(Bloomberg) — When Turkey’s military waged an air and artillery blitz that slaughtered dozens of Russian-allied Syrian troops this week in retaliation for an assault that killed seven of its soldiers, Moscow offered barely a murmur of protest.
The worst tensions between Moscow and Ankara since the 2015 downing of a Russian warplane by Turkish fighter jets are testing the marriage of convenience between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan as they jostle for dominance in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean. The Kremlin’s unusually muted response also shows how the balance may have shifted in the delicate relationship between the two presidents.
It continued even as Ankara dismissed arguments that Russia doesn’t control Syrian government forces in the northwestern Idlib province as an “excuse,” and after Erdogan bluntly informed Putin in a phone conversation that Turkey would react “in the harshest way” to any future attacks on its forces.
“It’s hard for Putin to work with Erdogan, who strongly irritates him, but he hasn’t got any choice,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser. “Russia cannot operate in the Middle East if it’s in conflict with Turkey, otherwise it’ll face major problems.”
After centuries of rivalry dating to the Ottoman and Russian empires, Russia and Turkey view their recent partnership as a key tool for achieving strategic goals amid declining U.S. influence in the region. It’s also a source of lucrative energy and arms deals. Yet despite heading the larger power, Putin arguably has fewer means to restrain Erdogan, who can leverage Turkey’s ties with the U.S. to gain room to maneuver with Russia.
The widening rift over Syria, where they back opposing sides but are cooperating to try to halt the war, is matched in Libya. A Turkish military intervention earlier this year frustrated a Russian-backed military leader’s drive to capture the Libyan capital, Tripoli.
Putin is biting his tongue even as Erdogan on Wednesday issued an ultimatum to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to pull back forces fighting in Idlib with Russian air support by the end of this month.
“We would not want to see our strategic relationship with Russia deteriorate over Syria,” said a senior Turkish official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But of course, our priority is our own national interests.”
Turkey’s relationship with Russia has reached its most difficult point in years and appears to be getting worse, another senior Turkish official said.
Putin and Erdogan may meet to discuss the situation in Idlib though no date has been set yet, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Thursday.
The increase in tensions follows the remarkable rapprochement since relations plunged into crisis over the downing of the Russian warplane near the Syrian border. The 2016 coup attempt against Erdogan triggered efforts to restore ties after Turkey heaped praise on Russia for its support amid criticism of Ankara from the U.S. and allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Putin seized the opportunity to woo Erdogan with the sale of advanced air-defense missile systems that the U.S. refused to supply to its ally on the terms Turkey demanded, driving a wedge between the nations with NATO’s two largest armies. He followed up by offering to sell Erdogan Russia’s latest stealth fighter jets after the U.S. suspended Turkey from its F-35 program as punishment for buying the S-400 missile system.
Turkey has lost confidence in the U.S. and doesn’t fully trust Russia, though the relationship with Moscow enables Ankara to assert a more independent foreign policy, according to a third senior Turkish official. The S-400 deal opened the way for cooperation with Russia on missile technology in a similar way to the relationship they’ve developed on nuclear energy, he said.
Russia is determined to maintain its partnership with Turkey after the breakthrough with the $2.5 billion contract to supply the S-400, a senior Russian official said. It’s hugely important for Russian security policy to have a key NATO member defying the U.S., the official said.
Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear plant at a cost of $20 billion. It opened the TurkStream pipeline last month to carry natural gas under the Black Sea to Turkey and several countries in southeastern Europe, reducing Moscow’s dependence on Ukraine’s network. Turkey is currently among the top three buyers of Russian gas.
Still, the potential for conflict is increasing, with Turkey using its military toehold in Idlib to push back against the bid by Assad’s forces to recover the only part of Syria outside government control apart from the oil-rich northeast. Turkish military observers are stationed in the area as part of a deal on a Syria buffer zone that Erdogan and Putin struck in October.
Turkey says it fears the Syrian assault may trigger a fresh exodus of refugees across its border from Idlib, which is largely held by fighters allied to al-Qaida and rebels backed by Ankara. Erdogan has urged Russia to stay out of the fray, while the Kremlin has condemned what it says is “the continued activity of terrorist groups” in the province.
Turkey has sought “to manage a difficult situation together with Russia” in Idlib, said Mesut Hakki Casin, a law professor at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University who is also a member of the security and foreign policy board that advises Erdogan. “But if the interests of both countries clash then none of them can emerge as a winner.”
Turkey “wants to avoid attention switching from Idlib to the northeast” of Syria where it maintains a buffer zone to keep Kurdish forces away from its border, said Andrey Baklanov, a former senior Russian diplomat in the Middle East who’s an expert at the Valdai discussion club. “Our patience and that of the Syrians will snap at a certain point.”
Similar tensions are building in Libya. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained in an interview to the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta published Tuesday that hundreds of militants from Idlib have joined the conflict, after Turkey said it would send Syrian rebels to shore up the United Nations-recognized administration of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj. Turkish soldiers are also training forces loyal to Sarraj.
Lined up against the Turkey-backed forces are hundreds of mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner security contractor, which is controlled by Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin. They’ve been hired to support eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar’s now-stalled offensive on Tripoli, according to Western officials and people close to the organization.
In their phone call Tuesday, Putin and Erdogan urged the warring parties in Libya to comply with a cease-fire negotiated by Russia and Turkey last month, and also agreed to “strengthen the coordination” of Russian and Turkish activities in Syria, according to a Kremlin statement.
While negotiations on disputes between Russian and Turkish leaders are characterized by mistrust, “the idea that countries should either be partners on every single front or not at all is an outdated one,” said Baklanov.
Selcan Hacaoglu and Ilya Arkhipov contributed to tis report.