Turkey and Russia have kissed and made up. Or at least done the diplomatic equivalent. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed his regret over the shoot-down of a Russian aircraft last November. Russian President Vladimir Putin began dropping his government’s retaliatory sanctions. There’s talk of possible cooperation over Syria.
Reducing tensions between the two is good for them and the region. As well as for the U.S. and NATO. A conflict between Moscow and Ankara over the Syrian civil war would be simple madness. Such a fight would be truly catastrophic if the U.S. and NATO were drawn in. Next America and Russia should restore their working relationship.
For centuries Turkey and Russia battled each other over territorial ambitions and Black Sea access. The Europeans backed the Ottoman Empire against the Russian Empire in the Crimean War. In World War I the Europeans split, with the Ottomans and Russians on opposite sides. Both “ancien regimes” then collapsed. Ankara stayed out of World War II but joined NATO during the Cold War, thereby winning the backing of both America and Europe against the Soviet Union.
Turkish ties with Moscow improved after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ankara largely avoided the crossfire during the recent deterioration in the West’s relationship with Russia. Turkey is a major energy consumer and viewed Moscow as a useful counterweight to Europe, which criticized Erdogan’s growing repression. But everything changed with last fall’s downing of a Russian warplane which briefly flew over Turkish territory.
Ankara knew the plane meant Turkey no ill. President Erdogan was suspected of seeking to punish Moscow for backing the Syrian government, which he wanted to overthrow, and targeting Turcomen insurgents allied with Ankara. He may also have believed that triggering Russian retaliation would drag the rest of the alliance into the Syrian imbroglio on his side.
However, contrary to claims that Putin is the reincarnation of Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler, the Russian leader responded circumspectly. He imposed economic sanctions, added anti-aircraft weapons, and threatened retaliation for another incident. He also reinforced attacks on Syrian insurgents, including those backed by Ankara, and supported Kurdish forces, viewed by Turkey as terrorists tied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Yet Moscow carefully avoided triggering NATO intervention.
Turkey lost ground geopolitically. Although Washington and NATO voiced official support for Turkey, they expressed their irritation with Erdogan’s recklessness. “NATO cannot allow itself to be pulled into a military escalation with Russia as a result of the recent tensions between Russia and Turkey,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. Alliance officials reportedly warned Ankara against any action that could trigger conflict.
The Obama administration refused to consider targeting Moscow’s forces. Several Republican Party presidential candidates threatened to shoot down Russian aircraft while imposing a no-fly zone over Syria. However, few Americans—who had overwhelmingly rejected President Barack Obama’s proposal to intervene after the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons—backed such a mad idea. Triumphing over the GOP hawks was Donald Trump, who proposed a much more conciliatory policy toward Moscow.
Ankara found itself at odds with the U.S. in Syria as well. Washington focused on combatting the Islamic State, even working with the Kurds despite Erdogan’s rage. Moscow negotiated with the U.S. to forge a ceasefire agreement that moderated fighting in Syria. Overall, Russia came far closer than Turkey to attaining its objectives, fostering a revival of the Assad government’s military fortunes.
Erdogan faced other challenges. The economy slowed, reducing public tolerance of rampant corruption. The president retained support of a bare majority of the Turkish population, but political polarization fomented internal violence. Indeed, Ankara broke its ceasefire with the PKK for political advantage. Increasing authoritarianism at home—the government’s veritable declaration of war on the press and most anyone else criticizing Erdogan—brought greater international criticism, especially in Europe. Ankara’s earlier tolerance of Islamic State activities dissolved after a spate of terrorist attacks in Turkey, most recently at the Istanbul airport.
Ankara recently launched several diplomatic initiatives. It reached a controversial agreement with Europe to halt unauthorized migration further north. Moreover, Turkey normalized relations with Israel, strained since the latter’s 2010 attack on a Turkish vessel bound for Gaza, which killed several Turkish citizens. Now Ankara has retreated from its confrontation with Moscow.
