THE BLOG

Is Russia Pivoting to Turkey?

I used to wonder why Russians and Middle Easterners so often resort to conspiracy theories to explain U.S. actions and even random coincidence, like a plane crash in New York on the same day as Russian President Vladimir Putin's post-9/11 visit to Washington. Eventually, I realized that much of what happens in those countries is indeed determined by 'byzantine' intrigues, sophisticated plotting and intricate conspiracies, which in turn colors their image of the West.

Recent developments and atmospherics may presage closer cooperation between Russia and Turkey, and probably with some intent.

First, there's Turkey. The latest protests and crackdown in Istanbul have punctuated Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's long slide away from the West, which began with the European Union rejecting Turkey's bid to launch accession talks, followed quickly by his open hostility to Israel, and attempts to bait U.S. President Barack Obama.

Then, there's Russia. When the Cold War was still winding down, the Soviets were cosponsors of the Madrid Conference and the Oslo Accords, but Russia hasn't been heard from much since on Mideast affairs, other than to stand in the way of the United States. As the Quartet has fallen into disuse, Moscow has been moderately effective at denying Washington diplomatic cover for the Iraq invasion; delaying and limiting multilateral intervention in Libya and Syria; and condescendingly watering down international sanctions against Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Having once patronized a swath of anti-American Arab regimes back when the world was bipolar, Moscow's sole remaining client in the region is Syria's murderous dictator, Bashar Assad. Russia cannot afford to tarnish its brand by abandoning Assad, even if he loses. If and when Assad falls, though, Russia will need a new strategic foothold, and Turkey makes for a great Plan B.

As a primary destination for Syrian refugees and as a militarily engaged neighbor, Turkey is an integral party to any substantive deliberations on Syria's future. Turkey is increasingly downplaying its political and military affinity to fellow NATO members, as with the State of Israel. Between them, the two nations already dominate the Black Sea. They can form a unified strategic foil to Iran and China in the energy-rich Caspian Basin. Putin has just committed to a permanent naval presence in the Mediterranean, despite its current lack of a secure portal -- but Russia and Turkey just conducted their first-ever joint exercise in the Mediterranean.

Erdogan keeps playing up his defiance of Israel and the West, as yet with little payback from the Arab states to his south and east. A new understanding with Russia would be mutually beneficial, allowing Erdogan to trumpet a regional balance of power and awarding Russia an impressive new client/partner in the region. We might even learn to forget Russia's doubling down on past-due tyrants like Qaddafi and Assad.

Personally, both leaders are staking their reputations and their countries' financial futures on hosting boondoggle Olympic Games, though in Turkey's case it's still an increasingly tenuous bid. Both men despise Cyprus (the Greek side), which joined the European Union and is threatening Russian finances amid its EU-induced liquidity crisis. In the past week, seemingly on cue, Putin and Erdogan have each excused their own crackdowns on internal dissent by using the example of the NYPD's 2011 response to Occupy Wall Street.

Since Russia's kleptocratic elite can't trust their cash to Cyprus anymore, Erdogan's show of force in Gezi Park should reassure them that Turkey is a safer bet and shares their values. Russia and Turkey are both recovering from brief periods of openness and free enterprise, and both leaders apparently relish repressing dissidents and provoking Westerners. Putin has just announced that when it's his turn to lead the G-8 next year, one priority will be reining in offshore havens like Cyprus.

Neither Putin nor Erdogan has obvious alternatives for diplomatic and strategic advantage in the region. They have so much in common that this looks like a love match, and yet it can also be a marriage of convenience.

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