In a series of statements last week, Turkish President Recep Erdogan and high-ranking officials in Ankara reiterated their commitment to purchase Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles – a deal that has angered Washington and strained relations between the NATO allies.

Erdogan, apparently encouraged by talks in April with Russian President Vladimir Putin, appears to be further distancing himself from Washington.

Though the countries face strategically thorny disagreements in Syria, these are unlikely to derail a surprising new bilateral alliance. Moscow is deploying multiple assets in a charm offensive designed to drive a wedge between Ankara and NATO – a strategy aided by the heavy-handedness of both Washington and Brussels.

Syria vs SAMs

Russia and Turkey are currently in a delicate standoff over a vital piece of Syrian territory adjacent to the Turkish border. Turkish troops have deployed in the northwest – in agreement with Russia, where their presence complicates any assault on Idlib province.

Syrian forces and Russian air units have been pounding Turkey-backed rebels in Idlib, where artillery accidentally hit a Turkish position in late April. Rebels there are supported and armed by Ankara, which has created a buffer zone in northern Syria, north of Idlib and Aleppo, but Moscow-backed Damascus has vowed to recover every inch of Syria.

Idlib is not the first issue dividing Moscow and Ankara in Syria. Relations hit a nadir in November 2015, when a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24, on operations over Syria, in an airspace dispute. In response, Russia imposed economic sanctions on Turkey, suspended visa-free travel to Russia for Turkish citizens and restricted imports of Turkish products.

A year later, in December 2016, ties were tested again when the Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov was assassinated in Ankara by Turkish off-duty police officer Mevlut Altintas – allegedly in retaliation for Russia’s targeting of rebel-held Aleppo.

By then, neither Putin nor Erdogan had any appetite for relations to be damaged any further. Both downplayed the incident.

Beyond Syria, the Ankara-Moscow axis is looking up on every other front. One key glue is S-400s.

Ankara’s highly unusual purchase will make Turkey the first member of NATO – an alliance postured against Russia – to get the surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Turkish officials have been angered by US sanctions and pressure to buy American Patriot missiles instead of the S-400s. Ankara is also furious about Washington’s related threat to suspend Turkey’s membership in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter program.

The $2.5-billion contract for the S-400s was signed in Ankara in December 2017. The Russia SAM is sophisticated, reliable, effective, economical and comes with no strings attached (unlike American Patriots). Russia will begin delivery in July this year, ahead of schedule.

Friends or foes

The pro-Russian, anti-American sentiments currently animating Ankara’s political elite represent a marked change, as relations between Russia and Turkey have been turbulent for centuries.

As early as the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire’s support for Turkic and Islamic vassal states in the Black Sea region brought it into conflict with Czarist Russia. A series of bloody Russo-Turkish Wars followed, resulting in the Russian takeover of Crimea and other Black Sea areas.

After the 1917 revolution, Istanbul became a haven for emigres fleeing the Bolsheviks. Yet, in the 1920s, the Soviet Union regarded the young Turkish republic as an ally in the fight against imperialism and Western domination.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, new leader Kemal Ataturk leaned towards the left – and towards the USSR in particular. Ataturk and Lenin praised each other, and Russia was one of the first countries to recognize the Kemalist revolution and the new republic, supplying it with arms and gold.

But by the late 1930s and 1940s, in post-Ataturk Turkey, relations nose-dived because of links between Ankara and Hitler’s Berlin, and after the war, Turkey joined NATO.

Admiral Grigorovich class frigate AdmIral Essen sails through the Bosphorus on Aug. 26 on its way to the Mediterranean Sea. Photo: Twitter
The Russian frigate ‘AdmIral Essen’ sails through the Bosphorus in August 2018 on its way to the Mediterranean. Photo: Twitter

Dire strait

During the Cold War, Ankara confronted Moscow in the Black Sea and US troops remain based at Turkey’s Incirlik air base. What makes Erdogan a particularly juicy focus of Putin’s diplomatic efforts is Turkey’s control of the Bosporus Strait that divides Europe from Asia.

