Last week’s talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan marked a substantial turnaround in Russia-Turkey relations. The leaders met in Saint Petersburg on August 9 to discuss their future military cooperation, as well as economic and cultural collaboration.
Last year, relations between Turkey and Russia hit a low point after the Turkish air force shot down a Russian military jet on November 24. The jet was providing support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his battle against opposition forces. According to Turkish officials, two Russian planes crossed into Turkish airspace after ignoring several warnings. Members of Syria’s ethnic Turkmen community killed both crew members – the pilot and the navigator – of the downed plane, as they attempted to parachute into Assad-held territory.
At the time, Putin called the downing of the jet “a stab in the back” committed by “accomplices of terrorists.” Following the incident, Russia took several punitive actions against Turkey, including restricting imports of Turkish fruit and vegetables, poultry, and salt, prohibiting the sale of charter holidays for Russians to Turkey, and freezing the construction of TurkStream – a new Black Sea pipeline designed to boost Russian gas exports to Turkey. Some analysts even feared military escalation between the two countries.
The August 9 trip was Erdogan’s first overseas visit since the failed July 15 coup in Turkey. During the joint press conference following his meeting with Putin, Erdogan noted the importance of Russia’s immediate condemnation of the attempted coup. “It was a kind of psychological support,” said Erdogan, “We also saw it as support from Russia for Turkey.” Erdogan also did not shy away from calling Putin his “dear friend” a number of times.
This sudden revival of Russia-Turkey relations is a well-timed, practical, and logical political gesture from Putin to Erdogan, especially in light of the increasingly similar ideological foundation between the two countries.
The manufacturing of a “foreign enemy,” which has been a component of Russian political rhetoric toward the West over the last few years, has also become a feature of Turkish foreign policy. In the aftermath of the attempted coup, Erdogan and his allies were quick to blame the incident on Imam Fethullah Gulen, a self-exiled Turkish Muslim cleric residing in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Gulen is the leader of a religious community that promotes interfaith dialogue, known in Turkey as the ‘Hizmet movement.’ The movement runs hundreds of schools in Turkey and around the world. Its members are also believed to have influential positions in various Turkish institutions.
Following the coup, Erdogan insisted that the United States extradite Gulen for his alleged crimes. In denying the request, U.S. officials claimed there was insufficient evidence showing that Gulen was the coup’s mastermind. Displeased with this result, the Turkish government said the United States would “be sacrificing its alliance with Turkey to a ‘terrorist.’” Turkish officials also complained about the hesitation of Western leaders to condemn the coup and support Turkey’s democratically elected government.
Against this backdrop, Putin has distinguished himself as an undeniable supporter and a reliable ally to Turkey, and has used the opportunity to ally himself with a like-minded autocrat, against the West.