“Pessimism becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; it reproduces itself by crippling our willingness to act.”
Following the freeze in the relations between Russia and Turkey and the affluent geopolitical context of Putin and Erdogan’s personal diplomacy, some analysts were quick to affirm that the bilateral relations are heading towards an unprecedented era of strategic partnership. The story went further to passing alarmist concerns that the two leaders could be acting in tandem, commanding considerable weight and shifting fragile balances in the international system, including eroding from within the internal cohesion within the EU and NATO.
This is an entirely false assumption, that ignores blatant facts. As a hypothesis it provides ample ground for manipulative interpretations and even self inflicted wounds.
The truth is that the seemingly perfect match of the imperial genetic type of both Putin and Erdogan, the commonality of opponents – real and imaginary – do not determine by default the likelihood of the strategic partnership option. While this does not refer to the underlying potential of the strategic partnership play for PR and propaganda that go with this, their tangible net value and overall impact are contentious at best.
The success of either leader in most instances invites a potential loss for the other – the classic zero sum game along the interface of the two countries interests – from China to Central Asia via the Balkans to West Europe and the US, in Africa and the Middle East. The assumption, that immediately following the Putin- Erdogan meeting that two leaders will jump start master plans for coordinated action in different spots on the global map, including in Bulgaria and the Balkans, although theoretically possible, is a self-deception with grave consequences.
Both Russia and Turkey are in the midst of an escalating turbulence and instability, that warrant desperate attempts to generate virtual substitutes to tangible policy resources , in order to impress and where possible to scare the world.
The existing degree of mutual trust and the poor record of institutional cooperation between Ankara and Moscow does not imply a sense of irreversible or a natural trend for relations’ upgrade to the level of strategic partnership.
Turkey and Russia enjoy wide area of potential match of interests, even whole spheres that could generate mutually beneficial deals and policy transactions, although most of them would qualify under damage control in a competitive interaction or remedial action to remove existing trade and administrative barriers. Ultimately most of what the two leaders could generate as policy directives would go to compensate unfavorable externalities limiting their power reach.
Quick analogies between Erdogan, on one side, and western leaders like Berlusconi and Schroeder, on the other, are misleading.
While president Putin has persevered in his dedication to translate political gains into business deals, as of late, his skills and powers have been very limited. At present Putin has little of substance to offer Erdogan on scale of previous deals with his favorite Western leaders.
Turkey, on its part, is no Italy – neither as geopolitical, nor as industrial and commercial match to the needs of the Russian economy.
Following the sanctions Russia imposed on Turkish business operating in the country most of the the Turkish companies changed ownership with Russian nationals at the helm. Any reverse movement will be neither quick nor easy or risk-less. It is not by accident that President Putin while ordering normalization in trade relations and lifting of sanctions passed a warning shot that most of the niches left by the Turkish business have been filled by competitors.
The restoration of charter flights although underway drags on at a slow pace and without overwhelming enthusiasm on the Russian side.
For Turkey tourism is a leading industry employing 8 % of the workforce. The weight of Russian tourists on the scale in the industry could hardly be ignored. According to data provided by the Russian Union of the Tourist Industry Turkey has lost 19% of its Russian tourist in 2015, with the forecast for 2016 upping the figure to a 71%.
The meeting in St. Petersburg could hardly dramatically improve the fundamentals for the outbound Russian tourism to Turkey with the total numbers drastically down. The Russian middle class, which is the largest source of tourists, has seen its wings substantially clipped in the deepening economic and financial crisis in the country.
To make things worse, the Kremlin embarked on the course of promoting and subsidizing Crimean tourism at the expense of external destinations.
The two presidents pursue almost identical authoritarian governance models, featuring the same contempt for European values and standards, including human rights and media freedom. Both of them display the same messianic zeal and pretense to lead other people and to define the fate of the world.
This could hardly translate into a lasting “brotherhood of arms”, as the leadership match does not stem from a shared or harmonized vision of the world even less out of respect for established international order and security system.
