Nicosia: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 29 discussed the situation in northwestern Syria, where the two sides support opposing camps and ways of deepening the cooperation between their defence industries.
In recent years, Turkey and Russia have had a complex and strange relationship, as in some issues, they act as cooperating competitors, while on others, they are implacable rivals.
After his talks with Putin at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Erdogan told journalists that he had the opportunity to discuss with the Russian President "what steps could be taken on plane motors, warplanes and on building boats and submarines."
He also said that he proposed that Ankara and Moscow could work together on building two more nuclear power plants in Turkey, on which the Russian side agreed to cooperate.
Erdogan and Putin also discussed the situation created in the rebel stronghold in the Idlib region in northwestern Syria. This region has been under the control of Turkey and its Syrian rebel allies. In recent weeks, Moscow has increased its airstrikes there.
Ankara fears that if Russia continues its airstrikes, it will create a fresh wave of Syrian refugees fleeing Turkey. For Erdogan, the endless war in Syria has become a liability, as Turkey has widely resented the 3.6 million Syrian refugees living there.
However, it appears that the two Presidents did not agree on this subject, as this is evidenced because they did not speak to reporters at a common press conference after their meeting. On the following days, they avoided questions on the situation in Idlib.
Although Ankara and Moscow are on opposite sides in Syria, in a clear affront to the NATO alliance, Erdogan said that Turkey's military cooperation with Russia was of "utmost importance". This clearly shows that Erdogan is ignoring NATO's policies towards Russia and defiantly follows his views on what serves Turkey's interests.
The fact that NATO member Turkey is purchasing weapons systems and engaging in military cooperation with Russia undoubtedly undermines the credibility of the Alliance. Despite having the second-largest military force in NATO, Turkey is now very close to the point where it becomes a possible liability instead of an asset for NATO.
Reacting to the purchase of the S-400 air defence system, the US Administration booted Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program and slapped other sanctions on Ankara. Professor Ilter Turan from Istanbul's Bilgi University says: "This purchase has resulted in doubts about Turkey's commitment to NATO and sowed the seeds of discord within the alliance."
In an interview aired on CBS News on September 26, President Tayyip Erdogan said Turkey still intended to buy a second batch of S-400 missile defence systems from Russia and added: "In the future, nobody will be able to interfere in terms of what kind of defence systems we acquire, from which country and at what level."
Although this statement has surely delighted the Russian side, all is not well in Turkish-Russian relations. Moscow is generally unhappy with Turkey's positions on regional conflicts ranging from Syria and Libya to Ukraine and the Caucasus. A few days before his meeting with Putin at Sochi, Erdogan, in his address to the 76th UN General Assembly, declared that Turkey believed it was important to maintain the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea. This, of course, angered the Russians.
Reacting to a similar statement by Turkish officials on Crimea last May, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned his Turkish colleagues "to carefully analyze the situation and stop feeding Kiev's militaristic sentiments…. Encouragement of aggressive Ukrainian initiatives in Crimea is tantamount to an encroachment on the territorial integrity of Russia."
Ignoring Moscow's warnings and wishes, in October 2020, Turkey and Ukraine signed an agreement under which Ankara would supply drones to Kiev, while Ukraine would provide gas turbines to Ankara and supply engines for Turkey's T129 Atak helicopters.
Moscow is quite sensitive about this issue, as it has an open dispute with Ukraine. The same Turkish drones played a big role in Azerbaijan's victory over Armenia in the clash over Nagorno-Karabakh. Moscow regards the area as its backyard and has a defence agreement with Armenia, which was defeated in the war. The Azerbaijani victory was a serious loss of international prestige for Russia, which saw that its dominance over the South Caucasus is compromised not by NATO but by Turkish interference and Erdogan's arrogance.
In the protracted war in Libya, Russia and Turkey support opposite sides of the civil conflict. Russia has sent mercenaries of the shadowy Wagner Group to support "Field Marshall" Khalifa Haftar. Turkey has helped the embattled Government of National Accord (GNA) stop the offensive of Haftar's forces in the suburbs of Tripoli. Erdogan's main aim was to force the Libyan Government to sign a maritime border delimitation agreement, the validity of which is questionable by any international standards.
So, we see that despite the purchase by Turkey of the Russian S-400 missile defence system and the possible cooperation of the defence industries of the two countries, relations between the governments of the autocratic presidents of Russia and Turkey remain complex and troubled. The vacillating policies and orientation of Turkey add to the confusion.
As Galip Dalay, a specialist on Turkish politics, points out, "The loss of strategic orientation in Turkish foreign policy, coupled with the troubles in Turkey's traditional alliance structure, is keeping Turkey from sufficiently appreciating the geopolitical challenge that Russia poses to Turkey as a result of it being present on almost all of its borders.
Yet, some level of calm and normalcy prevails in Ankara. Russia's strong military presence in its neighbourhood will inevitably disturb Turkey as Turkey is likely to see this presence both as a geopolitical challenge and a threat.