What Putin Wants But Doesn't Get from Erdogan

Resumed economic cooperation is great, but what Putin really needs is Turkish help in bleeding Syrian rebels.

Friends again.

Photographer: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

The resurgent friendship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a strange thing: Putin knows what he wants from Erdogan, and he's gone his half of the way, but he's not getting it yet despite Erdogan's exaggerated show of friendliness.

They had been on good terms before -- until last year's downing of a Russian plane that had briefly entered Turkish airspace from Syria. Putin demanded an apology, but the Turkish president was initially unwilling to make one, so relations between the two countries deteriorated into a state of cold war and Russia introduced sanctions against Turkey's tourist industry, agriculture and construction firms. Erdogan, who has few friends on the international state, was apparently uneasy about this: He ordered his staff to look for a way to make peace, and they found a roundabout one.

The Turkish daily Hurriyet reported that the chief of Turkey's general staff worked with a well-connected Turkish businessman who had interests in the Russian region of Dagestan to signal Erdogan's readiness to concede. The message traveled to the Kremlin by way of the regional leadership. The response came via another circuitous route: It was Kazakhstan's ambassador to Ankara who informed the Turkish leadership that Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev had spoken to Putin and the Russian leader would be amenable to accepting a letter of apology, should Erdogan write it. Nazarbayev approved the eventual text of the letter before it went to Putin.

Putin appears to have paid Erdogan back with no less goodwill. Not only did he accept a weakly worded apology, he was the first to call Erdogan after he survived the recent coup attempt, and there were even unconfirmed reports -- never officially denied -- that Russian intelligence had warned Erdogan about the coup. 

And yet there was a visible difference of tone between the two leaders during their meeting near St. Petersburg on Tuesday. At the final press conference, Erdogan called Putin his "dear friend" no less than four times. Putin, cool and unsmiling, did nothing of the kind. His attitude may have been reflected in the housekeeping details. Though the two leaders ate off plates decorated with a picture of them shaking hands, the talks took place in the Constantine Palace's Greek Room. Perhaps this had no significance, as the pro-Putin daily Komsomolskaya Pravda took pains to assure its readers -- the ancient Greek theme runs through the palace's interiors -- but Turkey does have a strained relationship with Greece. 

Putin's apparent reservations about the reconciliation are more than the natural residual mistrust of a man who demands complete loyalty. The Russian leader wants specific results from his friendships, and Erdogan appears to have given him no promises. 

The resumption of Russian tourism to Turkey is important to Erdogan, whose country, according to a Russian estimate, lost $840 million in the first six months of this year because Russians stopped coming. So is the end of the tomato and citrus embargo. Russia will be happy to build a nuclear plant in Turkey, as previously agreed, and it welcomes progress on Turkish Stream, a pipeline project to supply Russian natural gas to southern Europe via Turkey. All these matters were discussed at the Constantine Palace and mentioned at the press conference. But that's not uppermost in Putin's mind: The big game he is playing at the moment is in Syria. 

The day before seeing Erdogan, he met with a key ally in the Syrian conflict, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani. Details of these talks were not released, but the conversation could hardly have steered clear of the siege of Aleppo, where Iranian forces and Russian planes have been helping Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad maintain a siege of a rebel contingent.

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

The rebels have just had some success in weakening the siege, if not in establishing a stable supply corridor with Turkey, where their weapons and provisions are coming from. The successful attacks on Syrian government troops, led by Jabhat Fatah Al-Sham, a group that has recently made a show of breaking ties with Al-Qaeda, were apparently enabled by strong outside support in the form of weapons, cash and supplies, originating in Saudi Arabia and Qatar but coming through Turkish territory. The convoys bearing the supplies kept moving unobstructed across the Turkish border after Erdogan apologized to Putin and after Putin called him following the coup attempt. 

Erdogan's "dear friend" Vladimir must have a hard time squaring that with the Turkish leader's gushing.

The rebel forces in Aleppo are not likely to beat the Assad-Irianian-Lebanese-Russian coalition, if only because the strongest group among them, Fatah Al-Sham, formerly known as Al-Nusra, has no international support and isn't being offered a place at the table at any peace talks. It uses suicide bombers to attack government positions, and it is a jihadist force. But Fatah Al-Sham's relative success in recent fighting makes it harder for Putin to attain his goal of proving that there is no good alternative to Assad. 

At the Constantine Palace, Putin must have told Erdogan -- as he has said time and again -- that Assad was Syria's legal ruler and backing him was the same as backing Erdogan himself against coup plotters. But neither leader expected the meeting to lead to a breakthrough on Syria: The discussion of this issue was scheduled to take place after the press conference, since both Putin and Erdogan knew they'd have nothing to say publicly.

For all of Erdogan's anti-Western rhetoric, fueled by U.S. reluctance to extradite his enemy Fethullah Gulen and the European Union's refusal to budge on granting Turks visa-free travel, Erdogan's interests are not aligned with Putin's in Syria. He still wishes the rebels success against Assad -- and against Syrian Kurds, whom Fatah Al-Sham is fighting. Gripes against the West may unite Putin and Erdogan as two bitter, ambitious and authoritarian rulers, but they are not enough of a platform on which to build a new alliance in the Syrian war that would effectively destroy Turkey's affiliation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Putin would like Erdogan to cut off supplies to the rebels, but that may be more than the Turkish president is willing to do for his "dear friend." He can send lots of tomatoes though, and Turkish hotels can cut great deals for Russian vacationers at the tail end of this season. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Leonid Bershidsky at

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