Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a one-day visit to Moscow on the invitation of his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in light of the rising tensions in Syria. While all eyes were fixed on the developments in Idlib and to the east of the Euphrates, and how this could affect the delicate cooperation between Ankara and Moscow through the Astana peace process, the two leaders came together in a show of strength at a significant venue.
In recent years, Putin and Erdogan have met more often than most foreign leaders. This time, they met on the sidelines of an important aviation and space fair, MAKS 2019, where the newest products of the Russian defense industry are being exhibited. Both leaders attended the event’s inauguration ceremony and posed for an image of unity and cordiality. During the fair, Putin introduced the latest developments in Russian aviation and space industries, including the Su-57 and Su-35 fighter jets, Ka-52 attack helicopter, Mi-38 heavy helicopter and Ka-62 medium helicopter. He also underlined that Erdogan was the first foreign leader to see Russia’s “most perfect aircraft.”
With both leaders being aware that their body language counts for a lot, an interesting conversation took place between them. Erdogan, hinting at buying the Su-57 — a cutting-edge fighter plane meant to become Moscow’s alternative to the American F-35 — asked if it was for sale. Putin replied, “You can buy it,” and then both leaders laughed out loud in front of the cameras. The framing of the two leaders in front of a Russian Su-57 was intentional. It was not difficult to understand that this show by the two leaders was a clear and firm message to Western capitals, particularly Washington. This show of strength was not a surprise when considering the tension in Turkish-US relations over Syria and the defense industry.
Although the main reason for Erdogan and Putin to meet was expected to be Syria, the venue for the meeting was quite meaningful and shifted attention to the cooperation between the two countries’ defense industries. After the leaders examined the aircraft, they held a closed-door meeting for more than an hour, followed by a joint news conference.
Two other interesting incidents dominated the meeting. First was the Russian space agency’s offer to Erdogan to send a Turkish astronaut to the International Space Station (ISS). Second was when both leaders, who called each other “dear friend and brother,” enjoyed a selection of vanilla and chocolate ice cream bought by Putin at a local stand. Maxim Suchkov, an expert on Russian affairs, described the meeting by saying: “The ice cream was the only thing Erdogan got for free in Moscow: Other things he had to either pay for, bargain over or concede.”
Needless to say, Turkish-Russian relations are growing in the fields of energy and defense; however, regarding Syria, the two countries still sit on opposite sides of the table. Despite pressure on this relationship emanating from Syria, the pattern of Ankara-Moscow ties is unlikely to change any time soon. That is because a determined pragmatism, mutual energy and defense interests, and the balance of common threats are at the heart of this relationship. The past 10 years, which have seen many ups and downs in their bilateral ties, have made both sides experienced in navigating the pressure waves that could shake this relationship.
Russia, by inviting the leader of a NATO country to MAKS 2019, conveyed a significant message to the world. Erdogan, meanwhile, with his attendance at the opening ceremony of the defense industry fair, once again showed to his NATO allies that Turkey is not without alternatives. This meeting was particularly symbolic as it took place at the same time as the second shipment of the Russian S-400 missile defense system was being delivered to Turkey. Erdogan will once again meet Putin, along with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, at a trilateral summit in Ankara on Sept. 16 as part of the Astana peace process. Needless to say, this upcoming meeting will also be another chance for actions to speak louder than the usual cliched words.