A few days ago, after visiting a local Chinese restaurant, I received an ominous message from a fortune cookie: ‘An unexpected friendship will turn out to be permanent.’ Of course, I interpreted the prediction as applying to me, despite the fact that it is not specified. However in an unexpected twist in the tale of modern international politics, the anonymous writer may have for once made a successful foretelling. A few days ago, Turkey’s foreign minister announced deepened defensive cooperation with Russia, establishing a joint military and intelligence mechanism with their former foes.
It was only last year when Turkey and Russia were at each other’s throats after the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish forces. More recently, Erdogan began to consciously push for improved relations by acknowledging and apologising for this action – a topic that I have previously written about-. This new change however is a massive leap forward for relations between the two countries, so what changed?
At their heart, modern Turkey and Russia are incredibly similar states. Both ruled by strong men with dictatorial ambitions who are adored by their people. Both have been clamping down on democracy and promoting nationalist (and sometimes religious) rhetoric in order to legitimise their order. Both states have ambitious plans for expansion; it was this that had previously held them apart. In regions such as the black sea, the Caucuses, and Syria, both Russia and Turkey seek to exert influence. This is where the fortune cookie prediction begins to fall down – though the two powers may be closer for now, the pair may split apart again should this friction continue.
What really bought the two countries closer together was the recent coup in Turkey. The leadership styles of Putin and Erdogan are very similar, and following Erdogan’s brush with death, Putin has only become more paranoid. Russia was first to attempt to contact Erdogan following the coup, and in the first week of August the two leaders met for discussions. Putin understands that should Erdogan fall, the same problems will likely lead to his own demise.
Putin has recently established his own National Guard within Russia, lead by his former personal bodyguard. This new military body will answer only to the President, and its creation at this time is no accident. A coup conducted by the military could only be defeated with the aid of a competent security force that remains loyal to the government, which this new National Guard provides. Putin has also been conducting major purges that echo those of Erdogan, and that have included many of his former allies. This clearly shows us that Putin continues the age-old Russian paranoia that has afflicted so many leaders.
This new National Guard is also expected to be out on the streets during the next Presidential election, to ‘protect’ civilians. This clearly shows us that Putin is preparing to protect himself from the citizens who are currently so devoted to him. In the event of mass protests against his rule –that would likely be supported by the military, should the situation prove truly dire-, the National Guard will be on hand to ‘restore order’.
Erdogan has yet to announce the creation of a similar body within Turkey, but many expect this to happen sooner or later. As purges of the military and civil service continue, opposition to such an act would become almost non-existent.
My burning inner desire for poetic justice has me imagining an ‘Et tu Victor?’ moment that will bring Putin crashing down –with Erdogan following suit- and return true democracy to the eastern fringes of Europe. The likelihood of this however is slim. Approval ratings for both Putin and Erdogan continue to be sky high, and it does not look like there is anyone left within Russia and Turkey to oppose these new pseudo-dictators.
Putin and Erdogan are men with similar aims in similar situations. Sooner or later the two would have seen these likenesses and moved closer together. How long will this friendship last? As I previously stated, despite the chemistry between the two leaders, the geopolitical ambitions of both states will lead to conflict eventually. The two dictators have signed a non-aggression pact. There is historical precedent for this going swimmingly. However, since the accuracy of fortune cookies in predicting the mood of international politics is questionable, the only thing we can really do at this point is wait and see.