Birds of a feather, Recep Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, at some time flocked together. Both rule over authoritarian regimes with a one-party system. Both dominate their respective countries’ politics. Both are opportunists, and responsible for rampant human rights violations. Putin leans heavily on the Russian Orthodox Church and Erdogan is becoming increasingly more Islamist. Both have strong anti-western tendencies. In addition, both their countries have “great power” dreams. Turkey yearns for the days of the Ottoman Empire and Russia cannot forget the glories of the Soviet Union.
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Ankara developed good trade relations. Russia was Turkey’s energy provider, and Russian tourists visited Turkey in great masses. Putin’s supporters see him as a challenge to the U.S. hegemony and influence in the world. Erdogan is perceived as a strong Muslim Sunni leader and the only one who can put an end to Iran’s Shia ambitions in the Middle East.
This mutually advantageous alliance held for a while. Then came an abrupt halt when, in November 2015 a Turkish combat aircraft shot down a Russian Su-24 close to the Turkish Syrian border. After the shooting Russian foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it would seriously reevaluate its relationship with Turkey and matters deteriorated rapidly. Erdogan’s trip to Russia was cancelled. Ankara claimed that Russia had repeatedly violated its airspace. At the height of the crisis Putin said: “Allah decided to punish the ruling clique in Turkey by depriving them of reason and common sense. They will regret again and again what they have done.”
Trade relations broke down and Russian guided tours to Turkey were cancelled. Russia banned import of Turkish fruit, vegetables and poultry. Each side accused the other of backing terrorism.
The two leaders were snarling at each other and behaved like two angry football fans arguing about whose team was better. Erdogan blinked. In June he apologized for the downing of the Russian warplane and offered compensation to the dead pilot’s family.
Why the sudden reversal? This spat was not advantageous to either side. Turkey was losing the struggle against Russia which is gaining more ground in Syria. Turkey felt increasingly isolated and needed to build bridges; its economy is weakening. Turkey is also suffering from the flow of migrants into its territory and from increasing terrorist attacks.
The Turks realize they need to get over their obsession with the Kurdish minority and their brooding over the reluctance of the European Union to accept Turkey into the European family. Russia, meanwhile, is hoping to use Turkey again as its conduit for gas into Europe.
Interestingly at the same time, Russia and Turkey are now repairing their relations with Israel and Egypt because they both feel vulnerable and both have ambitions in the Middle East. The increase of Jihadist attacks also requires more cooperation by everyone concerned.