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On the Background of Putin-Erdogan Friendship

Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Confrontation between Geoeconomics and Geopolitical Ambitions

Ali Valigholizadeh
Assistant Professor of Political Geography at University of Maragheh & Researcher of International and Geopolitical Issues

Russia is the geopolitical heir to the former Soviet Union. During recent years and under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin the country has tried to take strategic advantage of its energy resources as an influential foreign policy tool. As a result of that policy, the country has been not only able to improve its economic conditions and introduce effective political and military reforms, but also to take long strides toward regaining its position as a world leader. On the opposite, [Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdogan has taken a totally revolutionary move in order to organize the modern economy of Turkey and turn the country into a regional power and global player. The diplomatic cordiality between Putin and Erdogan, which is the result of similar political and economic experiences of the two countries, is the result of these common experiences. These two leaders have so far met and conferred 30 times which is by itself a high political record in the field of international diplomacy. In the meantime, Erdogan’s meetings with other top global leaders have been reported at 23 with [the US President Barack] Obama, 17 with [the German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, 23 with [the former Italian Prime Minister Silvio] Berlusconi, and 23 with [Azerbaijan’s President Ilham] Aliyev. In other words, during his political life, Erdogan has had the highest number of diplomatic meetings and negotiations with Putin.

The last meeting between the two leaders, however, happened on December 3, 2012, during Putin’s visit to Istanbul and was, of course, of special international importance. Putin was supposed to visit Istanbul a few months earlier, but the diplomatic visit was apparently postponed as a result of Putin’s health problems. Of course, many analysts maintained that the delay was, in fact, Moscow’s reaction to Ankara’s reluctance to explain to the Russians about the reason behind its decision to ground a Russian plane bound for Syria and subsequent confiscation of its cargo. The incident led to political disputes which were reflected in both sides’ media. Therefore, when such an important diplomatic visit took place after a few months of delay, many analysts expected tense remarks from both sides. What was actually published by the mass media, however, was indicative of a totally different situation.

Relations between Russians and Turks are very complicated in nature. Since a very long time ago; that is, from the time when the Russian and Ottoman empires swayed geopolitical influence over huge parts of the geographical expanse of Eurasia, the two countries were engaged in intense geopolitical rivalries. Therefore, relations between Russians and Turks were determined by geopolitical ambitions of the two nations in such strategic regions as the Black Sea and Caucasus. The main reason behind those ambitions should be sought in the geopolitical strategy adopted by the Russians in order to create a geostrategic corridor through which they would have direct access to free international waters. On the opposite, the geopolitical strategy of the Turks has been almost similar; that is, to have a geostrategic corridor for the direct access to the Central Asia (Turkistan). Following the disintegration of the former Soviet Union, the Russians withdrew from the heartland of Asia which was followed by creation of a geopolitical void in this part of Eurasia that is of special geostrategic importance to both sides. However, that situation did not last long and geopolitical ambitions came to life again. Later on, according to new geopolitical equations of the region, Russia and Turkey, respectively, under the leadership of Putin and Erdogan (which marked a golden era in bilateral relations between Ankara and Moscow), decided to reduce those strategic ambitions which would increase tension between the two sides. As a result, the two countries reached a kind of geopolitical coexistence while keeping up their geoeconomic rivalry in line with either side’s geopolitical interest.

Many analysts believe that although the recent meeting between Putin and Erdogan in Istanbul was part of the third meeting of the two countries’ high cooperation council, the overall atmosphere in the meeting was overshadowed by geopolitical ambitions of the two sides. This time, however, the root cause for the existence of such a Gordian knot in the geopolitical relations between Ankara and Moscow should be sought in the geographical expanse of the Middle East. This complicated knot is also directly related to revolutionary, political, and geopolitical developments in the Arab world. The latter consists of very complicated developments whose new geostrategic pulse will be beating in Syria.

It goes without saying that Russians and Turks hold different viewpoints on the ongoing developments in Turkey. In geopolitical terms, Syria is of special significance to Russians. Russia runs a marine base along the Mediterranean coast in the Syrian city of Tartus which is of special importance to Moscow’s naval fleet. Having this base is a very significant strategic advantage for the Russians, which allows them to be physically present at sensitive geopolitical locations in the Mediterranean region as well as close to major communication, trade and economic routes which connect Europe, Asia and Africa. In other words, this is a geographical expanse which in the light of new developments and movements, especially in the field of energy, is even potentially capable of emerging as a substitute to the Persian Gulf. The same geographical expanse is also of high import to the Turks. In other words, if this geographical region is a major arena for rivalries between Russians and Americans, for Turks it is also of high importance to curbing the influence of Iran. It has been especially more so after creation of a Shiite strategic corridor for the Iranian government due to developments in the political system of Iraq, including entry and exit of American troops and empowerment of Shia groups in regional countries, which enables Tehran to have direct access to free waters of the Mediterranean. The Turks also believe that in view of new religious strategic orientations on the political chessboard of the Middle East and in the light of the ongoing crisis in Syria, this geographical expanse provides them with the best choice to get out of their geopolitical isolation by getting them across the wall of Shia crescent and letting them to directly reach out to the Sunni world.

