Skip to main content

ANALYSIS: Turkey and Russia use coup to thaw relations

President Erdogan's visit to Russia next month is the result of both nations' willingness to use coup to rebuild relationships, analysts say
Erdogan and Putin are set to meet in St Petersburg next month (AFP)

ISTANBUL, Turkey – A visit to Russia by Turkey’s president would have been considered unimaginable just a month ago. Then the coup plot happened.

Moscow's unequivocal and swift condemnation of the putsch, in contrast to the dithering of Turkey's more traditional Western allies, set in motion a rapid thawing of relations, with Turkey announcing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would meet his Russian counterpart in St Petersburg next month.

It is a surprising turnaround in a relationship that appeared almost fatally wounded by the downing in November last year of a Russian jet by two Turkish F-16s near the border with Syria, an incident that led to a vicious war of words and fierce economic retaliations by Russia.

While there have been attempts at reconciliation, with apologies last month from Erdogan, analysts told Middle East Eye that both sides had recognised the opportunity provided by the 15 July coup to find a definite way back.

“The Russian reaction created an emotional bond with Turkish officials,” said Mensur Akgun, the chairman of the international relations department at Istanbul’s Kultur University. “Attempts to normalise ties were already under way, but this definitely provide added momentum.”

Russia’s response was appreciated even more since Turkey’s traditional Western allies kept silent in the first hours after the coup attempt, and later qualified their backing of the Turkish government by urging it to respect the rule of law during its post-coup crackdown.

Turkey's actions towards Russia have also changed post-15 July. The Turkish pilots who shot down the Russian jet, praised by Erdogan in the immediate aftermath as defending their country, have since been accused of supporting US-based Fethullah Gulen, the alleged coup plot leader. 

Another analyst, who did not wish to be named, said the official Turkish line on the pilots had changed - to one where the downing of the Russian jet was orchestrated by the Gulen movement, and that one of the pilots later showed his true colours by bombing Ankara on the night of the attempted putsch.

“This makes it easy to understand the motives," the analyst said, indicating the narrative was being rewritten to show the attack on the Russian jet was a Gulenist attempt to "weaken ties with Russia and hurt the government".

At stake all along have been the economic aspect of ties between the two regional heavyweights.

Not only did Turkey's crucial tourism and agriculture sectors take a hammering due to Russian-imposed sanctions, but Turkey also found itself left seriously hindered in the Syrian conflict theatre after that country's air space became a literal no-go area for Ankara's jets. 

Additionally, the significance to Russia of Turkey as a vital transit route for exporting natural gas to Europe due to its problems in Ukraine meant that Moscow also had plenty of incentive to patch up relations. 

Ahmet Kasim Han, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University, hinted at another dimension to the reconciliation - the fact that Russia, unlike the US, has no relationship with the Gulen movement.

“Another thing to remember is that Russia’s hands are clean when it comes to Gulen," he said. "It has always viewed the Gulen movement suspiciously. The Turkish side will feel they are dealing with friends and will be open to more compromise,” said Han. 

For Washington, however, "when you have the alleged mastermind of this coup attempt living in Pennsylvania for years, it would be foolish to think that the Gulen movement’s activities were not on American intelligence’s radar at all. This situation is putting a great strain on ties,” he said.

But Han warned of Russia’s attempts to capitalise on this rift saying, “Putin is a great strategist and will do his utmost to capitalise on this situation and will certainly take steps to widen any rift between Turkey and its Western allies.”

He said Turkey’s decision-makers need to learn to be wary of aligning too closely with any one camp.

“Turkey’s decision-makers should know there is a heavy price to pay for aligning too closely with the US or with Russia, as this power game between them continues in Syria.

"They need to consider all ties in that light."

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.