Putin Plays Erdogan Like a Fiddle

In the increasingly close relationship between the Russian and Turkish presidents, there’s one clear alpha.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference following their talks on the sidelines of the MAKS 2019 International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow on Aug. 27.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during a joint news conference following their talks on the sidelines of the MAKS 2019 International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow on Aug. 27. MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images

In a recent article in Foreign Policy, my colleague Steven A. Cook argued that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was playing Washington like a fiddle. With a combination of bluffs, threats, and bluster, Erdogan managed to convince the United States to come up with an arrangement in northeastern Syria to prevent a Turkish invasion—an arrangement that comes at the expense of the Kurds, who have carried the brunt of the fighting against the Islamic State. Whatever one thinks of the Kurds, their determination and sacrifice should be treated as an international public good; they have stopped and destroyed one of the most dangerous and homicidal groups the modern world has known. The Turks by contrast have contributed nothing to this endeavor.

If Erdogan has succeeded in manipulating Washington, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin, in turn, has played him to the hilt. Erdogan has just completed a visit to Moscow, where a savvy Putin demonstrated to the much-impressed Turkish strongman the latest in Russian military hardware, including the SU-35 and the SU-57 air fighters, of which the latter is heralded as Russia’s answer to the next-generation U.S.-NATO F-35 aircraft.

Erdogan’s Moscow visit follows the delivery of Russian S-400 air defense batteries to Turkey. Ankara was repeatedly warned that these batteries would provide the Russians an opportunity to decipher the F-35’s stealth technology, thus jeopardizing the security of the whole F-35 fighter aircraft program. Paradoxically, Turkey was not just a future recipient of 100-plus F-35s, but also a co-producer of the aircraft. Washington, in what was an important gesture, had offered the Turks a role in the manufacturing of many of the F-35’s components, including parts of the fuselage. Ankara would have reaped billions of dollars in export sales and acquired valuable technological know-how in the armaments industry, a long-sought goal.

Not surprisingly, Turkey’s insistence on acquiring the S-400s triggered a crisis in U.S.-Turkish relations. The United States had few options but to expel Turkey from the F-35 program. The cost to Turkey has been enormous: It will not be able to modernize its aging fighter fleet, but perhaps more importantly, it lost out on technology transfer and the opportunity to earn billions of dollars in export opportunities. Instead it is Putin who is pocketing billions of dollars while successfully lobbing a hand grenade into the relationship between two critical and long-standing NATO allies.

Erdogan may have believed that U.S. President Donald Trump would ride to his rescue or that the Americans would not carry through with their threats. Still, this was an extraordinary decision, because in cozying up to Putin he wagered the future of his defense industries and Washington’s goodwill. He is now reduced to hinting, under Putin’s approving gaze, that Turkey would consider purchasing Russian fighters, thus further deepening the rift with the United States.

While Erdogan has shown his willingness to damage or jettison Turkey’s most important relationship for Putin, the fact remains that the two leaders are completely at odds over Syria. Russia, together with Iran, saved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s odious regime, whereas from the onset of the rebellion the Turks supported the opposition to Assad, including its determined jihadi components. The agreement Turkey negotiated with the Russians over the future of the last remaining opposition stronghold, in Idlib province, is coming apart as the Syrian regime begins a determined push to recuperate the area, exposing not just the civilian population to harm but also the numerous Turkish military observation posts established to monitor the area.

Ankara should not have been surprised that once the Assad regime consolidated its writ everywhere else, he would focus on Idlib. Only last month a Turkish military convoy in the area came under fire, most likely from Russian-made aircraft flown by the Syrian government with Putin’s blessing. An accompanying van lodged in between Turkish armored vehicles was hit, killing its occupants, halting the Turkish advance and isolating one of the Turkish observation posts. Yet, there was only mild criticism of Russian actions by the Turkish government.

This is not the first time the Erdogan and Putin crossed swords; in 2015, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter that had strayed into its territory. Neither Erdogan nor then Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu could stop gloating and competing to claim credit for the shootdown. They promised they would do it again. Putin’s reaction was stern: He banned the importation of fresh produce from Turkey, reduced the number of Russian tourists visiting Turkey and put restrictions on Turks traveling to Russia and doing business there. Within a few months Erdogan and company not only reversed course, but, incredibly, they blamed the shootdown on pilots whose allegiance was not to Turkey but to Erdogan’s nefarious enemy, the Gulen movement. Turkey was subsequently forced to apologize to Russia.

Turkey had hoped that Idlib province would remain a separate enclave buffering Turkey from another exodus of Syrian refugees until the Syrian conflict was resolved. All signs indicate that the Syrian military advance against Turkey’s allies and their jihadi collaborators will be picking up steam. Almost immediately after Erdogan landed back in Ankara, while being feted by his sycophantic press over his “great accomplishments” in Moscow, the Syrian bombing runs against Idlib resumed. Putin clearly knows how to play and manipulate the Turkish president; he gave him a red-carpet treatment and got Erdogan to admire his military hardware only to squeeze him again in Syria.

Putin has Erdogan exactly where he wants him. He knows that Erdogan will not dare to criticize him and, having alienated many in Washington, Erdogan’s options are limited. Instead, Erdogan and his minions in the government and his press will continue to denounce the United States as Turkey’s primary enemy. Erdogan may play Washington, but it is Putin who is laughing all the way to the bank.

Henri J. Barkey is a professor of international relations at Lehigh University and a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Twitter: @hbarkey