Huffing and puffing at the Russian bear

Huffing and puffing at the Russian bear

A friend, who has been a resident of Moscow for years, believes that trying to maintain relations with Russia is like going to bed with a bear - an analogy that is particularly apt in this case. 

President Erdogan has been using his close friendship with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (who he has been likened to on many uncomplimentary levels) to show the world that he is not as isolated internationally as many in the West and at home claim.

Putin’s visit to Turkey in December [2014] was an occasion that Erdoğan used in this respect and he was doubly pleased when his “Russian friend” announced that Russia had cancelled a major pipeline project, which would have carried natural gas to Europe through Bulgaria, and diverted it through Turkey instead. 

As an added “bonus,” Putin threw in a reduction in the price of gas sold to Turkey, even though many experts believe the price still is high despite this “favor.” Eyeing its pragmatic ties with Russia, Turkey for its part has been low key in its criticism of Moscow over Ukraine and Crimea and has refused to go along with Western sanctions against Russia.

The bottom line is that while the two countries disagree over key regional issues (Syria being the one that concerns Turkey the most), they have preferred to maintain good ties for the sake of “greater mutual interest.” 

All appeared to be going well until recently, when Putin shocked Erdoğan and decided to attend the genocide commemorations in Yerevan instead of coming to Turkey for the Gallipoli commemorations. Putin also gave strong support to claims that Armenians suffered genocide at the hands of Ottoman Turks a century ago.
Ankara reacted angrily and listed past Russian atrocities in a geography stretching from Ukraine to Central Asia, saying Moscow should look at its own crimes against humanity first before judging others. 

Turkey did not recall its ambassador from Moscow, though, like it did in Austria, for example, after Austrian parliament passed an Armenian genocide resolution. This was taken as a clear sign that what Turkey can do against the Russian bear is limited.

In the meantime, Erdogan decided to decline Moscow’s invitation to attend this week’s celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the Russian victory over Nazi Germany. Turkey will be represented by its ambassador in Moscow instead. 

Many believe this is also a hollow show of displeasure towards Russia, since few in Moscow will miss the Turkish president during the celebration of a victory that Turkey had nothing to do with. Erdoğan’s absence will hardly rile Putin in the same way that the absence of key Western leaders, who are protesting Russian policies in Ukraine, will.

Serkan Demirtaş, in his piece in Hurriyet Daily News yesterday [May 5], also attributed the slow pace of developments in Turkish Stream pipeline project negotiations between Turkey and Russia to current chilly ties over the Armenian issue. Turkey has not officially announced, however, that it is giving up on the project.

Neither is Turkey giving any sign that it will comply with the demands of its Western allies and move towards a tougher stance against Russia over Ukraine, starting with complying with some of the Western sanctions against Moscow.

Looking at all of this, it is not surprising that Russia should maintain a patronizing position against Turkey, which in itself suggests that Russia expects the storm to blow over and normality to return to Turkish-Russian ties before long. This will most likely prove to be true.

What we have here is another example of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) vacuous foreign policy, which targets a domestic audience, but changes little in real terms due to lack of coherence and absence of steps that carry clout. 

Ankara can huff and puff at the Russian bear’s house, but can’t blow it down in this way.