, and the United States have sought to cultivate close ties with the PYD and its military affiliate, the People’s Protection Units, or YPG.

The Russian diplomat told reporters on Aug. 9 that Turkey “needs to understand that including the Kurds in the discussion is one of the things that should be important for sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.”

“There are some complicating factors in the minds of the people in Ankara, but this is something we believe should be done as quickly as possible,” he added.

Ankara maintains that the Syrian Kurds — who draw inspiration from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which Turkey views as a terrorist group — are not part of the legitimate Syrian opposition and that if they do play any role in the talks, they should be part of the Syrian government delegation. Despite its sharp differences with Moscow, Ankara has decided it has to agree to disagree with its Black Sea neighbor. “We are over a major hurdle in the last phase of our relations,” Turkey’s U.N. ambassador, Yasar Halit Cevik, told FP. “We had a tradition of working together, even if we do not agree on everything.” Both governments have a “mutual wish” to restore that relationship, he added.

Andrew Tabler, an expert on U.S. policy toward Syria at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said Churkin’s remarks reflected the likelihood that Erdogan and Putin have not bridged their major differences over how to resolve the brutal civil war in that country. “It seems to be that issue is not resolved,” Tabler said.

There have been reports that the United States and Russia are working together to try to better coordinate their efforts to fight terrorist groups in Syria, including the Islamic State and the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. But council diplomats said those talks appear to be bearing little fruit.

Russia’s second highest-ranking diplomat, Vladimir Safronkov, took aim at the United States during an informal council meeting last Monday, saying the Americans have not lived up to their promise to identify moderate opposition groups that should be exempt from airstrikes. The United States is concerned the Russians would use that information to target legitimate opposition groups seeking to overthrow Assad’s government. “Things aren’t moving,” Safronkov told Security Council members on Aug. 8. “We still don’t know where exactly the moderate opposition is.”

Despite their differences, Moscow and Ankara have much to offer one another. Turkey has the power to sharply restrict the ability of anti-government forces to deliver weapons and fighters across the border. And Moscow can help limit the ability of Syrian Kurdish fighters to gain influence and power in Syria.

The basis for that sort of grand bargain would require that Russia end its cooperation with the Kurdish rebels that have served as the most effective fighting force battling the Islamic State. For its part, Turkey would have to yield to Russian pressure to accept the continuation of Syria’s rule by Assad or someone else acceptable to Moscow. That would be a hard pill for Erdogan to swallow, given his persistent calls for Assad to step down from power.

Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said some of Russia’s criticism of Ankara was valid because it has generally been unwilling throughout much of the five-year conflict to control its border with Syria. “For once, Churkin is right,” he said. “The reality is that Turkey is extremely unlikely to crack down on all the routes extremists use to move men and weapons into Syria.”

Erdogan took the first major step to restoring normal relations with Russia in late June, when the Turkish leader wrote a letter to Putin in which he expressed regret for the downing of the Russian plane last year. Diplomats in New York say Russia responded by toning down attacks on Turkey in areas far beyond Syria.

In January, at the height of diplomatic tensions between the two countries, Russia took advantage of a routine vote renewing the mandate of a decades-long U.N. peacekeeping mission in Cyprus to denounce Erdogan’s government for violating the small country’s airspace.

“We are convinced that such actions have a negative impact on the negotiation atmosphere and harm civil aviation in the region and should be curtailed,” Churkin said.

But when the mission’s mandate was extended in July, shortly after Erdogan expressed regret for the shooting down of the Russian fighter jet, Russian diplomats said nothing.

Photo credit: SASHA MORDOVETS/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch