The sight of Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s leader’s Tayyip Erdogan exchanging visits this fall has produced much talk in the Middle East and the West. This talk centers on the end of the war in Syria on the notion that a Russian-Turkish alliance, victorious in Syria, is likely to soon emerge in the Middle East. The talk is often tied to the idea of a possible triple alliance in the region among Russia, Turkey and perhaps Iran.
Turkey is a major power in the Middle East region. A Russo-Turkish alliance would be a major step forward for Russia over its much weaker position in the Middle East in the last several decades. This Russian feeling had been reinforced by the disintegration of of the Soviet Union (1987-1991), the loss of 150 million people and withdrawal from over 2 million square miles with 14 independent republics. Too at the same time there was also the loss of dominance over Russia’s Eastern European bloc (Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Albania Czecholslovakia) ever since the late 1940s.
The withdrawal of Russian troops from the center of Europe (the Fulda Gap in East Germany) to protecting Moscow and Leningrad was humiliating. In addition, the large-scale Russian oil and gas fields would be reinforced by the placing of Russian troops near the enormous Middle East gas and oil fields. And Russia could again gain from selling many billions of dollars of weapons to Arab states.
For the Turks, a Russian alliance could mark the rebirth of the powerful role that the Turkish Ottoman Empire had played in the region for over 400 years from 1517-1917. The alignment of authoritarian anti-Western powers could potentially dominate the region against the remaining Middle Eastern powers.
Yet, there are a number of factors that will restrain such an alliance over time. First of all, after praising Russia’s lengthy Tsarist history and making the last Russian Tsar Nicholas II a saint, it would be hard to defend an alliance with the descendants of Ottoman Turkey which Tsarist Russia had fought in a dozen wars for several centuries.
Both Putin and Erdogan are in their mid 60s, meaning that their future time in politics is bound to be limited. And while Erdogan propounds an ever stronger authoritarianism, he comes from a state that developed as semi-democratic over the last 90 years since Kemal Ataturk began the transition in the 1920s and 1930s. There is no parallel to this in Russian history which has been forever authoritarian, whether under the Tsars, the Communists or today’s Putin republic. Finally, Turkey would lose its key relationships with Western Powers if they clung to Russia.
It would be equally hard for an ardent hard line Sunni Muslim Erdogan to ally with Russia when he is defending hard line Islam while the Russians today are overwhelmingly Russian Orthodox Christians. Furthermore, to ally with Russia would effectively end Turkey’s major position in the world as the southern flank of NATO, a powerful Western European and American defense alliance.
Too, Erdogan is increasingly weak as in the recent election he barely received 51% of the popular vote. His hold on power is increasingly tenuous while Putin is at 80% popularity. Furthermore, the Russian petro-state in an era when the price of oil has fallen from almost $140 a barrel to around $50.
Overall, while Russia is a nuclear superpower with 7,000 strategic nuclear weapons, the Turkish economy is over $3,000 GDP/capita larger than the ailing Russian economy which has never undergone a consumer revolution or agricultural revolution.
For Erdogan and Putin the budding relationship may be more theater than reality, showing the power of the rulers without having to do the deed. Indeed, both act towards each other as they do towards Israel. Erdoguan is increasingly shrill in his rejection of Turkey’s traditional partner Israel. Yet, at the same time, Turkey is the #1 tourist destination of Israelis on vacation and trade between the two “alien” powers is brisk.
In reverse Putin is seemingly very friendly towards Israel–600,000 Russians visit Israel each year, Putin has visited Israel twice and on the first trip bought an apartment for a Russian Jewish emigree he liked for $300,000. He has allowed the building of a $50 million dollar Jewish Museum in often anti-Semitic Russia. Yet, when it comes to the key issue for Israel, preventing a nuclear Iran and preventing the positioning of Iranian allied troops in nearby Syria, Russia is unwilling to do much for Israel.
For all these reasons, a Russian-Turkish alliance may be more talk than reality, showing both powers off as more than they seem to be on the global scene.