Axis of friendship reignited: Erdogan and Putin’s détente

Axis of friendship reignited: Erdogan and Putin’s détente

Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s new understanding with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin will lead to political and economic possibilities.

On June 27th, Turkish President Recep Erdogan extended an olive branch to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin by offering an official condemnation and apology for the shooting down of a Russian SU-24 back in November 2015. Erdogan’s statement noticeably exonerated his office and administration for any direct involvement in the incident. Instead, he placed responsibility on elements of the military who recently attempted a coup against the sitting ruler.

Political leverage

Erdogan’s apology and recent overtures to Putin, dubbed the “Axis of Friendship,” is the beginning of a delicate diplomatic dance aimed at creating an alternative alliance for the sitting president. Erdogan’s denunciation and his recent willingness to use strong-arm tactics against opposition parties, journalists, and anyone representing a more democratic Turkey is reminiscent of Putin’s ascendance to power 15 years ago.

Fittingly, Erdogan’s first visit outside of Turkey since the failed coup was to Russia, a more than symbolic gesture toward NATO and the West of his shifting alliances. Spurred by recent events and with the West’s continual pleas for leniency on coup plotters, Erdogan views Russia as leverage. This leverage is to be utilized by Turkey given its overt disagreements with the EU and the United States, especially considering the West’s perceived lack of support following June’s coup attempt.

Economic possibilities

The recent détente between Turkey and Russia has kick-started talks to secure more economic and political agreements between the two countries. One of those agreements is the proposed TurkStream pipeline. TurkStream’s objective is to allow natural gas exports to bypass Ukraine and provide Turkey and Russia control of exports to Europe. Russian Energy Minister, Alexander Novak stated, “Turkey will play a large role as a transit country,” supplying Europe with gas from Russia. While most experts believe this project to be more bark than bite, it has nevertheless drawn the ire of European diplomats worried over further monopoly of the continent’s gas supply.

While Erdogan and Putin increasingly share seemingly similar leadership characteristics, policy issues arising from Syria’s on-going civil war and Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain sticking points for the two leaders. Historically, Turkey and Russia have been at odds over the future of Syria and its President Bashar Al-Assad. However, with Turkey’s military currently being decimated by purges brought on by the June coup, along with increasing attacks from both the PKK and ISIS, Erdogan might be forced to make concessions from a position of weakness.

Same bed, different dreams

Erdogan’s shift away from Europe and the West will not be without its economic and political headaches. Considering Europe accounts for over 60% of Turkey’s foreign trade and three quarters of its foreign direct investment, Erdogan will have to balance economic health and prosperity with political ambition. Additionally, Erdogan’s ability to negotiate with the EU on permanent membership will collide directly against his ambition for a stronger executive role including his desire to reinstate the death penalty, which is in direct challenge to the EU’s charter.

Furthermore, unlike Putin who maintains an 85% approval rating and has all but abolished relevant opposition, Erdogan has to contend with a persecuted, but legitimate, opposition. Evidence includes an almost doubling of the nationalist opposition leader Devlet Bahceli favorability rating to 39.7% since the coup and repeated calls from more secular parts of the country to halt the on-going persecution of teachers, lawyers, and others designated as coup plotters.

Putin has strategically placed himself as Erdogan’s savior, positioning himself as an alternative to increasingly demanding Western requirements of transparency and a return to democratic principles. The AKP and Erdogan came to power as modernizers, revamping the economy and allowing Turkey to thrive through providing stability, economic growth, and the promise of a future within the EU. Events over the past 5 years have placed a considerable obstacle to those ambitions and it is not without precedent that the future of Turkey will correspond more to the East than to the West.

About Author

Christopher Hellie

Chris Hellie is a consultant and advisor working in the United Arab Emirates. He is the founder and CEO of Traveling Wonk, a tour company focused on policy, education, and culture in Asia and the Middle East. He served as an officer in the U.S. Army deploying to Baghdad Province, Iraq from 2007-2009. He is a graduate of the University of St Thomas and holds an MA in International Commerce from George Mason University School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs.