Almost Heaven

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On April 8, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan met in Moscow. The meeting comes as Russia is seeking to increase trade with Turkey, and Ankara has agreed to acquire Russia’s S-400 air defense system. The larger picture is that Moscow and Ankara are now becoming a key alliance that will shape the Middle East in the years to come. This comes as Washington says Turkey’s S-400 deal threatens relations with the US.

In a statement put out by Russia, the in-depth exchange between Putin and Erdogan is sketched out. It included the signing of an agreement between the Russian Direct Investment Fund and the Turkey Wealth Fund “establishing a Russian-Turkish investment fund with €900 million in joint reserved capital.” Putin said that in 2018, trade had reached almost $26 billion between the two countries. It notes that Russia’s state energy corporation Rosatom is “building Turkey’s first nuclear plant” and that the construction of the TurkStream pipeline and infrastructure is continuing.

The S-400 contract is also on track. “We discussed other current and promising defense cooperation projects as well,” Putin noted. Russia and Turkey have grown increasingly close over shared interests in Turkey. In 2015, the countries almost seemed on the verge of a major crisis after Turkey downed a Russian warplane on the Syrian border. Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov was also assassinated in December 2016 by an off-duty Turkish police officer.

But since then, a Russian-Turkish spring has arrived. Dozens of meetings in 2017 and 2018 – many of them regarding the conflict in Syria – cemented the countries' re-alignment. They met numerous times in Astana to hammer out de-confliction agreements, and then met in Sochi and Geneva. They both shared interests in opposing US policy in Syria. Russia wants the Americans out of Syria, and Turkey is outraged that the US is working with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – which Turkey views as linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

A key to the new Russian-Turkish alliance is Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 air defense system. This would be unprecedented for a NATO country and shows that Turkey is growing very close to Russia. But the reasons for this are not widely understood. Turkey initially ordered the S-400 in December 2017. That was after a year in which Turkey thought it would have better relations under the Trump administration. US President Donald Trump and Erdogan met in May 2017. At the time, Russia had been warmer to the Kurdish groups in Syria, noting that “Syrian and Kurdish armed formations are taking part in combat operations against ISIS and are among the most combat efficient units.” Putin said Moscow would “maintain working contacts with them.”