Editorial, The Wall Street Journal, 10.08.2016
The world doesn’t stop for a U.S. presidential election, and this week Vladimir Putin took another step to enhance Russia’s influence in the region at the expense of the United States. The Kremlin strongman met to repair relations with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a fraught moment in U.S.-Turkish ties.
The two authoritarians staged a make-up session in St. Petersburg Tuesday with Mr. Erdogan calling the Russian a “dear friend” multiple times. Mr. Putin returned the favor, if less gushingly, by calling the Turkish leader a “valued ally.”
The pair had a falling out last year after Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of Bashar Assad. Turkey shot down a Russian plane that had strayed into Turkish air space, leading to name-calling and Russian sanctions on Turkish trade. Mr. Putin demanded an apology, and Mr. Erdogan obliged earlier this year. On Tuesday the pair vowed to restore ties, including all commercial links.
No one plays a mediocre hand better than Mr. Putin, and Mr. Erdogan can help the Russian’s Mideast power play. The Kremlin wants supplies to stop moving across the Turkish border with Syria to the Sunni rebels resisting the Russian-Iran-Assad siege of Aleppo. Mr. Putin would also like to drive a larger wedge between Mr. Erdogan and the U.S. to reduce America’s ability to shape regional events. Over the long term Mr. Putin wants to weaken Turkey’s attachment to NATO, which has been firming up its ability to defend Eastern Europe after Russia’s depredations in Ukraine.
This Putin play comes as Mr. Erdogan and his government are fanning anti-American sentiment in Turkey in the wake of the recent failed military coup. He wants the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who lives in Pennsylvania and who he claims with little evidence masterminded the coup. Mr. Gulen denies any role, and the U.S. has laws that require evidence.
It’s not beyond Mr. Erdogan to use this episode as an excuse to cooperate more closely with Russia or block U.S. anti-Islamic State bombing missions from the NATO base at Incirlik. NATO was concerned enough by the Putin-Erdogan meeting that it issued a highly unusual statement Wednesday praising Turkey’s contributions. “Turkey takes full part in the Alliance’s consensus-based decisions as we confront the biggest security challenges in a generation,” said the statement, adding that the Turks make “substantial contributions” to NATO’s joint military efforts.
All of this show the extent to which the Middle East is up for grabs in the wake of President Obama’s eight-year retreat. His withdrawal from Iraq and abdication in Syria created a vacuum that Mr. Putin is filling to Russia’s strategic benefit. Mr. Obama has responded by bending U.S. policy in Syria further toward Russia’s desires. Such is the diminished U.S. influence that the next U.S. President will inherit.