In early August 2016, there was much speculation about the geopolitical implications of the reconciliation between the Russian and Turkish presidents, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as they publicly patched up their six-month-old feud.
The meeting in Saint Petersburg between the two leaders on August 9 caused heart palpitations in some Western circles—exactly as the two men intended. There were some predictions of what one security expert called a Turkish “tilt toward Moscow,” of the formation of a new Russian-Turkish axis that would defy the West on multiple fronts.
These predictions are greatly exaggerated. But the new rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow is symptomatic of something else: the rise of Russia’s cherished concept of multipolarity at the expense of Western-led multilateralism.
Both presidents certainly wanted to signal their displeasure with the West. Erdoğan wished to register his disapproval of how Western leaders had not backed him as unequivocally as he had hoped after the failed coup d’état in Turkey in July and of their continued criticism of his authoritarian methods.
Russia and Turkey had good reason to make up, after half a year of icy relations. Plenty of actors, led by Azerbaijan and the Turkic states of Central Asia, did not want to take sides in the dispute and had been pleading with the two countries to reconcile. The Turkish economy was badly hit by a sharp fall in the number of visiting Russian tourists and by Russia’s embargo on imports of Turkish goods. Russia wants to cut its dependency on Ukraine as a gas export route and revive the stalled Turkish Stream gas pipeline project that would cross the Black Sea.
Moreover, as has been frequently remarked, Erdoğan and Putin share similar pugnacious personalities and an allergy to the perceived domination of a Western liberal consensus in world affairs. That prickliness also masks a persistent feeling of insecurity. Both Russians and Turks are inclined to think that Europe is unfair to two big countries on its flanks that, as they see it, buffer the rest of the continent from a host of troubles emanating from the East and the South.
Yet both history and geography dictate that there will be no new Eurasian axis. The two countries are the heirs of the Russian and Ottoman empires, powers that have been rivals across the Black Sea pretty much continuously since the days of Catherine the Great and fought at least a dozen wars.
It takes more than a single friendly meeting between two leaders for Turkey and Russia to overcome this legacy. They cannot overcome it, any more than either can resolve similar deep-rooted issues with the third big power in this regional triangle, Iran. (As an example of this, Russia and Iran were recently seen to be collaborating more closely than ever in Syria but then publicly fell out.)
A centuries-old dynamic is still alive in which the Russian czar poses as the defender of Christians in the Eurasian borderlands and the Middle East and the Turkish sultan claims the same protector role for Sunni Muslims.
So Putin justifies Russia’s intervention in Syria as a mission of protection for Christians against Turkish-backed Sunni extremists. Putin still also seeks to be best friends with Greece, and the Russian Orthodox Church will be angry about the Turkish government’s cancellation of the annual August 15 service at the Soumela monastery near Trabzon in northeastern Turkey. Conversely, both Turkish domestic politics and genuine conviction demand that Erdoğan must still be the champion of Ukraine’s Crimean Tatars, chafing under Russia’s 2014 annexation of the peninsula.
In Syria, the two countries appear to have done a tactical deal to cooperate against the so-called Islamic State in the north of the country, but they are still backing opposite sides in the battle over Aleppo. There are reports that Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, is still lambasting Turkey with the same accusations as he did when the Moscow-Ankara feud was at its height.
So the Erdoğan-Putin reconciliation looks more like a business deal with limited aims and an economic rationale than a new strategic alliance. To put it another way, it is one more complication in a world already less harmonious and internationalist thanks to Britain’s vote to exit the EU, U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, and the inward-looking turn of much of Europe.
Carnegie’s Alexander Baunov has written that Brexit brings one step closer Russia’s dream of a “multipolar Europe” in which Moscow can deal with the big European powers individually, not as a collective unit.
The Russia-Turkey rapprochement is part of the same process of geopolitical entropy. Both Putin and Erdoğan see a world in which alliances like NATO or transnational organizations like the EU are weaker and mean less. The two leaders are more comfortable with a world in which alliances are transient and transactional and traditional great powers set the agenda and reserve the right to change their minds at a moment’s notice if they choose to, while smaller countries have to fall in line.
This worldview overlaps with that of Trump, who remarked in a New York Times interview in June that “we have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills” and suggested the United States should basically ask a price for military protection.
But of course, more multipolarity means less multilateralism. That is an indictment not just of Ankara and Moscow but of the case made by Europe’s multilateral organizations. If they want to combat the multipolar trend, the EU, NATO, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) need to make themselves more attractive and more inclusive to the awkward nations on the edge of Europe.