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Turkey crisis tests Putin's powers in global game with US

[MOSCOW] Turkey's political conflict with the US and the crisis engulfing its currency offer a golden opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin to try to pry a key geopolitical swing state away from its western allies. It may not be that simple.

While Mr Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have repaired relations that plunged into crisis when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet in 2015, the Kremlin leader can offer little to ease Ankara's economic pain or to persuade the owner of North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) second-largest army to abandon the military alliance for closer ties with Moscow.

"Relations with Turkey are quite constructive today. But there's nothing permanent in politics, anything can change," said Frants Klintsevich, a member of the defence and security committee in Russia's upper house of parliament. "We're not building illusions along with these relations."

Straddling Europe and Asia, Turkey was a vital bulwark of NATO against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. It hosts an important US airbase at Incirlik and offers a gateway to the Black Sea for American warships. Amid confrontation with Washington that's sparked unprecedented US sanctions against Ankara, Mr Erdogan warned on Saturday that the decades-long alliance is at risk and that Turkey "may start looking for new friends and allies."

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Putin, Erdogan

As the lira crisis intensified, Mr Erdogan spoke to Mr Putin by phone on Friday, mainly about "trade and economic cooperation," according to the Kremlin. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov completed a two-day visit to Turkey on Tuesday that included discussions on the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine as well as on economic projects including the Turkish Stream gas pipeline and the US$20 billion Akkuyu nuclear power plant that Rosatom is building.

"We are at a turning point, without exaggeration, in world history" from dominance by a single power toward a multipolar environment and "we talked about this a lot," Mr Lavrov said Tuesday after meeting his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara. The "illegitimate" sanctions imposed on Russia and Turkey are part of US attempts to "dominate everywhere and in everything," he said.

Mr Putin told Mr Erdogan that Russia and Turkey "are on the same page" at talks last month, when he highlighted their cooperation in Syria. They agreed last year to lift most trade sanctions imposed after Mr Putin accused Turkey of a "stab in the back" when its air force downed the Russian warplane near the Syrian border. Restrictions remain on imports of Turkish tomatoes that were worth a quarter-billion dollars a year.

Turkey's economic vulnerability means US President Donald Trump "will probably win this time," Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center said on Twitter. "Erdogan won't leave NATO. However, Mr Trump's ham-fisted approach to allies will have major consequences in reshaping world order."

The 2016 coup attempt against Mr Erdogan turbo-charged efforts to rebuild relations with Moscow after the Turkish leader faced strong criticism from the US and other NATO allies for a crackdown on tens of thousands of alleged political opponents. By contrast, Turkey said Russia offered "unconditional support."

Mr Trump's decision this month to impose sanctions against Turkey, and to double steel and aluminum tariffs, over the detention of an evangelical American preacher further inflamed tensions. So, too, did a warning from Washington that relations will be "very difficult to repair" if Mr Erdogan takes delivery of an advanced S-400 missile-defence system from Russia.

Mr Erdogan has touted Russia as among the alternatives available to Turkey amid the crisis with the US. He repeatedly refers to Putin as "my friend," and expressed gratitude to Russia for accelerating the sale of the S-400.

‘Undermine' NATO

While Russia isn't counting on Turkey leaving NATO, "of course we'll play up the differences between Erdogan and the US," said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign-policy analyst in Moscow and a former Russian diplomat. "It serves our interests better to have an offended Turkey inside NATO to undermine the alliance's capabilities."

After the rouble's worst week since the 2015 oil crash amid mounting risks of crippling US sanctions over alleged election meddling, Russia's hardly in a good position to help Turkey as Mr Putin tries to jumpstart the economy that's emerging from recession. "No requests have been received" from Mr Erdogan for economic help, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call Monday.

Even so, Turkey's almost certain to need a bailout and it would be a huge step toward moving Ankara's "financial, economic, political, and yes, military reorientation eastwards" if aid came from its "new friends" Russia or China, Michael Every, senior Asia-Pacific strategist at Rabobank said in a report. "These chances come along once every few generations," he said.

"Russia isn't going to bail out Turkey," which must solve its own economic problems, said Elena Suponina, a Middle East scholar in Moscow. "Russia's task is not to save Turkey but to maintain normal, healthy relations with it."

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