Russian President Vladimir Putin came to Turkey this week -- after suddenly canceling a visit that was supposed to take place in October -- and there was a certain element of suspense to the trip. Although Russia is Turkey's top trading partner and the two countries have also been deepening their political ties in recent years, Ankara and Moscow have not seen eye-to-eye on some key regional issues -- the fate of Syria and the Assad regime, in particular -- and the question was whether these tensions would surface during Putin's visit.
In the end, there was little drama. As The Economist writes of the Russian leader's visit, the two countries have decided to let "cool pragmatism" rule their relations:
“The level of economic and political relations is such that neither Turkey can forgo Russia, nor Russia Turkey…the future of Assad is nothing,” argued Mehmet Ali Birand, a veteran commentator.
That is an exaggeration, but Russia has become Turkey’s top trading partner. This is mainly in Russia’s favour: the bulk of the transactions are made up of Russian natural-gas sales to Turkey. Next year Russia will start building Turkey’s first nuclear- power plant near the Mediterranean port of Mersin. Turkey has also agreed to let Russia build a second pipeline via the Black Sea to Europe. Russia is the biggest market for Turkish contractors; Turkey is the top destination for Russian tourists. The two countries boast that two-way trade will triple to some $100 billion in the coming years.
For Turkey, maintaining smooth relations, especially economic ones, with Russia makes more sense than ever right now. As The Financial Times points out in an analysis yesterday, while Ankara has been looking to expand its trade with its neighbors to the east as European markets contract, recent political tensions with Iraq and Iran, not to mention the ongoing crisis in Syria, has made that economic strategy much more risky. With Europe in economic crisis and economic relations with its large Middle Eastern neighbors also threatened, Turkey clearly realizes that putting further strains on ties with Russia would be dangerous, regardless of its displeasure with Moscow's Syria policy.
But the Turkish-Russian effort to smooth things over may go beyond economic considerations. The two sides may still have some critical differences on what's the best way forward regarding Syria, but Turkish analysts are suggesting that Ankara and Moscow are now looking for ways to work together on a diplomatic solution to end the Syrian crisis. Writing for the Al-Monitor website, veteran Turkish foreign policy analyst Semih Idiz says the Turkish government appears to be more willing to work with Moscow on the issue:
A foreign-ministry source in Ankara told Al-Monitor that there is growing recognition among Turkish officials that any settlements to the Syrian crisis will most likely come in the end as a result of an agreement between Moscow and Washington. Thursday’s meeting in Dublin between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss the issue does indeed point in that direction.
So the bottom line is that while Ankara and Moscow remain at odds over Syria, neither side is prepared to allow their ties to fall by the wayside for the sake of a dictator whose days are clearly numbered.
Russia is pursuing new efforts for a diplomatic outcome and transition in Syria, while Turkey appears to be reconciled to the idea — which it previously rejected — that key elements of the present regime in Damascus will probably have to be retained after Assad goes.
For now, it appears that Turkey and Russia have decide to bury the hatchet and not let their differences over Syria affect their economic or political ties. That said, this pragmatism depends on both sides feeling like their interests are being considered when it comes to resolving the Syria crisis and figuring out what the post-Assad picture looks like. Should either Ankara or Moscow feel like the other one is somehow undermining those interests, the pragmatism we saw on display this week could quickly dissipate.