It is not an event where readers of this publication would feel at home. The Erdoğan-Putin summit in St Petersburg highlights much that is wrong in Europe, and much that could get even worse. But it would be wrong to see the meeting as a historic turning point.
The Turkish and Russian leaders have a lot in common, especially their unpleasantly forceful, suspicious personalities. But the differences between their countries are far greater than the similarities.
Vladimir Putin has crushed opposition in Russia. Rule of law is a sham. Elections are a farce.
Turkey is not like that. True, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan detests the pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and he has changed the rules to hurt it. HDP’s members of parliament are in danger of arrest. That is deplorable. But the main Kemalist and nationalist parties—CHP and MHP respectively—compete in elections with Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Unlike in Russia, those elections are not a sham. The results are not known in advance. Erdoğan does not always get what he wants. His power is won in conditions of political competition, not monopoly.
None of that is ground for complacency. Turkey has been heading in the wrong direction for years, and since the failed coup trends have accelerated. Erdoğan is purging huge numbers of officials, cracking down on media and calling for the return of the death penalty.
This is not wholly unjustified. The coup could have succeeded, or started a civil war. It would have rattled nerves in any country.
It is also worth remembering that quite a lot of this is Europe’s fault. We have dangled the prospect of EU membership in front of Turkey for decades, while failing to negotiate seriously. We brokered a deal on Cyprus—but then failed to implement it. Even pro-European Turks speak bitterly of inattention and duplicity. As it has happened so often in our dealings with neighboring countries, we Europeans have sabotaged our friends and emboldened our enemies.
In theory, Turkey could break with the West. It could throw out the Americans from the huge Incirlik air base. It could withdraw from NATO’s command structure. It could tear up its refugee deal with the EU. It could form an authoritarian axis between Ankara and Moscow, carving up the Black Sea and even southeastern Europe.
But none of that seems likely. The Erdoğan-Putin summit is more about repairing damage since the downing of a Russian plane over Turkish airspace last year. “Normality” means some lucrative trade ties—Russian tourists in Turkey and Turkish exports to Russia. The costly and uneconomic Turkstream gas pipeline across the Black Sea has been revived: bad news for Gazprom shareholders.
But Turkey still has a great deal to gain from its alliance with the West, and a great deal to lose if it ends. Erdoğan continues to detest Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The West offers the best chance of removing that regime, which Russia props up. It is hard to see any common position emerging there. Turkey in recent months has been pragmatically repairing relations with countries such as Israel.
The brutal truth in the Middle East is that Russia is broadly supporting Shia Iran and its allies, and the Sunni countries—of which Turkey is one—are broadly backed by the West. That is not going to change any time soon. Turkey lives in a bad neighborhood and needs serious friends. Putin’s Russia, an economic and political failure, can’t offer that sort of friendship now—or probably ever.