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Washington Views Putin-Erdoğan Talks with Caution, not Panic

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At the White House, the Pentagon, and CIA headquarters, the August 9 meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been viewed as a limited success, at best, and no cause for serious worry. This may prove to be the latest in a long string of misestimations and missed policy opportunities for the Obama administration. While there are significant obstacles to a full-scale Moscow-Ankara partnership, the boosting of Turkish-Russian relations comes at a moment when US-Turkish relations are at an all-time low.

The prevailing view in President Erdoğan’s inner circle is that, while the Obama administration, the Pentagon, and the CIA may not have necessarily been in on the failed July 15 coup attempt, the United States “knew or should have known” about the pending coup — and made no effort to alert Turkish authorities. And given that Erdoğan’s arch rival, Islamic cleric Fethüllah Gülen, is housed in the United States and the Obama administration is insisting on going through a long and tedious judicial process over Turkey’s request for Gülen’s extradition, relations between Washington and Ankara are going to be difficult for quite some time.

US analysts who carefully monitored the St. Petersburg meeting between Putin and Erdoğan came away with the view that the biggest boost in Russian-Turkish ties will be economic, not geopolitical or military. Economics is where the greatest convergence of interests is located. Russia is facing significant economic problems, and Turkey has always been a favored cheap tourist site for middleclass Russians, who cannot afford the French Riviera or Manhattan. Turkey’s economy suffered greatly following the November 2015 shoot-down of the Russian fighter jet, when Russian tourism evaporated overnight. Turkey had been a major exporter of agricultural goods to Russia, and that trade, too, was shut down as Russia applied sanctions on Turkey.

Above all else, the Turkish Stream gas pipeline deal, a major economic boon for Erdoğan — if a fair deal can be struck — is now back on the drawing board, following the Putin-Erdoğan summit. And Putin and Erdoğan agreed that the planned Russian-built nuclear power plant will now go forward.

Washington is convinced that the other bilateral and regional issues of shared interest between Moscow and Ankara are intractable and will not progress in the short-term. Although a delegation from the Turkish foreign and defense ministries and the intelligence service traveled to St. Petersburg two days after the Putin-Erdoğan meeting to launch a new “trilateral” dialogue, and Putin and Erdoğan held a second mini-session after their main summit, specifically to discuss a common approach to the Syria war, little progress is expected beyond new rules of engagement to avoid future military clashes.

Both Washington and Moscow do not believe that Turkey will drop its close collaboration with Saudi Arabia in supporting Syrian rebels, or that Ankara will accept the idea of Bashar al-Assad remaining in power indefinitely. There is common ground for wiping out the Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa, which is also a shared goal of the Obama administration, but beyond that, there is little room for Russian-Turkish cooperation to go any further, as the US believes.

When the Russian jet was shot down last November, the Obama administration and the US military commanders on the ground in Turkey pressed for a de-escalation of the crisis, and urged Moscow and Ankara to immediately begin talking. From that standpoint, the Obama administration sees limited cooperation between Russia and Turkey as a net plus, removing one potential flash-point for an out-of-control escalation of the regional conflict, forcing more direct US military intervention. In his final six months in office, the last thing Obama wants is another war, which would damage his legacy as a “peacemaker.”

The Pentagon has expressed one significant concern over the restoration of Russian-Turkish relations. Turkey has been an important base for US control over the Black Sea region, and clearly Putin sees a potential benefit to cozy relations with Ankara, if it assures the Russian navy unfettered access through the Bosphorus Strait.

The bottom line for the Obama administration: after an initial close personal relationship between Obama and then-Prime Minister Erdoğan turned sour, Turkey has been increasingly viewed in Washington as a problem case, requiring an enormous amount of management attention (a growing faction of rightwing European parties, centered in Eastern Europe, are actually pushing the idea that Turkey should be expelled from NATO and disinvited to pursue membership in the European Union). Washington analysts are betting that Russian President Putin will not fare any better.

But Washington may be missing a bigger picture. In the span of less than a week, Putin met with his counterparts in Azerbaijan, Iran, Turkey, and Armenia. Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif flew to Ankara and met with President Erdoğan. In all of these meetings, economic issues were discussed in a strategic context. The North-South Corridor transportation project, linking the Persian Gulf to Russia, Europe, and the Caspian Sea, can alter the balance in Asia Minor. China, which is promoting its One Belt, One Road grid of Eurasian rail and sea links, to deepen penetration of the still-lucrative European markets, is offering to help finance the North-South project, which requires completion of a 170 kilometer rail link. India’s heavy investment in the building of a deep-water port at Chabahar, Iran on the Gulf of Oman is another piece of the growing economic interconnectedness among Eurasian nations.

The day after the Putin-Erdoğan meeting in St. Petersburg, the Russian state outlet, Sputnik News, mooted the idea that Turkey could be the next country invited to formally join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) alliance. The BRICS heads of state will meet in India in early October for their annual summit.

If nothing else, these economic deals, in themselves, are a godsend to Erdoğan, offering him an alternative to his previous marriage to NATO, Europe, and the United States. And Putin made clear, in his public pronouncements against the attempted coup, that Russia will make no effort to moderate Erdoğan’s internal power consolidation, and will certainly not raise a fuss if human rights are trampled on as Erdoğan completes his power play.