The Tomato Truce with Turkey

The world is no doubt pleased to hear that the tomato war between Russia and Turkey is just about over. Russian sanctions on the importation of Turkish tomatoes began on 1 January 2016, following the Turkish shoot-down of a Su-24 fighter bomber on or within the Turkish frontier the previous November. And the shoot-down came about as a consequence of Putin’s attempt to save Assad from ISIS, whom the Turks had been aiding and abetting. The tomato war has cost Turkish producers something of the order of $2 million. When Putin met Erdogan earlier this year they were unable to settle their differences. Relations are evidently now on firmer footing.

Yet commentary in the Russian press suggests that Moscow has little confidence in sustaining stability in its relations with Ankara. In attempting to settle postwar Syria at meetings in Astana, Kazakhstan, along with the Iranians, the Russians finally secured a tentative settlement last month. But that is coming unstuck because the Kurds made a bid for independence. This precipitated an Iraqi attack on the Kurds, mentioned in a previous blog. There I noted that the Russian attitude was one of casual indifference both to the Kurdish declaration of independence and the Iraqi action to suppress it. However, the Turks have also now gone into the area of northern Syria policed under the Astana agreement by Russian servicemen who now find themselves in line of fire.

The fact is that Russia is finding it no easier to deal with Turkey than anyone else. The enticing vision of splitting off Turkey from NATO to complement the resurrection of Assad’s Syria has proved a mirage. When Erdogan was trying to get re-elected by Turks resident in Germany, he indelicately stepped on Chancellor Merkel’s toes by interfering in German domestic affairs in a manner that most viewed as insulting. He lambasted the EU for not following through on promises to admit Turkey to the Union in spite of the fact that human rights in Turkey are notional rather than real. On a visit to Washington DC he was caught on camera apparently ordering his ‘bodyguards’ to attack peaceful demonstrators in full public view. And he insists that the Americans, his allies, deport someone he views as responsible for the coup attempted against him not long ago.

In sum, Erdogan does not have a foreign policy. He has a domestic policy that has foreign policy consequences, most of which are disastrous for Turkish interests, however conceived.

It will be interesting to see how far Russia is prepared to go in appeasing him beyond restoring the tomato market. But Russian press coverage does not indicate that Kremlin forebearance is unlimited (Vladimir Mukhin, ‘Turtsiya pristupila k okkupatsii chasti Sirii’, Nezavisimaya gazeta, 27 October 2017; and Timur Akhmetov, ‘Turtsiya riskuet okazat’sya v izolyatsii’, ibid.)