Turkey pivots toward Russia as tensions rise with West

MOSCOW—Against a backdrop of rising tensions between Turkey and the West, Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey have pledged to repair relations after nine months of open antagonism.

Although Tuesday’s meeting in St. Petersburg produced little beyond vows of friendship and co-operation, the symbolism of the two former antagonists coming together for a friendly talk had to be enough to raise alarms in western capitals. Besides being a member of the NATO alliance, Turkey is vital to Europe’s efforts to stanch the flow of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

The governments in Washington and Ankara, long at odds over the United States’ support of the Kurds in Syria and Iraq, have had a series of problems lately. Anti-Americanism has been on the rise in Turkey, amid accusations that the U.S. played a role in the failed coup in Turkey and widespread resentment of the White House’s criticism of the resulting crackdown.

Turkish officials have been further infuriated by U.S. President Barack Obama’s reluctance to hand over Fethullah Gulen, a reclusive Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania whom Erdogan has accused of leading the coup attempt.

For Putin, who has made little secret of his ambitions to weaken NATO and crack European unity, the opportunity to forge a new and closer relationship with a humbled Erdogan was probably deeply satisfying, and a vindication of his decision to intervene militarily in Syria.

No one predicted a radical shift in relations, at least not an immediate one. Russia and Turkey have been on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict, and the two leaders had been at each other’s throats since November, when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane that it said had briefly violated its airspace on the Syrian border, with one pilot killed by ground fire after ejecting.

After the jet was shot down, Putin called Erdogan a back-stabber and demanded an apology, which was refused.

That episode drew an angry response from Moscow, which banned most fruit and vegetable imports from Turkey and halted the flow of millions of Russian tourists. Although Russian gas sales to Turkey continued, the countries’ $30 billion in annual trade decreased by 43 percent, Putin said.

“It is true that we lived through a complicated moment in our interstate relations,” Putin said at a joint news conference televised from St. Petersburg. “But we all would like to – and we feel that our Turkish friends want the same – overcome those complications.”

Feeling increasingly isolated this summer, Erdogan wrote a letter in June offering the apology Putin had demanded for the downing of the Russian jet. With that out of the way, steps could begin toward a normalization of relations.

However, efforts to restore ties accelerated after the July 15 coup attempt in Turkey, after which Putin was the first leader to call to offer support. “It was very important from a mental perspective, this kind of psychological support,” Erdogan said.

Any future agreements between the two countries could have significant repercussions for the Middle East and Europe. Erdogan most probably hopes to use the leverage of better relations with Russia to force a better deal with Europe over the migrant crisis. European leaders have joined the U.S. in criticizing the sweeping arrests that followed the failed coup.

Closer ties with Russia also carry the potential to create tensions within NATO that Putin would be happy to exploit. Ultimately, Moscow would like to draw Turkey into its orbit and into the security and trade organizations it is promoting in Asia, although nobody envisions such a shift anytime soon.

“Erdogan can use Russia as a trump card in his negotiations with the West,” said Alexander D. Vasilyev, an expert on Russian-Turkish ties at the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow. “For him, the main goal is the West, not Russia.”

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