How far could one go with Putin?

How far could one go with Putin?
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Diverging interests and dismissive treatment by Putin suggest Erdogan’s balancing act cannot last for long

Selim Kuneralp wrote in Serbestiyet on the relations between Turkey and Russia, observing that the two countries do not actually have too many common interests for the current situation to evolve into a sustainable alliance. He even concludes that "we are very close to the limits in Turkey-Russia relations, if we have not already reached them."

President Erdogan's trip to Sochi on August 5 and his second meeting with Putin in a few weeks raised eyebrows and aroused concern in the West. Photographs of Erdogan, Putin and Iranian President Reisi holding hands, taken during the meeting in Tehran on July 19, have already provoked outrage, with German Foreign Minister Baerbock, in particular, expressing her bewilderment. Indeed, how was it possible that Erdogan, who at the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June agreed with the statement identifying Russia as a major threat to the alliance, a few weeks later was thinking of developing cooperation with Russia in many areas, especially in the economic sphere? Would Turkey be a spare wheel for Russia? Was it time for the West to impose sanctions on Turkey? Such questions were mentioned in the Western press, at least. After the meeting in Sochi, however, the dust has somewhat settled. One no longer hears that Turkey would help Russia break the sanctions that the West has imposed on the aggressor Russia since the beginning of the Ukraine war and that Turkey should be punished for it. Although the US reminds Turkey at every opportunity that it is being watched, it does not threaten with sanctions.

In fact, when it became clear that Erdogan was not getting the desired results in successive meetings, and that Putin would not go out of his way to break Turkey from the West, the West chose to keep quiet. The media that had not yet fallen under government control in Turkey began to ask the necessary questions. What was happening in Syria? What was the status of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant construction? Was Russia going to inject money into Turkey? Was there going to be a ceasefire in the Ukrainian war after the grain deal and was Turkey going to be given the opportunity to mediate? What would happen in Karabakh?

As there was no press conference after the meeting, the public was kept in the dark for some time. The text of the statement given by the government to its own hand-picked journalists on the plane was blacked out until noon the next day. I have recently learned that this strange practice has been in place for some time and, to tell the truth, I was shocked to learn of it. Under normal circumstances, one would expect the journalists on the plane, representing the country's major news organizations, to deliver the President's statements to the news organizations they work for as soon as they get off the plane. However, that practice no longer exists in the new Turkey. Instead, a text drafted by the Communications Directorate was passed off as an answer to journalists' questions, and served under duress up to 24 hours after the meeting. This alone is a sign that things are not going very well.

As someone who has participated in such meetings countless times throughout his professional life, another thing that struck me was that the ministers who went to Sochi with the President were not asked to join the meeting and were made to wait outside the door for four hours. When Turgut Ozal was Prime Minister, Ali Bozer, then Foreign Minister, resigned when he was denied entry to a meeting with then US President Reagan in Washington. Of course, this was an incident that took place in a different Turkey. Ministers then had their own identity and political weight. Now they are in the category of ordinary civil servants. Like civil servants, they have been reduced to the status of orderlies who come and go at the whim of the President. Therefore, they consider it normal to wait outside while negotiations take place inside.

Here's another interesting aspect: For four hours, the Foreign Minister, together with the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), did not walk around the garden of Putin's palace in Sochi, which is undoubtedly very nice, but met with Ramazan Kadirov, Putin's accomplice and nightmare of the Chechens in Turkey, who said he would open a park in the name of Abdullah Ocalan in Grozny last year in response to a park opened in Izmit in memory of Jafar Dudayev, the Chechen leader assassinated by Russia. The Turkish press was not informed of this meeting upon their return from Sochi. If Kadirov himself had not announced the meeting, we would not have heard about it. Why a foreign minister would need to meet with such a man and even invite him to Turkey is a mystery. However, Putin's imposition of his man for the dirty work, Kadirov, on Cavusoglu and Fidan was indeed significant and in keeping with the format of the Sochi meeting. The goal was not only to send Erdogan away empty-handed, but also to intimidate Turkey's Chechens and their supporters by forcing them to meet with Kadirov.

