After The Failed Coup Erdogan Moves Toward Rapprochement With Moscow

July 25, 2016
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin in Ankara in 2014. Photo: AFP

At the end of last week, President Vladimir Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is to visit the Kremlin at the beginning of August. This will be Erdoğan’s first face-to-face meeting with his Russian counterpart since September 2015.

Relations between the two countries, which had been fraying over the course of the Syrian Civil War as a result of Russia’s staunch support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, collapsed on November 24, when Turkish F-16 fighters shot down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bomber that, both Ankara and Washington said, had briefly violated Turkish airspace while bombing rebel-held territory in Syria’s Latakia province (Russia disputes this and says the aircraft never entered Turkish airspace).

The pilot of the bomber, Oleg Peshkov, was shot dead by rebel Turkmen fighters while descending on a parachute. During the operation mounted, with assistance from Hezbollah militamen, to rescue the Su-24 navigator, Konstantin Murakhtin, a Russian marine, Aleksandr Pozynych, was killed when fighters from the Free Syrian Army’s First Coastal Division destroyed a Russian military helicopter with a US-supplied TOW missile. Murakhtin was eventually recovered alive and returned to Russia.

Recently, on the day after the botched coup attempt by the Turkish military, the mayor of Ankara, Melih Gökçek, claimed that the Turkish pilot who had shot down the Russian jet had been involved in the previous night’s events.

Gökçek claimed that the pilot and his fellow conspirators were, as President Erdoğan has been alleging, followers of the President’s erstwhile ally, Fethullah Gülen, an imam who now lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and has been declared public enemy number one by Erdoğan.

According to the mayor, the F-16 pilot and his fellow Gülenists were acting part of the “parallel state,” long contended by Erdoğan to be working against his government. This “parallel state,” Gökçek said, was responsible for the destruction of relations between Ankara and Moscow by shooting down the Su-24.

“Up until this day we have refrained from making this public, kept it to ourselves. But I, Melih Gökçek, say that our relations with Russia were wrecked by these scoundrels.”

He even added that on the very night of the attempted coup, he had received “a guest from Russia, an adviser of Putin’s,” who shared his opinion that the plotters had made the move against Russia in order to isolate Turkey in world politics.

On July 19, the Turkish Ministry of Justice confirmed reports that the pilots of both F-16s that intercepted the Russian bomber had been arrested in connection with the coup plot.

President Erdoğan himself said that it was not yet known whether there was any link between the pilots’ involvement in the downing of the Su-24 and their subversive activities, but he did believe they may be members of Gülen’s network.

The deputy chair of his Justice and Development Party (AKP), Yasin Aktay, told Russia’s state-owned Sputnik propganda channel on Thursday evening that the pilot who fired on the Russian-jet had taken the decision himself.

This in itself is not a dramatic departure. Ahmet Davutoğlu, who was the prime minister at the time of the downing, had declared over a month before the Su-24 was shot down that, according to the Turkish Air Force’s rules of engagement, any aircraft violating Turkish airspace would be shot down. Davutoğlu was speaking the day after a Russian drone was shot down.

But Aktay’s latest accusation implies a wider conspiracy in his comments to Sputnik:

“The downing of a Russian plane that was clearly abandoning the Turkish airspace raises questions.”

Despite the current attempts to distance the Turkish government from responsibility for the downing, both Davutoğlu and Erdoğan staunchly defended the shooting down of the Russian bomber at the time.

Indeed, even at the beginning of Ankara’s move towards rapprochement with Moscow, when Erdoğan expressed regret and asked the dead pilot’s family and Russia to “excuse us” in a letter to Putin on June 27, he did not attempt to deflect responsibility.

The failed coup may instead merely have provided Erdoğan with an opportunity to speed up this process. After all, his Russian counterpart is perfectly comfortable with extreme revisions of recent history with regards to his admission, following months of denial, that Russian special forces had led the takeover of Crimea.

Stratfor’s Reva Goujon told Newsweek that both states are likely to benefit from the restoration of friendly relations, claiming that “Russia will be keen to revitalize” the abandoned Turkish Stream gas pipeline project, and that the return of Russian tourists would boost Turkey’s economy. It is noteworthy that following Erdoğan’s overture in June, Putin announced that Russian tourists could now travel to Turkey, despite the recent gun and suicide-bomb attack on Istanbul airport.

While a drift towards rapprochement with Russia may appear to be both the natural result of the kinship between the two states’ authoritarian leaders and Turkish frustration with US-backing for the Kurdish YPG in Syria – a group with close ties to the PKK, the realignment may be less of a break from the Western axis than it seems.

The United States has set down a course of re-engagement with Moscow, despite objections from the US military and repeated humiliations in Syria in the form of Russian air strikes on not only CIA-backed rebels in the north, but also Pentagon-supported groups in the south, at bases used by both British and American special forces.

Erdoğan’s change in tack may be a strategically savvy move, albeit at the cost of the Syrian opposition who now look set to be abandoned by two of their most powerful supporters.