22nd Mar 2018


A marriage of convenience

Relations between Turkey and the European Union have become increasingly tense in the aftermath of July's failed coup against Erdogan.

Hence, when Russian president Vladimir Putin welcomed his Turkish counterpart in St. Petersburg this week, Western observers intently followed the meeting, fearing the two leaders’ first meeting in nearly a year could lead to a dangerous partnership of anti-Western autocrats.

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  • Turkey and Russia's moves to renew relationships still leave many issues unresolved (Photo: Government of the Russian Federation)

Yet, the emergence of such a partnership is highly unlikely.

Relations between both countries are fraught, anti-EU and anti-Western sentiments cannot unite them in any meaningful or threatening way. One just needs to revisit their opposing stances on Syria to understand their intractable differences.

Last November, Turkey shot down a Russian airplane on the Turkish-Syrian border for violating Turkish airspace. In retaliation, Russia imposed sanctions on Turkey, hitting the country's economy hard.

The sanctions were lifted a month ago, following a half-hearted apology from Erdogan and an apparent rapprochement between the two countries.

The tensions that led to the downing of the Russian jet remain, Moscow and Ankara have positioned themselves on opposite sides of the region’s crucial geopolitical question: the future of Syria.

In the conflict that has become more blood stained since its start in 2011, Russia has consistently backed the Assad regime, going so far as to support it through direct military action.

Turkey, on the other hand, would prefer to see Assad deposed, even supporting not-so-moderate rebels to achieve that. Some claim that the Russian bombing of Turkish-backed rebels was the actual reason for downing the jet.

Moscow has also pledged its political support to the Kurdish PYD party in Northern Syria, seen to be the Syrian version of the banned Kurdish-Turkish PKK party, and has been declared a terrorist organisation and enemy of the state by Ankara.

The recent news that Russia is supplying ammunition and technical support to the PYD makes tensions between the two even more pronounced.

Turkey and Russia - differences too great

This makes their cooperation only a marriage of convenience. They have neither a history of partnership nor real reasons to seek closer ties. They are mainly driven by a lack of other, perhaps more natural, allies.

Russia continues to be isolated from the EU and China has been reluctant to work with Moscow in Central Asia.

Putin’s own brainchild, the Eurasian Union, still lags behind expectations both in terms of political influence and economic rewards.

Turkey, despite being less isolated, is moving in a similar direction. Angered by European calls to uphold democracy and respect human rights after the failed coup, Erdogan announced that the West was on the side of the putschists and threatened to denounce the refugee deal.

While Turkey still enjoys the benevolence of the European Union - partly because it is needed to safeguard European borders - Erdogan is harming relations and his own credibility even further.

The West has nothing to fear from Erdogan’s meeting with Putin. Both countries are strictly following their strategic national interests, which sometimes clash heavily - as can be seen in Syria.

Their recent meeting is little more than a symbolic attempt at showing defiant strength to the West. It is a superficial friendship, nothing significant will come from it.

The West should refrain from overestimating the partnership or reacting to it - in the end there is little to worry about.

Leopold Traugott is a Young Voices Advocate and the director of Campus Europe.

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