Jerri-Lynn here: Erdogan met Putin in Moscow last week but as Helmer explains, failed to achieve any rapprochement in its relations with Russia, despite widespread media claims to the contrary. Both countries remain completely at odds on Syria policy. Turkey continues to turn a deaf ear to wider Russian security concerns: e.g., guaranteeing free sea passage through the so-called Turkish straits, between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean, and blocking any expansion of NATO or enemy operations that could hinder such access.
John Helmer is the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. He served in Jimmy Carter’s White House and then with the Greek Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou in Athens. Originally published at The Real News Network.
SHARMINI PERIES, EXECUTIVE EDITOR, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. On Tuesday, August 9, President Putin of Russia, and President Erdogan of Turkey met in Saint Petersburg to repair relations that had become frayed after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet near the Syrian-Turkish border last November. Following this incident, Russia had imposed sanctions on Turkey, and trade and tourism were seriously affected. Erdogan later apologized to the families of the military men involved in the crash.
The meeting was set also after July 15 coup attempt against President Erdogan. President Putin was the first international leader to express support for Erdogan and Erdogan seemed to suspect the US of having a hand against him in this coup de e’tat. Speculation was rife that perhaps Erdogan was ready to switch sides from his alliance to the West, to a closer relationship with Russia.
However, a major stumbling block remains, which is the two countries dramatically opposed positions in regard to Syria. Now joining me to discuss all of this is John Helmer. John is the longest continuously foreign corresponder in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of national and commercial ties. Thank you so much for joining us John.
HELMER: Thank you Sharmini.
PERIES: So John, give us a bit of a take on what exactly happened at this meeting. I know you are opposed to what the western press has been reporting.
HELMER: I wouldn’t say I oppose, I simply know what happened and the western press is completely misleading itself as to what happened. A three letter word, it was a dud. It was a failure, total failure on the part of the Turkish side to achieve any sign of a rapprochement or an improvement in relations with Russia.
To give you an idea of just how bad it was, the Russia Foreign Ministry has yet to put on its website any acknowledgement that during Tuesday, the foreign minister of Russia met a Turk. Instead, the only things indicated of importance by the Foreign Ministry of Russia that occurred on Tuesday was a telephone call between Foreign Minister Lavrov and the German Foreign Minister, Mister Steinmeier.
So, what happened was, let me try and say it quickly for you, a lot of expectations built up by the Turks for Washington and Berlin to take care and to be more supportive of Mr. Erdogan as he tries to continue fighting his coup in Turkey, with hundreds if not thousands, if not a hundred thousands of arrests, purges of the military, the state bureaucracy and so forth, and a total reconstruction of political power in that country.
The coup in Turkey did not end on July the 16. It is continuing, and Erdogan needs to reinforce his power domestically, he needs to begin to promise to deliver economic payoffs to his policies, when the major economic constituencies of the country, the farmers, the exporters, the energy distributers and so forth, can only see weakness in their currency, weakness in their financial balance sheets, and so on.
So Erdogan promises big, he’s also trying to achieve more bribery from the European Union to stop refugee flows, he tries to attract bribes from the United States by making a conspiracy theory of US intervention in his country, et cetera, et cetera. And this idea that there would be a complete change in Turkish strategic alliance is nonsense, it was a Turkish bluff and the rug dealer’s had the rug pulled from underneath him by himself.
He showed up in Moscow–sorry, go on.
PERIES: Ok. And, John, give us a sense of what Russia’s interests are in this meeting. I mean, although it was downplayed, they did have the meeting with Erdogan, and they were the first to acknowledge and provide some support to Erdogan after the coup. We know that–
HELMER: –No support. No, no, that’s not quite right. Russian policy is for stability on its borders, its neighbors. Russia does not consider its national interests, its security interests, its border stability, to be advanced if there are coups and revolutions in countries around the neighborhood, whether that’s Ukraine, the US did sponsor a coup in Kiev in February 2014, whether it’s in Iran, whether it’s in North Korea, whether it’s in China, or whether it’s in Turkey. So the Russian position was, stability in the neighborhood. The Russian position was Mr. Erdogan is the elected, constitutional leader of that country, and what was happening was an attempt to kill him, overthrow him, so Russia’s position was stability in the neighborhood. That was the Russian position. It was stated rather quicker than Mr. Kerry was capable of stating it when he was trying to put some money on whoever was the winner and wasn’t sure who would be the winner.
