July 11, 2017
Vladimir Putin has developed close relations with the leaders of Turkey and Japan in spite of continued policy differences and historic difficulties. This is the key to understanding how Putin’s relationship with Donald Trump could develop.
Over the years, Russia has fought more wars against Turkey than any other country, even more than Poland. Likewise, between 1904 and 1905 Russia fought a war with Japan whose devastating outcome for Russia lead to a destabilising revolution at home. Russia’s relations with Japan did not get much better as the century rolled on. The Soviet Union was on the opposite side of the Second World War vis-a-vis Japan and territorial disputes over the Kuril Islands remain unresolved into the 21st century.
Turkey and Japan’s policies have not suddenly become pro-Russian in recent years. In respect of Turkey, there is a strong case to be made that while Turkish political leadership has moved closer to Russia, Turkey’s policies have if anything become more contrary to Russian interests.
This is why the strong personal relationship between Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as well as that with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are important case studies if one is to try and ascertain what might become of the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been the leading political figure in Turkey since 2003, first as Prime Minister and then after 2014 as a strong President. During this time he has developed a close relationship with Vladimir Putin, one based on personal respect, something Erdogan seems to have little of for many other leaders.
This did not stop Turkey from shooting down a Russia jet in 2015 when it allegedly strayed into Turkey airspace for seconds although many independent observers note that it was almost certainly in friendly Syria airspace the entire time.
This was a situation that could have realistically led to war, but because of Putin’s patience, it led to Erdogan personally apologising to Russia for the incident after which he called Russia a “friend and strategic partner”. This is even more astounding as it came from a man who remains among the most unapologetic world leaders in recent history.
In many ways, the personal relationship between Putin and Erdogan has grown stronger since then. Even as Turkey continues to back jihadist groups in Syria, the personal relationship between Putin and Erdogan has allowed Russo-Turkish relations to strengthen in many other areas. This close relationship has also helped to draw Turkey closer to Iran. The door which first opened this was Russia inviting both Iran and Turkey to form the Astana Group for peace in Syria.
Likewise, the Kuril Islands dispute between Russia and Japan has long been a barrier to good bilateral relations between Moscow and Tokyo.
However, under Prime Minister Abe who has been in power since 2012 (after a brief period in power from 2006 to 2007), Japan and Russia have agreed to work cooperatively and through dialogue over the dispute with both sides renouncing violence and unilateralism.
Japan still views many issues totally differently from Russia, including the situation on the Korean peninsula, but Abe and Putin’s close personal relationship has led to an unexpected turn for the better in Russo-Japanese relations. Indeed, Abe was among the first world leaders to visit with a newly elected President Trump and he told his American ally that having good relations with Russia and its President is both essential and a desirable thing.
Vladimir Putin is capable of fostering good personal relations with leaders whose official policies often remain at odds with Russian interests, something which is something of a masterful achievement in bilateral diplomacy.
Russia is unique in that it has close allies (China, Belarus), traditional allies and partners (India, Syria, Vietnam, Cuba, Serbia, Palestine, Greece, Cyprus, newly consecrated partners re-established partnerships (Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Venezuela, Philippines) and nations that Russia speaks to with ease in spite of apparent ideological differences (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Israel, Germany).
In reality, Russia has only one declared enemy in the world and that happens to be the world’s most violent, unstable, illegitimate and at times comical regime, that in Kiev. This shouldn’t be a surprise as this regime was created for the purpose of being Russia’s enemy.
For all the troubles the EU and US have caused Russia, Russia still refers to them as ‘partners’ and this patience seems to be paying off. Germany and her allies have said no to sanctions from the US which would hurt Russo-German cooperation on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and under Donald Trump, the US is no longer led by a leader with a pathological hatred of Russia as Obama appeared to have.
During the G20, Putin remarked that while US policy has not changed dramatically under the leadership of Donald Trump, that nevertheless, he is a person Putin can work with.
The Russian President stated,
“As regards personal relations, I believe that they have been established. This is how I see it: Mr Trump’s television image is very different from the real person; he is a very down to earth and direct person, and he has an absolutely adequate attitude towards the person he is talking with; he analyses things pretty fast and answers the questions he is asked or new ones that arise in the course of the discussion. So I think that if we build our relations in the vein of our yesterday’s meeting, there are good reasons to believe that we will be able to revive, at least partially, the level of interaction that we need”.
This is official confirmation that because of Donald Trump, the US has been moved from Russia’s basket of disagreeables into something that could realistically approach Russia’s relationship with Erdogan’s Turkey and Abe’s Japan. This is a giant step in a positive direction. Donald Trump offers even more hope because unlike any Turkish or Japanese leader who would necessarily carry some historically anti-Russian baggage, Trump seems not only unmoved by the recent trend of Russophobia, but he seems to admire much about Russia’s conservative outlook, Christian heritage and strong leadership, three things Trump is keen to associate himself with in the US.
Putin once admitted that the “men in black suits” run America, a euphemism for the deep state, but it increasingly seems that Trump will at least sometimes put up a fight with them meaning that there is a small but crucial potential for the US under Trump to become slightly more elevated in terms of relations with Russia vis-a-vis that of Erodgan’s Turkey and Abe’s Japan.
The deep state sees controlling and meddling in Russia’s natural sphere of influence as a crucial American ‘red line’, but Donald Trump seems to see things differently. Even if Trump remains compromised in this respect for the foreseeable future, the world is still in better shape than it was under Obama, let alone better than it would be under Hillary Clinton whose perverse combination of avarice and fanaticism could have easily covered the world in blood and perhaps also nuclear fallout.