Authoritarian rulers enjoy the privilege of challenging and defying order when and where they please including at the expense of each other.
It is hardly a coincidence that both the Russian and the Turkish presidents demonstrate an almost identical sense of insecurity, stemming from their failures in the economic, internal and foreign policy, that drives the shift of focus away from home towards internal and external enemies, mostly perceived. The logic behind the rapprochement between Putin and Erdogan – their shared distrust of western modernity with an accent on religion and nationalism as instruments to govern and exert power -, is extremely volatile.
To the extent Saudi Arabia and Russia are able to partner in global oil and gas markets, Turkey and Russia could achieve strategic coordination based on their shared imperial and anti-Western policies. In both instance the results do not impress.
New “pure” national governance doctrines like Putinism and Erdoganism with a global reach pretense, with identical blend of authoritarianism and radical religion base, excel when it comes to their claim on their right to deny, even to destroy in the name of proving their exclusive status. Unpredictability and scare tactics bordering on blackmail are the prime features and immanent core of both doctrines. What Putin does to Ukraine Erdogan tries to test with the refugee weapon against Europe.
After the failed coup and the ensuing purge, far beyond the range of the rational and the justifiable, Erdogan can not afford a direct military confrontation with Russia as the Turkish army and the security forces are in disarray that will be difficult to mend in the short term. This has brought a softer tone tactic and appeasement with the Kremlin.
Putin, in turn, finds himself in ever deepening isolation with sanctions taking their toll. In 2017 the reserve funds will be depleted with the Russian state, banks and companies having a restricted access to global capital and financial markets. This will compel him to trim costs in the sacred cows areas of the Russian budget – the military, the secret services, the state apparatus and in the social sphere. Facing harsh economic and financial reality – the Russian President can hardly afford to maintain for too long in hot phase his current military engagements in Syria and Ukraine.
Ankara is in no position to help him compensate the deficits of his rule of Russia. As far as Turkish businesses ultimately rely on the export of funds from Russia to Turkey – via commercial, business and tourist channels – Turkish interest run counter to the current priorities of the Kremlin.
Moscow drags its closest allies into its rapidly descending orbit, which forces them to act. This explains the motives behind Kazakh president Nazarbayev’s mediation between the two leaders that led to the meeting in St. Petersburg.
Putin and Erdogan both have their personal cohort of businessmen as part of the personal financial entourage sustaining their hold on to power. This in turn explains why members of the closest business circles on both sides joined in to restore the dialogue at the highest level. Their role in the process however should not be overstated as both presidents are alpha leaders of imperial type – intolerant to any business dictating to them as they trust to be the ultimate CEO and majority owners of the respective corporate entities – Russia and Turkey.
Shrinking exports and growing payment deficits, rising dependence on domestic consumption, foreign, mostly western investments amidst emerging political instability in both countries, all troublesome developments against which the mutual loss of the markets has been rightly considered a frightening prospect for both leaders.
The loyalty of the inner business circles is neither unconditional nor guaranteed by default, notably within the context of limited access to shrinking public resources. Erdogan and Putin reached a red line in their final battle for survival wherein they inevitably turn against some of their closest allies. Putin sacked Ivanov, with a looming conflict with Sechin waiting denouement while purges among senior military and government circles are in full swing – without rules, without apparent system or logic.
Erdogan dealt with Davutoglu and took advantage of the botched coup to clean the house not only from enemies and opponents, but to take full control of their business and financial sources.
The sky high popularity figures and high public ratings offer little consolation to both leaders as history tells us.
No different is the reading of the impact of the St. Petersburg meeting in the prime main field of suspected shared interest – the energy sector.
