GP Insights # 138, 31 August 2019
On 27 August 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan met in Moscow and held discussions about the prospects of an extension of existing defence cooperation between the two countries. This comes at a time when the tension between the two countries has escalated despite the deal over the creation of a de-escalation zone signed between the two parties a year ago.
What is the background?
Developments in Syria, Russia-Turkey closeness and US-Turkey differences form the background.
The S-400 deal has brought Erdogan and Putin closer in a move which has led further strained ties with NATO and the US. The first batch of S-400 had reached Ankara in July 2019 despite warnings of sanctions over the purchase from Washington. The US had retaliated by removing Turkey from its F-35 manufacturing Programme during the coming months.
However, Russia-Turkey relations are not smooth. Earlier this month, a Russian-backed military air raid had struck down a Turkish convoy at the Idlib province. This shows that divisions over Syria remain as joint cooperation over defence expands.
Within Syria, after eight years of civil strife, the Syrian government is slowly gaining control back with the support of Russia and Iran while Turkey has been supporting rebels alongside the US. Idlib province has been a stronghold of the opposition and the scene for most of the violence ever since the war broke out. Ankara's growing proximity towards Moscow has lately led to a unilateral ceasefire in the Idlib province by Putin urging the anti-government groups to join the peace process.
What does it mean?
First, Russia and Turkey are trying to get rid of external actors from the war-torn country. The preplanned trip to Russia by the Turkish leader amidst the Idlib crisis further puts Turkey in a difficult position. Also, given the current Turkish drift towards Russia and the latter's upper hand over the situation, the Syrian government may stand a higher chance at the negotiating table with the opposition backed by Turkey.
Second, Putin has tried to use the sale of S-400 and the prospects of joint defence hardware production as a tool to create a gap between Turkey and its NATO allies. This follows a recent statement from Turkey's defence minister to launch of a joint operations centre alongside the US to create a buffer zone close to the Syrian-Turkish border. This shows that Turkey is trying to compartmentalize given its domestic pressure over border security and strained relations with the Trump administration. On the other hand, Moscow does not want Ankara to cooperate with Washington's continued presence in Syria and let it have a say in future developments there. Taking off the US from the picture would help Russia fulfil its goal in Syria as recent events show that Turkey is being pushed into darkness both militarily and diplomatically.