Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met on Tuesday. It is not clear what came of it, but it is clear what is at stake.
Russia is weakening. The state of the economy is now the main issue (read my extensive overview of Russia’s geopolitical situation) Ukraine remains at the center of its strategic concerns. Turkey is an emerging power. It is managing its internal crisis effectively, if brutally.
Both face a very powerful United States that is uncertain of what to do with its power. It can be unpredictable.
For Russia and Turkey, their next moves can have existential consequences. So they are measuring their options as precisely as possible. In the short term, they have common interests.
Each wants to maintain its freedom by deflecting the United States. They don’t want to directly confront it. Each watches as the EU tries to figure out what it is and what it plans to do.
Europe’s uncertainty gives both countries breathing room. At the same time, it instills great unease. Neither knows what European power will look like five years from now. The chaos may intensify, or a powerful country or coalition might emerge.
What happens in Europe matters to Russia and Turkey.
Armenia’s role in the chess game
On the surface, Russia and Turkey appear to have common interests. In fact, there are signs that these common interests are bearing fruit.
Ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, Armenia has had a close relationship with Russia. This allowed Armenia to defeat Azerbaijan in a war in the early 1990s and seize Azerbaijani land.
The region it took is called Nagorno-Karabakh. It is still a flashpoint for the two countries.
Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is complex. Caught between Iran and Russia, its policy has been to preserve its independence without threatening either country. Its relationship with Turkey was relatively strong. Turkey shares cultural and ethnic ties with Azerbaijan.
Also, both countries had a common enemy—Armenia. Turkey was concerned about the Armenians because they helped shape US policy toward Turkey and brought Russian forces into the region.
Russia has long been the guarantor of Armenia’s national security. This was one of many things that divided Turkey and Russia.
Russia and Turkey’s relationship seemed to be shifting even before the coup attempt in July. Since then, there has been growing evidence that Russia is about to change its policy on Armenia.
Putin has met with the presidents of Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Turkey. Instability has broken out in Armenia, with anti-Russian forces taking to the streets. The protests weren’t huge, but the fact that they were anti-Russian is telling.
It seems like Russia may force a deal on Nagorno-Karabakh and reduce its support for Armenia. This will make the Azerbaijanis and the Turks quite happy. They will also be in Russia’s debt.
What does Russia get out of it?
Russia’s concern is the United States’ intensifying relationships with Romania and Poland. Turkey has worked with Poland and Romania on defense issues for a while, particularly after it shot down a Russian plane. Russia obviously doesn’t want to see Turkey join the US-sponsored alliance.
Turkey has been uneasy about being subordinate to the US. With Russia hostile, Turkey would have no choice but to align with the Americans. Now, the Turks have a choice.
Turkey and Russia could build trust with a deal. Russia would sponsor a settlement between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Turkey would pull away from Poland and Romania. This would strengthen the Turkish position in the Caucasus and Russia’s position to its west.
But skepticism is still healthy
This could be a first step. But the long-term basis of this relationship is still doubtful. Both countries have big internal problems. Neither can simply disregard or oppose the United States. There are too many ways the US could harm them.
And there is a geopolitical tension built into the Russian-Turkish relationship. They have never trusted each other. Russia can’t let Turkey be the dominant power in the Black Sea. Turkey can’t allow Russia to dominate the Bosporus.
In the short run, this reconciliation works. In the long run, the probability of Russia and Turkey not clashing is minimal.
Alliances triggered by short-term events like the Turkish coup can only last if the parties have a basic reason for the relationship in the first place. That reason has never existed for Russia and Turkey.
It is there now only because of passing events. Their alliance can last for years, but in geopolitics that is not very long. It is serious but will not define our time.
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