Russia and the US: friends at last?

The former rivals form a politically symbolic alliance over a shared problem: Afghanistan.

The ancient Chinese proverb "The enemy of my enemy is my friend" has been a cornerstone of realist statecraft since the dawn of, well, realist statecraft. For example, Britain formed an alliance with its long-standing enemy, France, in order to counteract the Germans during the First World War. Responding to criticism of his Second World War allegiance to Stalin's Soviet Union, Winston Churchill claimed that "if Hitler invaded hell, I would at least make positive reference to the devil in the House of Commons".

Comparatively, during the cold war, liberal-democratic states often formed alliances with non-communist dictators, such as Mobutu of Zaire. The Soviet Union provided financial assistance to a handful of anti-communist states to strengthen their cold war sphere of influence. The US supported the Afghan mujahedin during the ten-year Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

However, the principle alone may serve as a weak basis for alliance: after the break-up of the Soviet Union some of the mujahedin spawned the Taliban and turned against the United States.

Now, in a twist of fate, a partnership between Russia and the United States is materialising, based on this timeless principle.

Last week, Mikhail Gorbachev declared that, like the Soviet Union 21 years earlier, Nato would not be able to beat the Taliban. The 79-year-old former president claimed that no feasible increase in troop numbers could ever improve the situation for the US, and that Afghanistan is at risk of turning into "another Vietnam".

It seems that the Russians, thus far passive observers of the war raging in their backyard, have decided to contribute their topographical expertise in the area. Ironically, both countries are said to be articulating the definition of the alliance at Nato's Lisbon Summit on 19 November. This has been received with speculative cries in the field of international relations, Foreign Policy dubbing it "Nato 3.0".

Despite the cessation of the cold war, Russia has not extended its hand to the US in this way before. Nonetheless, Russia has not necessarily offered a hand of friendship, and there is speculation that Moscow's concerns are solely interest-fuelled.

It has been widely reported that the Russians agreed to assist the Americans with their operations in Afghanistan because Russia has one of the worst heroin addiction rates in the world. Its two million heroin addicts consume 21 per cent of the world's supply, and Russia blames the severity of the problem on the US's failure to spray poppy fields in Afghanistan.

Last Friday, Moscow announced that a joint narcotics raid with US forces had destroyed four drug laboratories and one tonne of heroin.

This sudden change on the international playing field invites a host of fresh and important questions for foreign policy experts. If Russia and the US achieve their common goal, will the alliance between them survive? Do these former rivals share enough common ground to be considered friends? And what is the true nature of this politically significant alliance?

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue