On August 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a four-hour meeting in Russia to discuss bilateral ties and regional issues. The Sochi summit comes after Ankara scored a diplomatic victory by helping broker a grain deal between Turkey, Ukraine and Russia that has eased global food crisis fears and growing concerns of possible Turkish military escalation against the Kurds in Northern Syria. What implication will the summit have on the region?
Turkey’s role as a “deal broker” has succeeded in positioning Ankara as Russia’s counterforce in the region. The recent diplomatic success has shifted the asymmetric relation in favor of Moscow to a more balanced one. This would push Erdogan to get what he couldn’t get during the Tehran summit where both Iran and Russia opposed any possible Turkish military intervention in Syria. Hence, after the grain deal, Erdogan will continue his effort in persuading Putin to get a “green light” to attack Syria.
For Erdogan, the intervention in Syria is important as recent polls forecast that Erdogan’s AKP party, amid the worst financial crisis in decades in the country, is not going to do well in the upcoming elections next June. Many factors depend on the domestic situation in Turkey, as Erdogan wants to launch the operation before the elections so he can consolidate his party’s position. Emre Caliskan, a research fellow at the London-based Foreign Policy Center, told Al Jazeera that “Turkey wants to keep its energy flows from Russia over the winter while maintaining economic cooperation to alleviate its difficulties and opening a (currency) swap agreement or getting investment from Russia.” “Erdogan could present this as a victory to the Turkish public and perhaps alleviate the high food and energy prices that are likely to present a challenge in the coming elections,” argues Caliskan. Both sides have signed a roadmap for economic cooperation and intend to increase trade turnover to 100 USD billion. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak shared that both leaders also agreed to switch part of the payments for Russian gas to rubles, distancing themselves from the use of US dollars.
Yahya Bayram Balci, the director of the Institute Français Études Anatoliennes, told the Armenian Weekly that one of the most impressive aspects of the Turkish-Russian relationship is its compartmentalization. This capacity for compartmentalization will continue because each country needs the other. In other words, despite their divergences, the two countries feel the necessity to cooperate in some specific areas. “I think one reason why Moscow and Ankara will preserve this compartmentalization is the fact that Turkey is still, and will remain for a certain time, very distrustful toward its traditional western allies, the US and Europe,” added Balci. For Turkey, the war in Ukraine is to a large extent a war between Russia and the West, hence Ankara judges the West as partly responsible for the crisis. For that reason, it prefers maintaining its current position which maximizes its benefits.
Russia will continue in its strategy of trying to complicate the relations between Turkey and the West. It is in Russia’s interest to detach Turkey from the West which means accepting this partly divergent position between Turkey and the West in the Ukrainian crisis. This was clearly indicated when last month Erdogan reportedly said Putin had suggested setting up a drone factory in Russia during their Tehran meeting. The Kremlin also affirmed that “technical and military cooperation” would be on the agenda at Sochi, an indication of Russia’s interest in procuring Bayraktars. However, such a move would undermine the main plank of Turkish support for Ukraine, as well as raise eyebrows among fellow NATO members and seriously damage relations with the West.
After the meeting, the presidents released a joint statement that addressed the following talking points:
- A common will to further develop Russian-Turkish relations based on respect, recognition of mutual interests and in accordance with their international obligations.
- The bilateral agenda of Russian-Turkish relations and an agreement to (1) increase the volume of bilateral trade on a balanced basis and achieve the set goals; (2) meet the expectations of the opposite side in the fields of economy and energy; (3) increase cooperation on transport, trade, agriculture, industry, finance, tourism and construction.
- Sincere and trusting relations between Turkey and Russia in order to achieve regional and international stability and fully implement the “Initiative for the Safe Export of Grain from Ukrainian Ports” (grain deal).
- The peaceful resolution of the Syrian crisis; maintaining political unity and territorial integrity of Syria; coordinate in the fight against terrorist organizations.
- The sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity of Libya and supporting its free, fair and credible elections.
After the summit, the Turkish media started circulating reports that the Turks would go for military intervention in Syria either by the end of August or the beginning of September, and the occurrence of this operation and its success is highly dependent on the outcome of the meeting in Sochi. Moreover, Erdogan’s announcement that the Turkish intelligence coordinates with Syrian intelligence regarding Turkish military invasions in Syria raised certain questions on whether Damascus can coordinate with Ankara to contain the American influence and Kurdish military presence in North Eastern Syria.
Moreover, despite the fact that the South Caucasus and specifically the recent clashes of Nagorno-Karabakh were not mentioned in the statement or publicly discussed, upon his return from Russia President Erdogan demanded that the Nagorno Karabakh army be dissolved.
Azerbaijan’s Trend reported that Erdogan told reporters that it’s important for Armenia to immediately comply with the terms of the (November 9, 2020) trilateral statement. Despite the fact that Azerbaijan officially announced that it was Baku who initiated the military operation “revenge,” he accused the Nagorno-Karabakh army of launching an attack against Azerbaijanis. “Türkiye resolutely condemns the attack committed by members of illegal Armenian armed detachments in Azerbaijan’s territory, resulting in the death of the Azerbaijani serviceman. Karabakh is the land of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s wanting the withdrawal of illegal armed units from its own lands should not be surprising. Almost two years have passed since the adoption of the trilateral statement, thus the fulfillment of its provision by Armenia is of the utmost importance.”
This clearly indicates that both Erdogan and Putin have discussed this issue amid the mounting military pressure from Azerbaijan on Armenia. Erdogan’s demand for disbanding Armenian self-defense units in Nagorno-Karabakh is not surprising. This threatening language clearly indicates that in the near future we can expect Baku to escalate the military tension with the aim to gain additional concessions from Yerevan. The disbanding of the Nagorno-Karabakh self-defense army poses an existential threat to the physical safety of Armenians living in Artsakh and will create further complications for the Russian peacekeeping mission.
Moreover, Turkey’s growing role in the region should not come as a surprise. The grain deal in Ukraine which happened in Turkey was a diplomatic gift from Moscow to Ankara. Putin’s recent public announcement that “Europe should be grateful to Turkey for uninterrupted supplies of Russian gas” clearly indicates that Russia is backing Erdogan and will use its soft power to push Erdogan for another victory in the coming general and presidential elections in Turkey where its outcome is crucial for Russia and the region.