Foreign Policy Blogs

Future Russian Leaders Might Regret Putin’s ‘fresh start’ With Erdogan

© AP Photo/ Alexander Zemlianichenko

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan met last Tuesday in Saint-Petersburg for the first time since a steep dive in bilateral relations following the downing of Su-24 in November. There are little doubts that the pair’s meeting will result in the rapprochement due to broader issues bringing Russia and Turkey together. Among those, the mutual desire to harm the West and resolve regional security concerns.

The two leaders have too much in common to stay on the other side of the fence for too long. Both are driven by shared worldview encompassing a messianic defense of national traditional values against the full-fetching ‘attack’ of globalization and keen on building an anti-Western axis of traditional powers.

Meanwhile, the U.S.-Turkish relations continue free falling; the Kremlin could not miss the opportunity for launching a ‘reset’ to boost its stance while confronting Washington.

Strategic relations with Ankara is already an apple of discord for many in the U.S. In the past, Turkey refused to provide a base for the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and blocked Black Sea access for the American ships during the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. Recently, Ankara has also cut off power to the Incirlik air base during the coup aftermath, while Erdogan questioned ‘a strategic partnership’ with Washington over inability to extradite Fethullah Gulen, whom he accused in masterminding the coup from abroad.

No longer before the coup, Erdogan sent an apology letter to Putin for the aircraft attack. Turkish media also claimed that the pilot who shot down the Russian jet was among the anti-Erdogan rebels and linked him to the conspiracy theory of a secret American plot to topple Erdogan. In return, the Kremlin has openly supported the Turkish leader and Putin was among the first ones who called Erdogan after the failed coup.

While relations between Russia and Turkey will normalize, Ankara’s cooperation with the West will only continue to deteriorate. The coup’s aftermath likely mean the end for Turkish democratic, secular and progressive societal pillars. ‘The purge’ that Erdogan has launched encompasses thousands of government and military officials, as well as academics, and forces the Turkish society to submerge into the pre-Ataturk times.

During the twentieth century, whenever any Turkish leader was seeking to re-Islamize the country and dismantle secular pillars, army was always intervening as a balancing force. Therefore, as Erdogan has defeated the high-ranking secularists and even purged all of the moderates from public institutions, the system of ‘check and balances’ is now in ruins.

Erdogan will continue his quest for the country re-Islamization and further erode democratic institutions by installing neo-Sultan leadership based on a strict authoritarian hierarchy and conservative jingoistic ideology. Befriending Putin remains his major opportunity for strengthening the international stance and the Russian leader welcomes the rapprochement with an anti-Western agenda in mind.

However, Putin is making a terrible mistake by reengaging with Erdogan, as re-Islamized Turkey will imminently switch to exporting its conservative values abroad in the long-term.

The Ottomans used to heavily rely on utilizing political Islam for their political goals, as well as Pan-Turkic values, which posed a direct threat to the Russian Empire with its huge Muslim and Turkic populations.

Throughout centuries, Russia and Turkey were fighting against each other. While Russia was deemed as a protector of Christianity, Turkey was defending Muslims. Border between the two symbolized the ‘demarcation line’ between Islam and Eastern Christianity. It was only erased when Russia turned into an Atheist-Soviet Union, while Turkey embraced forced secularism under Ataturk’s leadership. Therefore, things are going into a backward direction nowadays.

Ankara seeking its ways in benefiting from the notorious ‘blood card’ by encouraging Pan-Turkism across the former Soviet territories. While the ideology is largely ignored in the West, the close study reflects deep similarities with the fascist-style theory, aiming to unite all ethnic groups of Turkic-heritage together. The ideology is gaining popularity all across the Central Asia with the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States summits taking places every year during which accusations of Russian occupation of Turkic lands and oppression of millions of Turkic people are accompanied with visits of major Turkic-nations leaders.

The Kremlin currently keeps accusing the West in meddling into Russian politics and trying to mastermind the revolution, meanwhile, it embraces the leadership in Ankara that openly claims large swaths of its territory.

The newly restored status of Erdogan as a defender of Muslims worldwide is another alarm call for the Kremlin. Ankara was arguably one of the strongest hubs for supporting the separatists in the Northern Caucasus, while also a strong recruitment stronghold for the jihadists willing to travel to Russia.

During the Syrian civil war, Russians who were willing to travel for jihad did not even need to face security control while easily accessing Syria via Turkish Southern provinces. Arguably, absolute majority of 3,400 Russian-born jihadists in Syria and across North Africa traveled through Turkey.

Muslim population is the largest growing segment of Russian demographics. While the imagery of oppression of Muslims in Russia is dominant all across the Middle East and Central Asia, Moscow’s lack of a coherent program for integration of the domestic Muslims puts the country’s stability at risk.

By supporting Ankara’s leadership via rapprochement, the Kremlin might be unknowingly opening a ‘Pandora box’ that might instigate Islamists within Russia and Turkic nationalism in the long-term.