A closer bond between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan could mean the European Union having to deal with a Turkish-Slavic block.
During the time when the world was clearly divided between two confrontational power blocks, the West and the Soviets, for over fifty years Turkey clearly sided with the major democracies, offering the West, and particularly Nato, the opportunity to exploit its highly strategic positioning, right below the Soviet Union, to control the Straights and receive military support that could hardly be sneezed at, seeing as it has the second largest ground forces within the Alliance. After all, in 1952 when Ankara first presented its request to access Nato, the Turkish choice was perfectly in line with hundreds of years of history during which time the Russian and Ottoman Empires had glowered at each other fiercely, except for those periods when they were busy fighting each other in particularly bloody confrontations. Wars which other major players on the international scene took full advantage of. What’s more, the Tsar had always taken advantage of any opportunity that presented itself, using his patronage of Orthodox Catholicism as a handy excuse, to support other traditional Turkish enemies, including the Greeks and various Slavic states on the Balkan peninsula. An attitude which in a different guise, though without the religious overtones, was later embraced by various Soviet leaders before reappearing in much the same form as the original after the fall of the USSR and particularly once Vladimir Putin had taken charge.
Turkey’s military might and the fact that it stood as the one solid pillar in the southern regions which Nato considered its “soft underbelly”, meant that the Alliance, besides showing great respect for Turkey, was also prepared to turn a blind eye on the diminishing levels of democracy in the country and could accept that its political path be strewn with military operations approximately every decade by the Armed Forces, which Ataturk had wanted to include in the constitution as ” guardians of secularism” in this vast country. Somehow, the permanent tension between two members states, Greece against Turkey, and vice versa, was also deemed normal, as was the fact that Turkey was the only Muslim country in what would have otherwise been a club of strictly Christian mates. A situation that for a long while was viewed as positive because it provided proof of the Alliance’s open-mindedness, but from a certain moment on the drawbacks inherent in this situation began to surface.
In an Atlantic context, up until recently, Turkey has been viewed with particular favour by the United States, which had been granted the use of important bases for its actions in the Middle East and which even made concerted efforts to convince the European Union that Ankara should be admitted as a member.
However, for the last fifteen years, the end of the bipolar juxtaposition, the various ensuing regional conflicts, and particularly those involving Islamic countries and the rebirth of religious sentiment in the Anatolian peninsula have gradually distanced the Turks from the rest of the West. Turkey has gradually relinquished its moderate stance and the rise of a dominant political party, led by a man who has swiftly transformed Turkey into a “democraship” has certainly shifted the balance of power. The EU’s refusal, albeit not yet announced in official terms, to include the Anatolian country within its borders has also compounded Turkey’s feelings of rejection. Conversely Russia has been inching its way towards Turkey for some time now, and in the last few months this process has accelerated quite considerably. As it happens, the two countries are discovering that besides the many problems that set them apart, they also have much in common. Firstly, they are united by the style of leadership displayed by the two men who currently run the two countries. Though they cannot technically be called dictatorships, the Russian and Turkish democracies are what one might term “muscular democracies”, in which the separation between administrative, legislative and judiciary powers is gradually fading and where the decisions that matter, albeit not formally, are all taken by the man at the helm.
The two countries also have shared interests in the energy sector, especially now that the discovery of gas in the Aegean has led to a dispute between Turkey on the one hand and Greece and Cyprus on the other. And Ankara fully expects the EU to take a stand sooner or later in favour of its two members. The recently failed coup has also contributed to a chilling of relations with Washington, which Erdogan blames for harbouring his rival Gulem, whom he believes masterminded the military uprising. And the US had also proven to be a rather unreliable and at times unwieldy partner even within the context of the Syrian conflict. This conflict has in fact recently led to further developments in the relationship between Russia and Turkey. After a time when the two countries came close to clashing, the two countries have both realised that they have all to gain by the benevolent neutrality of the other side if they are to achieve the objectives they are pursuing within the Syrian chaos.
To this one should add that faced with similar situations, Putin and Erdogan have clamped down in much the same way against any separatist inclinations, the Russians in the Caucasus and the Turks with the Kurds, both bandying about handy terrorist labels in an attempt to justify the violence of their reactions in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Finally, as icing on the cake, it’s worth thinking back on how Trump has recently put Erdogan’s nose out of joint by backing the hereditary Saudi prince without reservations in his quest to become the leader of the Sunni Muslim world of which the Turkish president is also a part. So it’s hardly surprising that Putin and Erdogan, given the countries they both rule over, are now particularly close and that their proximity should lead to the signing of a series of deals. The one’s that most irks the West is the Turkey’s acquisition of 4 ground-to-air S400 Russian missile system, which add up to a total of 32 launchers and 448 rockets, as well as a nuclear reactor for which a building site has already been chosen and where construction should start very soon.
Especially given Nato’s predicament, one has to ask the question what President Putin, besides hard cash payments, has asked for in return and it is feared that he may have obtained guarantees that overrule the Montreux Convention governing free passage through the Straights and into the Mediterranean for vessels of the Russian fleet, which has grown exponentially and now boasts over 20 ships.
Given this overall picture one has to ask oneself, from an optimistic standpoint, how Turkey and Nato can accept Ankara’s close relations with Moscow alongside the country’s membership of the Atlantic alliance. A more pessimistic outlook would instead pose the question of how long Nato can keep up pretences before more or less kindly suggesting Turkey take its leave of the Atlantic Alliance.