Turkey’s Erdogan pivots to Putin as tensions rise with the West – Washington Post

Turkey’s president opened talks Tuesday seeking to mend ties with regional rival Russia, but the effort is likely to raise further alarms in the West amid increasingly hard-line measures by Turkish leaders following a failed military coup last month.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at Konstantinovsky Palace near St. Petersburg in the Turkish leader’s first trip abroad since the coup attempt and the sweeping crackdowns that followed — including claims that a U.S.-based Turkish cleric inspired the putsch.

Erdogan said that “Turkish-Russian relations have indeed embarked on a positive course” — further signs of outreach despite deep rifts that include being on opposing sides in Syria. Moscow is a critical backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey supports rebel factions in the more than five-year conflict.

The talks are expected to address Syria, anti-terrorism cooperation, and economic cooperation between the two countries, including sanctions imposed by Russia that have battered the Turkish economy.

The summit will also be the first meeting between the two presidents since Turkish fighter jets shot down a Russian Su-24 warplane flying sorties over Syria in November. Russia and Turkey, which is a member of NATO, support opposing sides in the Syrian conflict. The jet incident ruptured relations between the two countries, nearly bringing them to the brink of war.

But now the two sides — neighbors, trading partners and off-and-on rivals for centuries — are ready for reconciliation, and it was Putin’s swift condemnation of the July 15 coup attempt that helped advance the rapprochement, analysts say.

In his remarks, Putin noted that relations had “degraded to a low level” after the death of the Russian pilot. He then moved onto the coup attempt, noting he was one of the first world leaders to call Erdogan and offer his support.

“This is our principled position. We always categorically oppose any anti-constitutional actions,” Putin said.

Erdogan thanked Putin for meeting during “this delicate period,” adding that the call had “gladdened me personally, my colleagues, and our people.”

With an eye to the ongoing chaos in Syria, he added: “In the region, much is expected of us from the political point of view.”

Erdogan and other Turkish officials have criticized the West for what they say was tepid support for Turkey in the aftermath of the attempted takeover, which saw rogue military officers seize combat aircraft and fire on parliament and protesters, killing more than 250.

What we know about the failed coup attempt in Turkey

Turkey’s government has blamed U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen of planning the rebellion, and Turkish media have accused the United States of backing the plot.

In a climate of heightened anti-Western sentiment, Erdogan’s move to warm relations with Russia may cement Turkey’s alienation from its traditional allies, analysts say.

The meeting between Putin and Erdogan “is a big deal . . . Turkish foreign policy now stands at a crossroads,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“For the first time in recent memory, there is serious discussion of Turkey’s NATO membership,” he said. And some Turkish officials are questioning whether Turkey should move toward Russia, he said.

Erdogan “could easily accomplish this pivot,” Cagaptay said, especially given the reduced state of the Turkish military. The armed forces have the strongest interest in maintaining NATO ties, he said, but are damaged after undergoing thousands of arrests since the coup attempt.

Apart from the broader questions over Turkey’s ties to the West, the summit in St. Petersburg will also focus on economic and energy cooperation.

Turkey relies on Russia to supply its natural gas and to send millions of Russian tourists to Turkish beaches each year. Russia also represents an ample export market for Turkish goods.

Russia slapped Turkey with harsh economic sanctions in January as punishment for the downed fighter jet, including a ban on Turkish produce and charter flights to Turkey.

Turkey had been the largest supplier of agricultural products to the Russian market, according to Crisp Consulting, a clearinghouse for Russian food marketing and logistics news. The two sides also shelved plans for a natural gas pipeline that would run from Russia to Turkey under the Black Sea.

Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said the leaders would discuss rolling back some of the sanctions. But analysts say the personal relationship between Erdogan and Putin would also be an important part of the summit.

Both leaders have built a “personalized and authoritarian style of governance,” according to Asli Aydintasbas, an expert on Turkish foreign policy at the European Council on Foreign Relations. And their shared traits probably will help boost ties.

“The personal aspect is very important,” Pavel Shlykov, an analyst with the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Moscow State University, said in an interview last month before the coup attempt.

“The political relationship between the two countries is very dependent on the basis of personalities, on Erdogan and Putin, and the initiatives start from them,” he said.

In June, Erdogan sent a personal apology to Putin for the downed warplane. Putin had called the attack a “stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists” — a reference to Erdogan’s support for Syria’s rebels.

But Putin accepted the apology, and appeared to signal a detente.

“Now the flow of events has swayed Erdogan even closer,” said Sergey Karaganov, an influential Russian foreign policy thinker and a dean at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics.

“Building relationships with Russia for him is a normal step,” Alexei Malashenko, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said of Erdogan. “And I’m sure Erdogan will repeat [to Western leaders]: ‘If you refuse to help me or respect me, don’t forget about my good relations with Putin.’ ”

Russia has intervened militarily to keep Assad in power, while Erdogan has demanded that the embattled Syrian leader step down.

“As long as Assad is in power, it is hardly possible to talk about the political transition,” Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told Russia’s TASS news agency.

For Moscow, abandoning Assad is a non-starter.

But, Cagaptay says, “Russian policy towards Ankara has had one guiding principle: never completely alienate Turkey.” The price, he said, would be to push his neighbor closer to NATO.

Cunningham reported from Istanbul. Zeynep Karatas contributed to this report.

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