Therefore, it goes without saying that efforts to change the political system in Syria are in line with political, geopolitical, and strategic tendencies of Turks, Arabs and the Western countries. They are aimed at creating a geopolitical gap in the strategic depth of Iran and to cut strategic arm of the Russians in this part of the world, especially in the Arab world. Therefore, there are several issues right now which have emerged as a very big political challenge in relations between Russians and Turks. They include the type and nature of the current political and even geopolitical developments in this country (Syria) and the subsequent political moves of the Turks which are also in line with Washington’s policies, especially deployment of Patriot missiles along the common border between Turkey and Syria. This issue had cast a heavy shadow on the recent meeting between Putin and Erdogan. It clearly proved that despite common concerns about these developments, the two countries have basic differences when it comes to proposing solutions for changing the political structure in Syria. These developments, many political analysts believe, directly target national and strategic interests of both Russians and Turks. As a result, they have somehow pitted these two countries against each other and have aroused tension-laden geopolitical ambitions of both of them.

In view of the above facts, the recent meeting between Putin and Erdogan was of a different type. The meeting was a major success in the field of economic and political diplomacy between the two sides, which depicted a clear picture of the confrontation between geoeconomic realities and the two countries’ geopolitical ambitions. During the meeting, Ankara and Moscow signed 11 trade and economic agreements. A cursory glance at trade and economic relations between the two sides clearly proves that these relations have taken an unprecedented upturn in the past decade after Putin and Erdogan came to office, respectively, in Moscow and Ankara. At present, Turkey is the second biggest trade partner of Russia and, vice versa, Russia is the second biggest trade partner of Turkey. As a result of the upsurge, the volume of trade exchanges between the two countries has increased to about 35 billion dollars in the past few years and the figure is expected to hit about 100 billion dollars as a result of common economic views of Putin and Erdogan. This development proves that the two countries are determined to further bolster strategic relations while strategic differences are still in place.

The content of talks between Putin and Erdogan in their latest meeting clearly proves the two sides’ decision to deepen and bolster their interests within a totally geoeconomic framework. This goal is going to be achieved through economic, trade, cultural, scientific and technical conduits, especially through the exchange of goods and energy, banking activities, as well as various kinds of contracts and tourism cooperation. Of course, an analysis of both sides’ geopolitical interests will show that such a decision made by the two countries is an outcome of geopolitical forces. In other words, Putin is quite aware of the importance and role of the Turks in future geopolitical equations of the Islamic world, especially in the Middle East, and is also aware of their plans to make the geographical expanse of Anatolia a crossroads for energy transfer. Turkey is also planning to play a special role in future power equations of the region and even the world by swaying influence on this totally geostrategic corridor as a strategic ally of Washington. On the other hand, Erdogan is also clearly aware that through geoeconomic lenience he would be even able to overcome geopolitical ambitions of Russians in the heartland of Asia.

At the same time, economic agreements reached by the two sides following the meeting was so attractive to certain political circles that despite profound differences which exist between them about the best resolution to the Syria crisis, some analysts alleged that the meeting was, in fact, “Putin’s deal on the head of [the Syrian President Bashar] Assad.” Now, in view of the general atmosphere governing regional political currents, we will be certainly witnessing the aftershocks of the aforesaid agreements in the near future.

Key Words: Putin-Erdogan Friendship, Geoeconomics and Geopolitical Ambition, Syria, National and Strategic Interests, Valigholizadeh

More By Ali Valigholizadeh:

*Palestine’s Historical, Prestigious, and Geopolitical Smile: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Palestine-s-Historical-Prestigious-and-Geopolitical-Smile.htm

*The Fire beneath Karabakh’s Fault Lines: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/The_Fire_beneath_Karabakh’s_Fault_Lines.htm

*Iran Threat Is a Tactic: Main Goal Is to Checkmate Syria: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran_Threat_Is_a_Tactic_Main_Goal_Is_to_Checkmate_Syria.htm

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