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Putin’s Turkish Delight

BRUSSELS – Beware of czars bearing gifts. It is sound advice for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as he tries to leverage his rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin in his relations with the West.

Erdoğan’s meeting with Putin in St. Petersburg this month was ostensibly focused on burying the hatchet after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near its border with Syria last year. But the Kremlin seems to view the visit as an opportunity to convince Erdoğan to “turn east” and join Russia, as well as China and the countries of Central Asia, in a kind of brotherhood of autocracies. The question is whether Erdoğan actually plans to take up the offer.

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Erdoğan certainly put on a show with Putin, promising friendship and cooperation. In doing so, he sent his Western allies – which have criticized the arrests of thousands of perceived opponents, including many journalists, following last month’s failed military coup – a powerful message: “I don’t need you.” Putin, by contrast, was the first world leader to call for support for Erdoğan’s government after the coup, which perhaps explains why Russia was Erdoğan’s first destination after the dust had settled.

To be sure, Erdoğan may simply have been seizing an ideal opportunity to boost Turkey’s own security and that of the region. After all, it is in nobody’s interest – least of all NATO’s – to have Turkey and Russia at each other’s throats.

But it would be surprising if Erdoğan had no desire to make his NATO allies nervous. And, in that endeavor, he succeeded. At the very least, the EU needs Turkey to continue, according to the deal struck in March, to stem the flow of refugees to its borders; any indication that Erdoğan may be turning against Europe is thus a cause for serious concern.

There may, however, be more to Erdoğan’s rapprochement with Putin. If he is genuinely seeking to deepen Turkey’s relationship with Russia, at the expense of its ties with the EU and the US, as some warn, this would amount to a fundamental geopolitical realignment. But this seems unlikely.

The Kremlin has a strong interest in the deterioration of Turkey’s relations with its Western partners. Putin has been vocal about his opposition to NATO policies – particularly its role in countries bordering Russia. Given that Putin cares little for human rights, the rule of law, or democracy, watching EU and US leaders butt heads with Erdoğan over his post-coup crackdown must have looked like a golden opportunity to weaken NATO.

Another reason why Russia is keen to extend the hand of friendship to Turkey is the ongoing conflict in Syria, in which the Kremlin has intervened militarily to safeguard Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Putin needs a win in Syria – and an escape route. To that end, he needs to move Erdoğan, who has been supplying arms and support to the Sunni rebels whom the Russian air force has been hunting, into his camp.

But the case for an eastern pivot by Turkey is far weaker. True, Turkey needs Russian tourists to bolster its distressed economy. But whatever economic benefits Russia can offer are dwarfed by those provided by the EU – a critical trade and business partner that has been indispensable in driving Turkey’s modernization. Add to that Putin’s track record as an untrustworthy partner, and it is clear that, while a better relationship with Russia can benefit Turkey, Erdoğan cannot afford to abandon his country’s ties with the West.

But while it would be a strategic error for Erdoğan to enter Putin’s orbit, plenty of leaders have made strategic errors before. That is why the next few months, when Turkey and the EU hash out contentious issues, are so critical.

Erdoğan’s post-coup crackdown is far from the only source of tension between Turkey and the West, particularly the EU. Turkey insists that visa-free travel for Turkish citizens visiting the EU, promised by EU governments in January, should be delivered this year. But, with Turkey having so far failed to meet the agreed conditions, including overhauling its anti-terrorism legislation, that may not happen – an outcome made even more likely by the coup attempt. As a result, the migration deal concluded in March now hangs by a thread.

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To chart a way forward, a sustained dialogue between the EU and Turkey is urgently needed. Rather than allow Erdoğan to use his relationship with Putin to manipulate his NATO allies, the West – and the EU, in particular – must condemn, more clearly than ever, his accelerating shift toward autocracy. They must make him understand that his current path leads away from EU membership and could cost Turkey some of the economic ties on which it depends.

It is decision time for Erdoğan. Either he renews his country’s commitment to a close partnership with the EU, with all of the prosperity that this would entail, or he continues to push Turkey toward a future of despotism and isolation, in which he would receive the occasional comforting phone call from the Kremlin – but little else. It’s not much of a choice. For the sake of Turkey’s citizens, one hopes that Erdoğan sees that.