But the Russian position is really simple. It’s good neighbor policy if you like, but let me try and make it quick and short for you. First, Turkey should stop supporting and fueling and providing safe haven and supplies for groups that threaten Russia to the North, threaten Syria to the south. Threaten Iraq to the east. That means and end to support for ISIS, an end to support for the Chechen Rebellion in the Russian Caucasus. It means an end to support for Crimean Tatar opposition to Russia. It means an end Turkish support for the war against Armenia. That’s number one. Number two, Russia has always for the last several hundred years, as long as there are ships, and as long as there’s the sea, Russia wants free passage through the so-called Turkish straits, between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Mediterranean. The Turks claim that it’s a territorial war, they often claim that they lost several wars over this. Russia wants to see no expansion of NATO or enemy operations, naval operations, in the Black Sea, facilitated through the Bosphorus, through the Dardanelles, through the Turkish straits, at the behest and at the permission and the encouragement of the Turkish government. Those are security issues, right? No response from Erdogan. In fact, he said at the press conference, we didn’t even talk about Syria, we’ll talk about that a bit later in the afternoon. But as for that meeting, there is no record that anything was said, because as I said before the Russian Foreign Ministry has yet to acknowledge there was such a meeting. More important, on the [crosstalk] morning on the day Erdogan–
PERIES: [interceding] –Now, John, but there was a post-meeting press conference that took place. Both presidents did make a statement. President Putin actually made reference to what you were just talking about, which is that Russia categorically opposed any unconstitutional coup d’etats of this nature. Some interpreted that to be also a reference to Syria and Bashar al-Assad, so there was some official references to this. What then, did they say in the meeting, and what was your take away?
HELMER: Well, let me go back a minute. On the morning of Erdogan’s arrival in Saint Petersburg, there is a 30 minute interview that he gave to Russian state television, to the Tass News Agency, which he made a number of statements which he didn’t repeat in his press conference. He called again for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. He again explicitly referred to support for the Crimean Tatars and their opposition to Crimea’s accession, to the Russian Federation.
Those are two very big no-no’s, negatives. Aggressive remarks to make on the eve of your arrival in Russia, so that there was nothing left to discuss when he got there. Instead there’s a lot of talk about talking.
A lot of talk about talking about the future economic relations between the two countries. The revival of the two gas pipeline projects, the Turkish Stream and South Stream for Gazprom. The revival of the nuclear reactor project, which is Russia’s building at Akkuyu. Talk about reviving investment, talk about improving visa conditions for Turkish workers in Russia.
On none of those things, none of those things was any agreement announced. All the sides did, all the presidents said at their press conference was that they agreed to continue talking. And for all Mr. Erdogan’s dear friend Putin remark he kept making roughly, I timed him, every three to four minutes of the time he’s in front of the camera, nobody believes it. And he didn’t offer anything on which the Russian side could say we’ve reached a new stage.
He did, yes he apologized for the shoot down of the SU24, but he did not offer Turkish compensation for the murdered pilot, Captain Peshkov. It was very clear Russian policy that Turkey should pay compensation, just as it’s been Turkish policy that Israel should pay compensation for the killing of Turkish citizens in the famous vessel incident off the Gaza coast several years ago. Turkey insisted on compensation from Israel. It took years, it’s been achieved. Yet Turkey offers no compensation when Russia has insisted, on little issues, on big issues, Erdogan offered nothing.
PERIES: And John, what now? In terms of moving forward with these two countries who are very pivotal and very strategically located in terms of the Syrian conflict.
HELMER: Well, I wouldn’t say that the direction is forward. From a Greek point of view, there is increasing chaos. From a Greek and Cyprian point of view, there is increasing chaos in Turkey, and around Turkey. And from one point of view, that’s a small positive because it makes the Turkish army less capable of expanding aggressively east, south, or west.
There is not improvement on Turkey’s readiness to reach a solution for the withdrawal of troops from Northern Cyprus, illegally there since the invasion of ’74. There is no sign that Turkey will relent in its support for the overthrow of Syria. There is no sign that Turkey will do anything to remove the Chechen threat to Russia inside Turkey, so we’re going to move sideways.
We’re going to move, we will simply watch and see if Mr. Erdogan himself can survive. But the way he describes his survival is that he’s the democratic leader of Turkey, well that’s true.
He produces these street displays of public support, and at the same time he distrusts his own military forces so much that he not only purges the general, generals staff, he couldn’t bring a military officer in his delegation to Moscow yesterday. Not one military officer does Mr. Erdogan trust enough to bring to the party in Moscow. Sorry, in St. Petersburg. The chief of the Russian General Staff was there but no Turkish counterpart officer.
PERIES: Now, finally, John, do we at this point know what the Russian intelligence knew about the coming coup in Turkey?
HELMER: All we know is telephone intercepts. What we know is all major intelligence organizations follow what happens in Turkey, so they’re all listening to military communications. Some are in the open, some are encrypted. Knowing and listening doesn’t mean that you’re assisting in what’s happening.
I think we said on this program before, the Turks themselves engaged in the push didn’t know what was happening with their own comrades across Istanbul town. So, foreign intelligence services, whether they were the United States or Russian were watching and listening, but I don’t believe controlling, and the situation is right now, everybody continues to sit in their bunkers and watch and listen.
But Mr. Erdogan, if he thought he came to Russia to prove that he’s in charge, proved that he’s not even in charge of his own mouth.
PERIES: All right John, thank you so much for joining us today, and look forward to ongoing reports from you.
HELMER: Thank you very much. Me too.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.