Much has been written on the outcomes of the Sochi meeting and I will not repeat them here. Erdogan came back from there more or less empty-handed and tried to hide the fact that no progress had been made on other issues by selling even a relatively minor issue, such as the issue of gas imports in rubles, as if it was to Turkey's advantage, but to what extent he succeeded is debatable. Those who wanted to believe it no doubt did believe it.

On the other hand, Western concerns seem to have abated anyway. No matter how much it is in Putin's interest to maintain good relations with Erdogan, it seems that he is not willing to pay the price for it, and that he is aware that Erdogan cannot be too demanding given the economic catastrophe our country is going through. Of course, it is in Putin's interest that Erdogan and the AKP remain in power in next year's elections. There is no doubt that Putin, who dislikes democracy and went so far as to declare war on Ukraine to eliminate democracy there, will try to prevent Turkey from becoming a state under the rule of law with a change of government. It remains to be seen, though, whether Putin, who is known for interfering in elections in many countries, will do the same in Turkey.

It seems that we are very close to the limits in Turkey-Russia relations, if we have not already reached them. After the S-400 fiasco, there has been hardly any talk of cooperation in the military field. In fact, contrary to what is being said, there is no sign that the second batch of S-400s will be ever delivered. It cannot be said that the Russian arms industry has fared very well in Ukraine. Perhaps even this might have discouraged our experts from embarking on new projects with Russia in this area. In any case, the fact that a new missile project is being discussed at a high level with France and Italy shows that Turkey is looking for alternatives. South Korea, with whom we have worked well for years in the field of arms technology and which is more open to technology transfer than the West and Russia, could enter the agenda.

In terms of trade and investment, the atmosphere of the early days of the war seems to be changing. There has not been a massive inflow of capital from Russia. Western sanctions against Russia may have prevented this. The statement by a US official that the $2 billion reportedly transferred for the Akkuyu project did not violate sanctions is a sign that such capital movements are taking place under the strict control of US authorities. All dollar transfers have to transit through the US banking system, which limits the scope of actions that can be taken in this area.

Trading in rubles is also not very promising. It would have favored Turkey if Putin had agreed to do business in Turkish liras but he cannot be expected to accept a currency that is constantly depreciating. Paying in rubles to close our huge $30 billion trade deficit would force our country to exchange dollars for rubles at a rate Putin demands. I do not really see the benefit in this for the country. However, it should be said that, in general, the government manages the gas supply business better than EU countries. It is known that the coming winter in many European countries, especially in Germany, will be difficult due to supply problems. In Turkey, unless they are hiding something from us, there seems to be no need for such concern.

I will not go into Akkuyu and Syria, they have already been thoroughly analyzed. I would just like to note that it was not convenient for Turkey to react immediately upon Putin's recommendation to sit down with the Syrian regime and put the issue on the agenda in order to establish contact. It would certainly have been more elegant if it had waited a little longer.

The discussions on the Akkuyu nuclear power plant revealed that it was not a Turkish project, but Russia's own power plant to be built and operated in our country. However, this was not how the project was originally presented.

In the end, it can be said that the only similarity between our country and Russia is in their regimes. Their styles of government are very similar and, therefore, both countries have necessarily moved closer to each other. What brings both leaders closer together is hostility toward the West and the democratic legal institutions it represents. However, this common animosity cannot hide the fact that, ultimately, they have no common interests in any area. For this reason, at present, there is not much alarm in the West, and the fear of Turkey switching sides seems to have diminished. This situation is not impossible to change. In any case, President Erdogan must surely have asked himself on his return from Sochi what the price of a change in the situation might be. His recent visit to Kyiv, the first top-level contact with Ukraine, can be read as an attempt to redress the balance.

The most recent example of Putin's disregard for Erdogan came a few days ago. During his visit to Lviv, Erdogan was preparing to mediate Putin's consent to the International Atomic Energy's inspection of the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant, which is the subject of dispute between Ukraine and Russia and a danger to the entire region. After an hour-long phone call with French President Macron, Putin announced that he had given his consent to the inspection, which meant that he denied Erdogan the opportunity to gain any benefit on this front. What is interesting is that while all the world's media covered this development as breaking news, most Turkish media, perhaps by instruction, ignored it.