The strategic channel is the only passage for Russian ships between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It accommodates more sea traffic than the Suez Canal, making it one of the world’s most critical shipping lanes.

“Russia, from its imperial days, has been trying to get its hands on this strategic channel,” says Alexei Sidorov, a Moscow-based expert on Turkey and Turkic nations, from the Moscow Oriental Studies Institute. “Recently, with the annexation of Crimea, Moscow was increasingly wary of the rising American Navy presence in the Black Sea. The Bosporus is, of course, the key to that presence.”

Leader chemistry, trade ties

Putin, despite bilateral woes in Syria, has remained focused on the big picture. There are risks: Erdogan – like Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus, another strongman who Putin has to deal with – is unpredictable, ambitious and self-styled. But clearly, the Russian president is seeking to pry Turkey away from the West and is using all the leverage at his disposal.

Moscow supported Erdogan during the coup attempt in summer 2016, siding with Ankara in Turkey’s stand-off with the US over the coup plotters.

Meanwhile, the six-decade US-Turkey alliance has been strained by US support for Syrian Kurds, and Washington’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric exiled in Pennsylvania who Erdogan accuses of plotting a failed 2016 coup.

As a result, Moscow and Ankara – both led by strongmen who appear to share a personal chemistry – have instinctively shifted closer, united by what they perceive as US heavy-handedness.

Moscow and Ankara are seeing commercial ties rise. In a recent press conference, Erdogan stated that commercial relations had reached an unprecedented level; the goal now is to achieve bilateral trade of $100 billion. Putin noted after his summit with Erdogan in January, that over the first 10 months of 2018, Russian-Turkish trade had increased sharply.

“These close economic ties make Turkey increasingly dependent on Russia,” explains Vladimir Yakimchuk, a Russian expert who specializes in the Middle East at the Moscow-based “Vostok” think-tank. “Turkey receives 55% of its natural gas needs from Russia…Moscow and Ankara are also building the TurkStream pipeline, which could carry Russian natural gas through Turkey to the EU, via Bulgaria, as early as this year.  Russia is also a huge market for Turkish exports, especially agricultural products and textiles.”

People-to-people

Putin also mentioned that the number of Russian tourists to Turkey had reached a record high of 6 million visitors. Ankara announced last month that Russian tourists can visit Turkey with just domestic identity documents – no passport required – the same way they visit Sochi, the Russian Black Sea resort.

Russians already generate more than 60% of all Turkish tourism revenue. No other country (outside the CIS) has ever offered such favorable conditions for Russian tourists.

Erdogan’s visits to Moscow and numerous summits with Putin are not only heavy on symbolism, they also demonstrate Ankara’s pivot towards Moscow.

For now, though, the Erdogan-Putin axis looks solid. Erdogan’s position is shaky after the humiliating election defeat of his ruling AKP party last month. He needs allies, foreign policy successes, and economic boosts.

And they both increasingly share common views in extra-regional areas – such as the sale of Russian jets to Venezuela and support for Venezuela’s Nikolas Maduro, whose regime Erdogan, just like Putin, staunchly backs.

Turkey turns east

There are further factors turning Turkish eyes away from the West.

For years, Turks have felt alienated by the EU, which is reluctant to admit Ankara as a member. For Europeans, Turkey is a Muslim nation bordering war-torn countries of the Middle East and ruled by the Islamic AKP party. Many Turks feel bitter that Bulgaria and Romania – less developed and poorer, in Turks’ views than their nation – are in the EU simply because they are not Muslim.

And while the EU requires visas for Turkish visitors, Russia allows Turks to travel to Russia visa-free for 2 months.

With the S-400 missiles, Russia is clearly using weapons sales as a tool for diplomacy. The other key prong to Russia’s economy – energy – is also in play. In addition to Russo-Turkish pipeline projects, construction is already underway on a Russian nuclear power plant at Akkuyu, on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.