The West watches anxiously as Recep Tayyip Erdogan prepares to meet with Vladimir Putin
Turkish president will meet with Russian counterpart, signalling to the rest of the world that he is willing to expand circle of strategic allies
As Turkey’s relations with Europe and the US are strained by the fallout from its failed coup, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan travels to Russia tomorrow to meet Vladimir Putin in a trip he may hope will give the West pause for thought.
Turkish officials insist Erdogan’s visit to St Petersburg is no sign that the Nato member and EU membership candidate is turning its back on the West. Rather, they say, it is the next step in a rapprochement with Russia that started weeks before the July 15 attempted putsch.
But the thaw with Moscow, which imposed trade sanctions nine months ago after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian border, comes as Ankara’s relationship with the West could scarcely be more fractious.
Erdogan and many Turks have been incensed by what they see as Western concern over a post-coup crackdown but indifference to the bloody events themselves, in which more than 230 people were killed as rogue soldiers bombed parliament and seized bridges with tanks.
The Turkish government has blamed the coup on followers of a cleric in self-imposed exile in the US, and purged tens of thousands of his suspected followers from positions as teachers, police, judges and soldiers.
Western nations say the purge has been indiscriminate. So damaged are relations that Germany’s foreign minister said this week there was no basis for discussions and that “we are talking with each other like emissaries from two different planets”. Austria’s chancellor suggested that EU membership talks should be suspended.
“For Erdogan, this meeting with Putin is certainly an opportunity to signal to Turkey’s partners in the West that it could have other strategic options,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at the Carnegie Europe think tank.
“There is this perception game that Turkey could strategically gravitate towards Russia if the relationship with the West cannot be maintained. There is also an incentive on the side of Russia to use the crisis between Turkey and the West to undermine Nato’s cohesiveness,” Ulgen said.
Washington is likely to be watching closely. Its ties with Ankara are strained over the continued presence in the US of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Erdogan of orchestrating the attempted coup. Gulen, who has lived in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania since 1999, denies involvement in the coup.
US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to visit Turkey this month with Gulen’s case likely to be high on the agenda.
“The Turkish-American relationship is like a Catholic marriage: there is no divorce. Both sides need each other,” said Faruk Logoglu, a former Turkish ambassador to Washington. “It has experienced severe tests in the past and I think it will weather this one as well.”