TSG IntelBrief: Putin and Erdogan: Leaders Cast in the Same Mold
December 2, 2014

Putin and Erdogan: Leaders Cast in the Same Mold

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Russia’s President Putin made a State visit to Turkey on December 1

• President Putin and Turkey’s President Erdogan have much in common in both character and style; both are assertive leaders with a strong sense of destiny

• Their two countries are also essential partners in solving regional problems; although the visit focused on trade, discussions will also have inevitably covered politics

• It will be universally advantageous if the two leaders conclude that even if they cannot immediately identify a common policy, allowing the status quo to continue is worse than finding solutions.

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Commentators often point to the similarities in character and political strategy between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Both are forceful nationalists who tap into a populist sentiment based in large part on a nostalgic reimagining of each country’s history. Both tend to toy with alliances, but ultimately pursue their own path in both domestic and international affairs. Both have a high degree of self-assurance and belief in their own leadership. Both have sidestepped term limits by alternating between prime minister and president, while taking their chosen job description with them. Both are determined to leave their mark.

President Putin’s visit to Turkey on December 1, 2014 will have allowed the two men to explore some of these similarities, and may have helped them to identify common approaches to shared problems. Certainly agreement between them on ways forward could do a lot to resolve many of the regional issues that currently tax them and other world leaders. On Syria for example, Russia has been Bashar al-Assad’s most important ally, alongside Iran, while Turkey has been his most determined foe. Both countries will be essential to putting an end to the crisis and resolving the humanitarian disaster in Syria that has displaced half the population and allowed the Islamic State and other extremist groups to take root. But neither is likely to accept a way forward that has been designed elsewhere.

Turkey is now host to well over one million Syrian refugees, straining its economy and its social cohesion. It is facing a creeping international acceptance not just of Kurdish independence, but also of a Kurdish independence that endorses the participation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been a thorn in Turkey’s side for over thirty years. Its fundamental disagreements with NATO allies on how to deal with the Islamic State weakens the alliance; and though it must know Syria far better than any other NATO member, Turkey has been unable to convince the coalition that a buffer area in northern Syria protected by a no-fly zone would lead to an early resolution to the conflict.

It is not yet known whether Erdogan and Putin found common ground on Syria, but it is certain that they will have exchanged their views. Apart from his interest in maintaining influence in the Middle East, one of Putin’s first actions as a Russian leader was to act decisively in Chechnya, and he will be well briefed on the impact that the many hundred Chechen and other Russian nationals fighting in Syria may have on the stability of the Caucasus.

The spread of terrorism is only one shared concern of the two presidents. Both also see themselves as leaders of an ethnic group. Just as Putin expresses concern for ethnic Russians outside Russia, so too does Erdogan display concern for the fate of Turkmen in the Middle East and Central Asia. Although the Islamic State has Turkmen as the two main deputies to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, they are a vulnerable people from all sides and are spread from Syria to China’s Xinjiang province, providing Turkey with both interest and influence in an area of the world that is likely to grow in global importance over the coming years—both for its natural resources and for its fragile stability.

The main subject for discussion during Putin’s visit was trade, and energy in particular. Turkey relies on Russia for 60% of its natural gas imports and wants to increase that amount, a proposal to which Russia has been quick to agree, given its longer-term problems with exporting to other consumers in Europe. Turkey, not being a member of the EU, does not have to abide by the sanctions imposed by Brussels as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. Altogether trade between the two countries runs at over $30 billion a year, and both sides are seeking to double and then triple that amount over the next six years.

These vital interests may not be enough to solve unrelated problems, but they give both sides an opportunity for non-confrontational dialogue that even the Pope may have found difficult to establish in his own visit to Turkey immediately before Putin’s. Trade is likely to be a better vehicle for Turkey’s political dialogue than a belief in the inevitability of Turkish preeminence. Turkey is certainly essential to the stability of the Middle East, but in recent years it has found it easier to make enemies than friends, as former partners have grown suspicious of its ambitions. The calming of the dispute over the Muslim Brotherhood and Prime Minister Davutoglu’s recent fence-mending visit to Baghdad may reflect a reassessment of tactics by the Turkish government. This would be welcome to many, but like Putin, Erdogan may take some persuading.

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