Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the opening of Russia’s international air show, MAKS, on Tuesday as the guest of his counterpart Vladimir Putin. Despite its NATO membership, Turkey has continued its slide into the Kremlin’s sphere of influence, as illustrated by Putin pitching his country’s Su-35 and Su-57 jets to Erdogan while Russian cargo planes landed in Ankara carrying the second battery of the S-400 air defense system.
Erdogan’s visit to Moscow was less about shopping for Russian military hardware than it was about his desperation for Putin’s help in stopping the advance of Bashar al-Assad’s forces into the Turkish military’s area of operation in northwest Syria. Last week, Syrian regime forces surrounded a heavily fortified Turkish observation post in Morek, at the southern tip of Idlib province. Previously, Syrian war planes struck Islamist militants traveling alongside a Turkish military convoy as it attempted to resupply the besieged post. For several days, Putin refused to take a call from Erdogan, but the Kremlin then informed Ankara that the Russian president could meet his Turkish counterpart at the MAKS air show. So, Erdogan’s top priority on his hastily arranged trip to Moscow was to prevent other Turkish outposts and troops in Idlib from suffering a similar fate.
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting in Moscow, Putin’s spokesperson said, “Turkey is our very close partner, it’s our ally,” and hinted that the talks were going to be as much about Russian arms sales to Turkey as tensions in Idlib. Indeed, in what analysts referred to as “ice cream diplomacy,” Putin not only treated Erdogan to a frozen dessert reportedly “sold” by an undercover agent of his security service, but also discussed further sales and joint production of military hardware. In his warm response to Putin, Erdogan said, “We want our solidarity to continue in several areas of the defense industry. This can be passenger or war planes. What is important is the spirit of cooperation.”
Erdogan’s kowtowing to Putin, however, failed to win him any favors in Idlib. Assad’s forces not only continued their advance, but also struck targets near another Turkish observation post on Wednesday.
The Turkish president’s fruitless cozying up to Putin has meanwhile drawn the ire of the U.S. Congress. The House Foreign Affairs Committee, hours after the arrival of the second S-400 battery in Turkey and Erdogan’s declaration of interest in Russian jets, called on Trump to “sanction Turkey … as required by U.S. law.” The next day, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper stated that unless the S-400 system is completely removed from Turkish soil, Turkey cannot rejoin the U.S.-led F-35 fighter jet program.
In his essay, “Erdogan Plays Washington like a Fiddle,” scholar Steven Cook argues that the Turkish president negotiates in bad faith with the U.S., while American policymakers take his bluffs seriously. Erdogan’s latest dealings with Putin, however, show that the Turkish president, at least in his dealings with his Russian counterpart, is not as good a poker player as Cook suggests. Putin continues to play Erdogan like a fiddle, and unless Washington and its transatlantic allies develop a concerted counter-strategy, Moscow will continue to exploit the man to whom its analysts already refer as, “Our Man in NATO.”
Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). Follow him on Twitter @aykan_erdemir. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.