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Russia and Turkey are allies once again. On March 15, the two sides completed their first joint military patrol along Syria’s M4 highway. In doing so, they implemented the last of three agreements reached by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting on March 6. The previous two—a ceasefire and the establishment of a security corridor either side of the highway—have also been implemented.
In a telephone conversation on March 12, Putin and Erdogan “noted with satisfaction a significant de-escalation of tensions” in Idlib, one of the last strongholds of the Syrian opposition, and a bolt-hole for the most active terrorist organizations. Yet the new status quo has merely put the crisis surrounding this de-escalation zone on hold. Russia and Turkey’s interests in Syria remain largely at odds, and sooner or later Moscow will have to do something about the conflict in its relationship with a country that it has invested so much into cooperating with in recent years.
The reasons for the crisis remain unaddressed. Russia continues to blame Turkey’s inability to fulfill its responsibility and drive out the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham jihadist group from the Idlib de-escalation zone. The Russian side is unhappy that the Turks are helping to keep Idlib under the control of dubious groups and organizations. Moscow still has an interest in developing a multifaceted relationship with Ankara, but is not prepared to relinquish its own interests in Syria for the sake of Turkish ambition.
At the same time, the Russian leadership understands the difficulties that Erdogan has faced at home following the killing of Turkish soldiers during an attack by the Syrian air force on February 27, and is aware of how bad the humanitarian situation in Turkey will be if new waves of refugees flee there from Idlib. The Kremlin was therefore prepared to give Turkey the opportunity to at least temporarily defuse the situation.
In one sense, Moscow’s position on Idlib reflects the principles on which Russia builds relationships with tricky partners such as Turkey. The first principle is to treat issues that are important to Turkey’s security with understanding. The second is to clearly establish red lines and discuss from the outset a corridor of opportunities for cooperation on problem issues. The third is to take advantage of the mistakes of Turkey’s other partners, especially the United States.
The fragility of the Idlib ceasefire begs the question of whether these principles are enough to guarantee that the significant investment that Russia has made in its relationship with Turkey can ultimately be justified.
It’s not easy to sum up the two countries’ relationship. If it is a tactical union over Syria, then Moscow has largely achieved its goals within that union. The de-escalation zones that Turkey helped to create have enabled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to capture a lot of territory that was previously controlled by the Syrian opposition, and that opposition is now fragmented.
If the relationship between Russia and Turkey is a marriage of convenience, then right now the two sides are staying in it purely for the sake of the children: i.e., the political investments that Putin and Erdogan have made in developing bilateral relations when not everyone approved. These efforts have resulted in the growth of trade and tourism, major energy projects such as the Akkuyu nuclear plant and TurkStream gas pipeline from Russia to Turkey, the purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems by Turkey, and potential cooperation in other areas of military technology.
U.S.-Turkish relations were summed up by Richard N. Haass, president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, as: “Turkey is no partner (even if it remains a formal ally).” With Russia, it is the other way around: Turkey is a partner but not an ally. It is essential to maintain a balance between the two sides’ interests.
The personal relationship between the two presidents plays a key role. In the last year, Putin has met with Erdogan more than with any other foreign leader.
Both men came to power at the start of the 2000s and have led their countries through a series of political experiments that have had far from universal approval. Both men embody the changes in world order that have taken place since the Cold War, and which the West finds hard to stomach. Both enjoy surprising others—the media, politicians, and experts—and not necessarily in a good way. Finally, despite being disappointed in each other, both know how to pretend that they get along famously in order to improve relations between their two countries.
The greater the disconnect between the rosy picture presented to (and by) the media and the real discord, the more fragile and unstable the Russia-Turkey relationship. This is noticeable even among the public opinion in the two countries, where every time there is another crisis in relations, the leap from “strategic partner” to “historical enemy” is made in a matter of days.
On the other hand, this makes it possible to keep the relationship very flexible. At the heart of that flexibility is cynical pragmatism on both sides, and the conviction that grudging cooperation is more beneficial to Russia and Turkey than conflict. At a time when the international system is becoming de-Westernized, Turkey sees Russia as a resource it can use to strengthen its own strategic sovereignty, while Russia sees Turkey as a tool for increasing its own authority as a great power.
This flexibility has so far protected Moscow and Ankara from more dangerous clashes. But this dialectic of fragility and flexibility could become the norm in Russian-Turkish interaction for a long time to come, and each subsequent crisis will test once again which aspect of their relationship is stronger.
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