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.
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.