Henry Kissinger reminds us that in international relations, states do not have permanent friends or enemies, only interests. That lesson reverberated Tuesday in St. Petersburg, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan let bygones be bygones with his "dear friend, the esteemed Vladimir" in an ironic (and somewhat excessive) display of diplomatic reconciliation.
Over the course of only seven months, Turkey and Russia have gone from ranking each other as public enemy No. 1 to catching up as old friends. Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin seem to be treating the November 2015 shootdown of a Russian Su-24 by Turkish F-16s and the feuding that followed as an anomaly in an otherwise chummy relationship. As Putin said, "Our priority is to bring our relations back to pre-jet crisis level" — basically to get past this ugly episode and have everything go back to normal.
If only it were that easy. Turkey and Russia were already on an inevitable collision course before Turkey shot down the Russian fighter in Syria. Russia, on the one hand, has been working for years to preserve a sphere of influence against Western encroachment, and it showed through its military campaigns in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 that it was ready to apply force when necessary to keep its neighbors in line and its bigger adversaries at bay. But those Russian actions only hardened U.S. resolve to defend allies in the Russian periphery, thereby deepening the standoff between Washington and Moscow. To get Washington to take its demands seriously, Russia needed to position itself as both a spoiler and a mediator in a conflict consuming the United States’ attention. First that conflict was Iran, but once the United States negotiated its way to the Iran nuclear deal, Russia shifted its focus to Syria.
Meanwhile, power vacuums were spreading across the Middle East, gradually pulling Turkey to act beyond its borders. As the civil war in Syria persisted, Turkey was both concerned about the instability and the spread of Kurdish separatism and enticed by the opportunity to reshape the Levant under Sunni control and Turkish tutelage. Just as Russia had decided to deepen its involvement in Syria, the Turkish government was making plans to step in to deal with the growing Kurdish and Islamic State threat. Turkey and Russia, when both are on a resurgent path, have overlapping spheres of influence in the Black Sea region, parts of the Middle East, the Caucasus and Central Asia. At this particular geopolitical juncture, the Middle East was where Turkey and Russia collided. And as much as the United States benefited from Turkey being at odds with Russia and thus more committed to NATO at the time, the White House decided it was better off facilitating a rapprochement between Moscow and Ankara if it meant reducing the risk of another major accidental collision on the Syrian battlefield that could draw in the United States.
Putin and Erdogan are using an array of economic promises to show the world that Turkish-Russian relations are restored and all is well, but nothing has actually changed in the broader geopolitical dynamic to resolve the underlying friction between their countries. This is likely why Putin and Erdogan held a press conference after discussing the lifting of trade bans, restoration of tourist traffic and resumption of energy cooperation and before getting into the issue of Syria. The economic cooperation is the easy part. Both Russia and Turkey benefit from doing business with each other. Turkey cannot live without Russian natural gas, and Russia badly wants an alternative supply route to Europe, such as Turkish Stream, that circumvents problematic countries such as Ukraine. Even if there are hang-ups over pricing discounts and regulations, as big projects always entail, there is little cost to Turkey and Erdogan in promoting such economic cooperation at the highest level.
Syria, however, is an area where Russia and Turkey are unavoidably and diametrically opposed. The ongoing battle in Aleppo is a case in point. Putin and Erdogan can discuss their desire for a peace settlement in Syria, but the two main parties to the negotiation — Turkish-backed Sunni rebels and Russian-backed Alawite-led government forces — are still grappling over the city, a strategic piece of territory. Neither side will come seriously to the negotiating table unless they have Aleppo firmly in their grasp. And from the look of the fighting that has punctuated the past month in Aleppo — the loyalist siege, rebel offensive and loyalist counteroffensive — we are nowhere near a point where either side can claim control.
Russia will continue to use the Syrian standoff against Turkey even as Putin cooperates with Erdogan. Russia wants to ensure that Turkey — which is central to any NATO decision to build up forces in the Black Sea and is also a significant player in the Caucasus, where Russia is trying to deepen its influence through the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute — steers clear of Russia as much as possible. With Turkey’s priorities concentrated in Syria, Moscow can keep Turkey on the hook by continuing to support Kurdish separatists and by complicating any Turkish military designs for Syria through Russia's presence on the battlefield. In the wake of Turkey’s failed coup attempt, Putin, a master in internal security, can also hold out the benefits of intelligence sharing and pass on useful techniques to coup-proof Erdogan’s government as a way to keep Ankara close.
Putin and Erdogan are two strongmen with grand geopolitical ambitions. They are not in the business of making friends; they are dedicated to the pursuit of their national interests. Rest assured, there will be more points down the line where Turkish and Russian national interests collide.