Whatever is being said in Moscow or elsewhere, the underlying strategic interest of Turkey is to make the best possible use of its geography by offering transit services to energy suppliers and raw materials providers that compete with Russian counterparts. This basic anchor of Turkish policy can not be changed. While the Kremlin is doing everything possible to block or impede the access of competitors to the EU markets via entry points in the Southeast and Southern Europe, Turkey would continue to capitalize on its geostrategic value to the West to Caspian and Middle East countries by letting them compete with Russian companies on its territory. This is a core line in Ankara’s foreign policy epitomizing its regional leadership aspirations in the Black Sea, the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea and Central Asia, the Middle East and the Mediterranean. This main line comes into direct affront with Russian core interests. A more salient attempt by Moscow to play strategic mediation between Azerbaijan and Armenia, while offering Baku and Ankara tradeoffs for agreeing to coordinate energy policies with Russia and Iran will change little or nothing.
The prospects for substantive agreements and coordination between Russia and Turkey on the Syrian crisis seems equally evasive. Turkey supported the anti-Asad nationalist opposition – the group Ahrar al-Sham and other nationalists who played a key role in breaking the siege of Aleppo. Erdogan continues to insist that Assad is not an option for long-term solution to the problems in Syria, that begs for compromise president Putin is not ready to consider.
The Turkish authorities are extremely sensitive on the issue of the deep penetration of Russian intelligence among the Kurds – both in Turkey and in Syria. Ankara does not hide its frustrations against Moscow’s interplay with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of the Syrian Kurds, who control areas alongside the border with Turkey. Last autumn Russian aviation bombed areas near Azaz, which allowed the military wing of the Democratic Union – YPG to take over territories held by Turkey supported opposition forces. Soon after, Moscow insisted on the inclusion of a representative of the Syrian Kurds at the Geneva talks, which was interpreted as a hostile act in Ankara.
To use a historic analogy, that is naturally far from perfect, at present Russia and Turkey are in the situation of the Soviet Union and Germany before the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Attempts by the like minded dictators – Stalin and Hitler – to end up as strategic allies ended with the war between them. The foundation of peace between them was ultra thin, while the core contradictions run deep.
The partnership between Putin and Erdogan is neither sincere nor based on objective, sustainable and long-term overlap of interests. The common anti-Western rhetoric can hardly turn into a positive vector of cohesive action. Not only because this connotes a negative and self-destructive energy, but due to the fact that both countries have an overwhelming interest to sustain solid relations with the West.
Without NATO, especially with its weakened armed forces, Turkey would find it difficult to guarantee its security in its own. It has no alternative to NATO’s shield against nuclear and missile attack.
The energy cooperation perspectives are hardly more optimistic. A partnership between two countries, that concurrently sink in debt and turbulence, lacking serious economic outlook, is doomed.
The depreciation of the Russian currency and the lack of funds could seriously impede the implementation of “strategic” projects such as the Turkish stream and nuclear power plant in Akkuyu. Rosatom has a commitment under an intergovernmental agreement to provide 100% of the needed project funding under a BOOT scheme. Moscow has been long seeking to engage the Turkish government in talks to co-invest in the project substantial amounts without secure returns. In the Akkuyu NPP the bill comes to nearly $ 25 billion and inquiries have been floated testing Turkey’s readiness to share the costs. Rosatom has offered to sell 49% of the project company, but so far Ankara has remained cool. The financial risk is too great, even for Chinese investors – the CNG, who are supposed to finance the British nuclear plant at Hinkley Point.
Russia and Turkey imitate “cordial friendship” for consumption by third parties, to service current short term expediency and mostly a non-aggression pact between the two leaders targeting the West.
The lack of content and solid foundations of the rapprochement between Putin and Erdogan is offset by virtual reality and parable creation. The poker game both leaders seem to enjoy is only as good as the integrity and the resolve of players to call opponents’ bluffs.
Even when considering both countries ultimate argument in their standoff with the West – the strategic nuclear triad of Russia and the refugee weapon of Turkey – both have a double bottom. Neither Moscow nor Ankara can afford to play their trump card – as it is a double-edged sword with overwhelming risks for them. Even if they can threaten with first nuclear strike or refugee onslaught on EU borders – once played the strong card becomes useless, exhibiting their immediate vulnerabilities.
At this stage the process of normalization of relations between Russia and Turkey can hardly turn into lasting strategic partnership.