Months ago Erdogan reportedly sought to ease tensions through private communication to Putin, but Moscow insisted on a public apology. So at the end of last month Erdogan wrote to offer his condolences to the family of the Russian pilot who died. The joint communique stated that Turkey did not intend to shoot down the Russian plane. Whether Erdogan’s note counted as an “apology” was disputed, but did not disguise the fact that Turkey had retreated. A Turkish spokesman indicated that the two governments “have agreed to take necessary steps without delay to improve bilateral relations.” Moreover, Ankara announced that it would prosecute a Turkish citizen fighting with ethnic Turkish rebels in Syria for the death of the pilot.
Resolving the dispute obviously benefits both Russia and Turkey. Moscow announced plans to drop travel and trade restrictions. The amount of money at stake is modest, but important symbolically. Moreover, the respective foreign ministers met to better diplomatic ties; a presidential summit apparently is in the offing. Although the nations’ differences over Syria are too great to easily bridge, any easing of tensions would also assist U.S.-Russian efforts to negotiate a settlement.
Resolving its differences with Moscow moves the Erdogan government back toward its earlier objective of having “zero problems” with its neighbors. That policy long ago faltered, as Turkish influence faded even close to home. Rebuilding its working relationship with Russia (and Israel) should enable Ankara to work more confidently to shape regional events, including policy toward Syria and the Kurds.
Moreover, Turkey and Russia share an interest in confronting terrorism. One of the three airport attackers was allegedly a Russian. And the assault reportedly was organized by another Russian, a Chechen. As many as 4,000 Chechens may have gone to Syria to fight. Muslim Chechnya has become a fount of terrorist activity against Russians and others.
Washington also will benefit from rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. The U.S. is much less likely to find itself facing a call for military support from a NATO ally for a conflict fomented by the latter. America already has little control over events in Syria. Turkey threatened to pull Washington into another war.
Something akin to cooperation between Ankara and Moscow might also ease disagreements between America and Russia over regional policy. Turkish acceptance, however reluctant, of Assad’s continued role could moderate Washington’s insistence on his removal. A Turkish effort against the Islamic State on the ground in Syria could lead Washington to reduce its support for Kurdish groups. If the gap between Turkey and Moscow over Syria can shrink, so can that between Washington and Russia.
Ankara’s decision to offer concessions for détente with Russia also provides a model for the Obama administration. Moscow’s aggressive behavior toward Ukraine and Georgia is ruthless and unfortunate, but does not threaten America. Both of these troubled nations were long controlled by Moscow, first under the Russian Empire and next by the Soviet Union. Neither state ever was considered relevant let alone essential to U.S. security.
Further, Washington’s own hubris helped stoke Moscow’s paranoia. NATO’s absorption of former Soviet states and expansion to Russia’s border could not help but be seen as hostile in Moscow. Even worse were promising alliance membership to both Georgia and Ukraine and intervening in Kiev to help oust the elected, Russia-leaning president. One can imagine Washington’s reaction had Russia behaved similarly toward Mexico.
Moscow’s behavior is not justifiable, but it is understandable. And it does not presage an attack on the rest of Europe, let alone America. Putin wants his country to enjoy border security and be treated with respect. His actions in Georgia and Ukraine advance those ends. Swallowing Ukraine, seizing the Baltic States, or invading Poland would not. Going to war with America is not likely on his “to do” list.
In fact, there are many areas where Washington and Moscow could cooperate: Syria/Islamic State, North Korea, Iran, China and terrorism. Even in Europe, Russia likely desires stability so long as the latter’s security remains undisturbed. Putin is no friend of the liberal Western order, but that doesn’t mean there are no shared interests. A U.S. promise to forswear NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine could be the foundation for a more permanent deal to end Moscow’s support for violent separatism in Eastern Ukraine.
The Ankara-Moscow agreement highlights how countries may shift from near conflict to at least cold peace despite sharp differences over policy. It’s a very positive development. And one Washington should learn from. Putin is no democratic crusader, but he appears to be eminently practical. If Turkey and Russia can make up, so can Washington and Moscow.