That surprising alliance between Putin and Erdogan: Europe is no longer the navel of the world

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Riccardo AMATI, L’Espresso, August 9, 2016
Translated from Italian by Tom Winter August 11, 2016

The resentment towards the West is the real glue of the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. President of Turkey: “The European Union has been giving us the runaround for 53 years.” There are also economic interests in the background: the negotiations for the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and the dispute between Gazprom and Saipem round out the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. 

Primary objective for Moscow: redefine a system of alliances full of ambiguities, and since the crisis, to be recognized in the Middle East – and beyond – in the role of great power that it believes is its due. its. For Ankara, however, it is mainly to emerge out of isolation, from the quarantine has arisen due to the government’s reaction to the failed coup, which has been condemned in no uncertain terms by the EU and USA. And to create as many friends as possible in a region where, against the backdrop of the devastation of Syria, there arises the new Shi’ite power of Iran.

The coincidence of certain interests in today’s international situation could deliver an unprecedented alliance, hardly imaginable after last November’s downing, by Turkey, of a Russian fighter and the sanctions thus imposed from Moscow – withdrawn only a few weeks ago as a result of a letter of unidentified apologies of Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan to Vladimir Putin.

“The meeting with my friend Vladimir represents a new beginning; our countries will stride a long way together,” says Erdogan as quoted by TASS. “Without Russia it will never be possible to find a solution to the Syrian crisis,” he adds. Music to the ears of Vladimir Putin. As for the European Union, thejudgment of Erdogan is peremptory: “They’ve been giving us the runaound for 53 years and they’re still at it.”

“The frustration over the failure of any attempt to move closer to the European Union is what most unites Russia and Turkey”, said Andrey Kortunov to l’Espresso. Kortunov is Director of the Russian Council on International Affairs (RIAC), an institute close to the Moscow foreign ministry. According Kortunov, the disappointment vis-a-vis the West is a strong enough adhesive to hold up against the disruptive capacity of the points of difference that exist.

“It ‘s true that Russia, unlike Turkey, supports Bashar al-Assad in Syria,” said the RIAC chief, “but their common positions, often at odds with those of the US and EU, may come out on top: both Moscow and Ankara want  Syria to remain one and indivisible, and for both the security of the region is a top priority, to be achieved quickly.” In this regard, according Kortunov, it will not be difficult to reach a compromise on the Kurdish problem. Russia has so far supported the PKK, a Kurdish party regarded by Tehran as a terrorist group. Probably the support will be implicitly denied in exchange for the green light from Ankara for the recognition of a Kurdish entity in the postwar period: “This is a firm position of the Russian policy in the region,” he emphasizes.

The most difficult problem to solve, however, is the attitude of the Sunni Turkey for the great Shiite rival Iran. It is no coincidence that the meeting in St. Petersburg was preceded by a meeting in Baku just a day earlier between the presidents of Russia, Iran and Azerbaijan — a former Soviet country in the Caucasus with a Shiite majority and inimical to Iran – not only to Turkey – in Nagorno Karabakh, a territory in dispute with Armenia. The arrival of the Iranian president Hassan Rouhani has already contributed to a détente with diplomatic wide-ranging consequences – that seem to open the way for a new phase of the Turkish-Persian relations.

“We would, along with President Putin, assist Erdogan in creating good conditions and resolving problems, so that proper decisions can be made,” says the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Ibrahim Rahimpur, in an interview with the Ria Novosti news agency. “These are regional issues, from Iraq to Syria. I think both Rouhani and Putin are ready to provide assistance and support to Erdogan. The support that Putin and Rouhani could supply can not be guaranteed either by the Arabs or by the western states. Our region, he concluded, needs Russia, Iran and Turkey to have good relations.”

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In sum, a Moscow-Tehran-Ankara troika to resolve the Middle East problem. 

This is something that Washington and the European Union had not foreseen, when they signed an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, thus abolishing the sanctions against Tehran and actually bringing the largest Shia country in the international system. On the other hand, the agreement with the US has not led to a review of relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-enemy, hoped for by some observers. And Saudi Arabia, allied to the US, continues to fight a proxy war against Iran in Yemen, and to indirectly finance – through its Wahabi clergy and the charities that depend on it – Muslim extremism all over the world.

Yet, the Turkish government assures that the rapprochement with Moscow is not a prelude to a decoupling from NATO. Let alone that Turkey did not exi from NATO even after the deep crisis with the Alliance that followed the coup of Gursel Kemal, and the hanging of the democratic leader Adnan Menderes in the early sixties. But, as former diplomat in Ankara Sinan Ulgen told Reuters, “for Erdogan, this meeting with Putin is certainly an opportunity to signal to the West that he has other strategic options.”

Europe is no longer the navel of the world, this surprising Middle East diplomacy seems to be telling us. Certainly, the dependence on supplies of oil from Russia, and the Ukraine crisis, as well as the key role of Turkey for the immigration crisis in EU countries – the war cry of populism on the rise almost everywhere – does not allow us any wahing of hands like Pontius Pilate. Europe’s chancelleries are confronted with new situations and have to be faster and more effective in trying balances that can be taken into account.

The usual alliances are less strong and anything but stable. In the international system, now everything changes quickly. Russia, and apparently Turkey, are acting according to what the diplomatic analysts call “constructive opportunism,” i.e. trying to achieve what one can right away depending on circumstances, beyond any other consideration – including traditional alliances. It is not a strategy to copy. It’s not even a strategy, actually. But it implies imagination and originality. Concepts that seem to be for some time almost completely absent in the minds of Western foreign policy makers.

The agenda of the meeting in St. Petersburg, also dealt with economic relationships. In particular, Russians and Turks have begun to speak of Turkish Stream gas pipeline whose development was frozen in November with losses to 760 million euro for the Italian contractor Saipem, which opened a dispute with the State Russian energy giant Gazprom. The Turks insist on reviving the project. The Russians are not. “The follow-through is difficult,” says Kortunov: “It costs too much and it was just a stopgap compared with the South Stream project, which involved gas supplies to the whole of Europe.” South Stream has been blocked by the anti-Russian sanctions following the intrusion of Moscow into Ukrainian internal affairs focused on the annexation of the Crimea. Recently the EU has given Bulgaria, one of the countries crossed by the pipeline, permission to reopen negotiations with Gazprom. And according to RIAC’s Bulgarian sources, “have in fact already re-started” – reveals Kortunov.

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