While all eyes and ears were on the latest Donald Trump gaffe by seeming to suggest the elimination of a political foe- a very Putinesque maneuver- the real Vladimir Putin scored somewhat of a foreign policy coup that could have serious international consequences. Turkey is a schizophrenic country- it cannot seem to decide if it is European/Western or Asian/Eastern. In fact, it’s both…sort of like Russia. When you throw a schizophrenic American foreign policy into the mix, things start to unravel real quick.
Relations between Turkey and Russia were never great. Turkey criticized Russia for their annexation of the Crimea arguing that Russia was ignoring native Tatars. They are/were on opposite sides of the civil war in Syria. Russia has been a reliable ally of the Kurds in Turkey. This all came to a head in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter that briefly strayed into Turkish airspace, killing the pilot.
The rhetoric was Trumpian with Putin accusing Turkey of licking America’s private parts. There were even taunting dares. As a result, Russia ceased work on a natural gas pipeline to Turkey and a nuclear facility, cut off charter tourist flights and took other actions. This cost Turkey an estimated $100 billion in trade and especially hit the Turkish tourism industry very hard.
But, something changed and one factor was the ISIS attack at the airport in Istanbul. It was a wake up call for Erdogan, Turkey’s leader. Turkey cannot afford to lose Western investment and tourism. They also made a strategic decision by losing all hope that Obama would force Russia into a political resolution in Syria. In short, Obama blew some real chances to force Russia and Iran into making some concessions.
Then came the July 15th “coup” in Turkey. As it was unfolding, Russia expressed unqualified support for the Erdogan regime while Western nations awaited the outcome. There are rumors- some substantiated- that Russian intelligence may have warned Turkey about the impending coup attempt.
In the aftermath, Erdogan has engaged in a scorched earth policy against anyone suspected of being part of the coup. This has led to a crackdown on civil rights, over 6,000 arrests and an even greater number of firings. The fact Erdogan moved so fast against his enemies list further has some Western intelligence experts wondering if the “coup” really was a coup. Regardless, it has given Erdogan the green light to purge all levels of society.
Putin and Erdogan share a lot in common. They are both autocratic strongmen with no regard for civil rights. In exchange for prosperity and security, they demand that rights be surrendered. Hence, in advance of Erdogan’s Monday visit to St. Petersburg, Turkey apologized for the shooting down of that military jet and was conciliatory towards Putin.
Since 2004, Putin has had his designs on ripping Turkey from NATO and the West. Putin’s advance man in Turkey, there since 2004, has been fanning the flames against the West, particularly NATO and the United States. Turkish nationalists have listened. They accused the CIA of plotting the coup in some manner by blaming the self-exiled cleric in Pennsylvania. Turkey has even bought into the meme that the people behind the coup were the same rogue military elements that shot down the Russian fighter on orders from the US. They have called for NATO and the United States to get out of the Black Sea. The whole scenario is designed to rip Turkey away from NATO.
The summit in St. Petersburg is symbolically significant- it is Erdogan’s first foreign visit since the coup. When US military advisers visited Turkey to ease tensions, Erdogan responded with his most harsh criticism of the US to date. Obviously, the West is being played by both sides in this game of international chicken.
Turkey is using rapprochement with Russia as leverage in dealing with the West. In the aftermath of the coup, Turkey cut off electricity to the air base at Incirlik- the base from which the US launches raids against ISIS. One thing to look for going forwards: will Erdogan tone down his attacks on Assad and will Russia moderate their support for the Kurds in Syria?
If so, relations are reaching a tipping point that can realign the balance of power in the Middle East and beyond. A Turkish-Russian axis would basically supplant US/Western influence in the region. It is no secret that Putin blames the United States for concerted opposition against his third term in Russia. He also blames the US for the many-colored revolutions in the former Soviet sphere and the Arab Spring uprisings. Turkey is talking and acting like they agree.
Erdogan is incensed that Europe and the United States did not immediately condemn the failed coup as Russia did as it was unfolding. Turkey and the EU worked out a deal regarding refugees that stands to fall apart come October 1st. Germany has said that talking to Turkey now is fruitless and Austria threatened to use their veto power to keep Turkey out of the EU unless Erdogan changes course and enacts democratic reforms. One Turkish official in Moscow said that relations with the US are the worst they have been in 50 years. Hence, it would seem natural that Turkey would turn to Russia either as a back-up, or to use as leverage against the West. In essence, Turkey is telling the West- particularly NATO- that they now have other strategic options.
Erdogan and Putin are improving relations with NATO the ultimate loser. Putin has an uncanny ability to strike at the right time. Turkey is drifting out of the US orbit due to foreign relations malfeasance in Washington. Saudi Arabia may be next. As Obama and company sit with their hands on their laps, the world keeps turning and Putin is always lurking there.
Putin is presenting himself as being flexible and Turkey’s true ally all in an effort to undermine cohesiveness in NATO. Turkey is blackmailing the West into ignoring his undemocratic crackdown because we need those airbases in Turkey. Authoritarians the world over are watching to see how the US reacts. Thus far, the prognosis is not good.
So what did the summit achieve besides symbolic effect and an obvious game of gaining leverage for each actor? Russia lifted trade sanctions and will again allow chartered tourist flights to Turkey. They will also resume work on the natural gas pipeline to Turkey and work on Turkey’s nuclear plant at Akkuyu. Turkey gets a lot of tangible things they need- they rely on Russian energy and tourism for their economy. Putin gets what he wants- an apology from Turkey and greater influence in the region. Most importantly, he lays the groundwork for driving yet another wedge in the NATO alliance (Turkey has the second largest military in NATO).
Any crack in NATO will reverberate in the Baltic states who are on edge. While Putin conducts war games off the coast broadcast on television in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, he regularly violates Latvian airspace with military fly-overs and has even crossed the border into Estonia to capture suspected spies and dissidents. He has laid the rhetorical groundwork for Russian designs in this region, again arguing protection for ethnic Russians. A weakened NATO may not be able to intervene. Before one knows it, the Baltic states will drift into the Russian orbit and he will have Turkey as a consolation prize.
This administration has been played for dupes at every turn by Vladimir Putin. Whether it was ignorance of lines in the sand or missed opportunities or just plain international naivete, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and Barack Obama have proven themselves stupidly ignorant when it come to Putin and Russia. Sort of makes Mitt Romney look like a genius right about now.