Neither Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nor his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are easy leaders. Both have big ambitions and different approaches in the Middle East in order to realize their goals. Erdogan wants to turn Turkey into a greatly influential country in the region, while Russia wants to create buffer zones for itself there. The two leaders often meet in order to understand each other’s red lines and discuss common areas of cooperation.
On Monday, Erdogan met with Putin at the presidential residence in Russia’s coastal city of Sochi. It was their sixth meeting this year, and they often talk on the phone. This latest meeting reportedly lasted more than two hours. The positive atmosphere could be seen from their facial expressions and body language. Due to the prolonged meeting, Erdogan arrived late — at 1 a.m. — to his next destination Kuwait.
“We’ve agreed to deepen our relations,” he said during a press conference with Putin, adding that “intense” diplomacy will continue. But despite the warm atmosphere between them and the smiles on their faces, there are several issues that are challenging bilateral ties, despite there being several issues that necessitate cooperation.
One of the toughest issues is Russia’s approach toward the Syrian Kurds. Following Turkish objections, Moscow postponed a meeting on Syria that was scheduled to take place on Nov. 18 in Sochi with the participation of Syrian-Kurdish groups.
Ankara had objected to the invitation of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD), considering them as extensions of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The meeting was postponed, but whether those groups would attend is still unclear.
Russia’s policy toward the Kurds is not much different than America’s. In post-war Syria, Moscow wants to guarantee local collaborators, so it is pushing hard to include the Kurds in talks for its long-term goals: Countering Daesh, preventing Western dominance and preserving its military bases in Syria. So the Kurdish issue seems to remain contested between Moscow and Ankara.
Neither Erdogan nor Putin trust each other, but both are aware that a deterioration of relations does not serve the interests of either country.
Russia had been planning to launch a new initiative on the Syrian conflict during a two-day meeting in Astana on Nov. 30-Dec. 1. Moscow is being too decisive in saying the meeting will focus on “compromise solutions” to end the six-year conflict. It would be better to wait until the end of the month to see how the meeting between Erdogan and Putin will reflect on the upcoming one on Syria.
On the other hand, Ankara’s closeness with Moscow strengthens the former’s political leverage against the US and European countries with which Turkey does not enjoy good relations these days. Ankara’s procurement of Russia’s S400 missile system is not only a military move but also a diplomatic one, sending a strong message to its Western allies.
Turkey recently said the purchase had been completed, underscoring the contentious relationship between Ankara and the West. Turkey and Russia have not yet agreed on the technology transfer, yet the S400 issue was enough to raise eyebrows in the West.
Russian-Turkish rapprochement also helps relations between Ankara and Tehran. Iran, Turkey and Russia are the three guarantors of the Astana talks, which aims to solve the Syrian conflict politically.
But in international diplomacy, not trusting your partner limits the closeness of relations. This is the case with Russia and Turkey. Neither Erdogan nor Putin trust each other, but both are aware that a deterioration of relations does not serve the interests of either country.
• Sinem Cengiz is a political analyst who specializes mainly in issues regarding Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.