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story.lead_photo.caption File-In this Tuesday, April 3, 2018 file photo, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan left, and Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, applaud during a welcome ceremony prior to their meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey. Turkish-Russian relations are warming up, prompting worries in the West of a rift in the NATO alliance as Turkish and American officials spar over a detained American pastor. But Turkey may be seeking a more tactical relationship with Russia for now, mindful of the importance of its ties to the West and competing interests in its region. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici, File)

ISTANBUL -- Relations between Turkey and Russia are warming up, prompting worries in the West of a potentially critical rift in the NATO alliance.

President Donald Trump tweeted this month that U.S.-Turkey relations "are not good at this time!" in part because of Turkey's detention of an American pastor, and the president announced tariff increases on the NATO ally, precipitating a nose dive in the Turkish currency. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was on the phone with Russia's Vladimir Putin that same afternoon, when they promised more cooperation in the areas of defense, energy and trade.

Switching partners is becoming a familiar dance for Turkey, which is strategically situated between Asia and Europe and often caught in the geopolitical push and pull of the turbulent Middle East. Despite his country's economic vulnerability, Erdogan seemed to be signaling that it had alternatives to the traditional alliances that date from its Cold War role as a regional bulwark against Soviet power.

In Turkey's view, "the U.S. has become even more threatening than Russia" because strains over critical issues, Sener Akturk, an associate professor of international relations at Koc University in Istanbul, said. The perceived threat makes the U.S. "an ally that has to be paradoxically kept at arm's length and even balanced against with Russian cooperation."

Points of contention between the U.S. and Turkey include American military support for Kurdish fighters in Syria who are considered terrorists by Turkey; Turkish appeals to the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric Turkey accuses of plotting a failed 2016 coup; and American pastor Andrew Brunson, who is being prosecuted in Turkey on terror-related charges.

A lever in Turkey's diplomatic maneuvering is its pledge to buy a Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system, with deliveries starting next year. U.S. and NATO officials say the Russian system conflicts with NATO equipment and would lead to security breaches.

Trump signed a defense bill this month that would delay delivery of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey. Separately, the U.S. president has criticized NATO allies, saying they should pay more for their defense and rely less on American support.

Koc University's Akturk said the missile deal with Russia makes sense since Western allies have sometimes suspended military deals with Turkey because of political disputes and concerns about the country's human-rights record. Akturk said a key concern for the region is Turkey's pivot to "a la carte alliances," in which the Turkish government moves between Russia and the West depending on what's at stake.

In any case, Russia and Turkey have come a long way in restoring their rapport since the Turkish military shot down a Russian military jet in 2015 along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Erdogan and Putin have met at least 11 times since August 2016. Outgrowths of the frequent contact between the two regional powers include the resumption of a deal for a natural gas pipeline through Turkey and Russian plans to build a nuclear power plant in Turkey.

The rapprochement "demonstrates a striking level of pragmatism in this relationship," said Anna Arutunyan, a Moscow-based senior analyst for the International Crisis Group.

"The prospect of a friendly NATO member is very valuable for Moscow" as it aims to bolster its influence in the Middle East, Arutunyan said. "Turkey is a good avenue to do that."

A Section on 08/28/2018

Print Headline: Turkey's Russia ties stir concern

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