Sochi Summit between Erdogan and Putin reveals an opportunistic relationship

Sochi Summit between Erdogan and Putin reveals an opportunistic relationship
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Kerim Has: “Peace is still too far in Ukraine but keeping an open channel with Russia through Turkey is also in favor of Western interests”
Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Turkish-Russian relations, commented on the Sochi Summit and the future of the relationship between Turkey and Russia. Can Erdogan keep up his “policy of balance,” what will happen in Syria, the export corridor, Akkuyu… Kerim Has underlines that the Western block wants to keep an open channel with Russia through Turkey.

What was the most important outcome of the Sochi Summit?

The last Sochi summit between Putin and Erdogan had three main aspects. First, it will probably have some crucial and direct effects in Turkish-Russian relations in the new geopolitical conditions. Second, the meeting might also have some repercussions in regional dimensions, mostly regarding the war in Ukraine and situation in Syria. Third, this summit was also significant in the context of deteriorating relations between Russia and the West.

Is Erdogan successful in the “policy of balance” between Ukraine (the West, NATO) and Russia (the Rest, autocratic leaders)?

After the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkish-Russian ties are also going through a transformation. Even though the dominant and senior party still remains the same, the asymmetric relations in favor of Russia which has been a norm for many years is leisurely changing in favor of Turkey. Turkey’s dependency on Russia in its energy needs including gas, oil and nuclear, tourism sector, export markets, investments abroad, and at some degree for the military supply in the name of S400 missiles has substantially risen in the last 10-15 years. Also, Ankara has had to work out and find at least a minimum common ground with Moscow in many regional problems, though their policies have collided so often.

On the other hand, since 24 February a new Iron Curtain is being built along the Russia-West axis. The Russian economy suffers a lot, more than its political and diplomatic isolation. In this regard, Turkey appears to be the unique country in the Western bloc which not only didn’t participate in sanctions against Russia, but rather serves as a safe haven for Russian financial and economic activities. This year we may witness a historical record in Turkish-Russian bilateral trade. But the more important thing is the fact that Turkey has the potential to become a trade and logistic hub and a bridge country for maintaining Russian foreign economic relations with the West, securing Kremlin’s “parallel import” strategy and ensuring the continuation of Russia’s export routes and revenues to overcome the emerging problems in its economy. There are many Western companies which have left the Russian market after 24 February seeking to open regional logistics centers in Istanbul to continue selling goods to Russia. Also, every day we hear a new Turkish firm entering the Russian market to replace those departing Western companies. Last but not least, there are also many Russian businesspeople trading mainly with the Western countries who are now carrying their trade and logistics headquarters to Turkey to keep up with the deals.

After the Summit there was no signed memorandum. What does it mean?

We can certainly face some risks in Turkey’s relations with the West under the backdrop of sanctions in the following period by serving Russian needs in this way and weakening the effects of sanctions by helping Moscow to bypass them. But it is also a fact that Erdogan has already huge experience on this issue from the time he implemented the US sanctions against Iran in the last decade. So, if this really would happen, it will not and should not be a surprise or something new for Washington, London, or Brussels.

Here, we should also underline that there is an increasing mutual need between Putin and Erdogan after 24 February. On the one hand, because of a deepening economic crisis in Turkey, Erdogan really needs money, loans and investments from abroad. In fact, it is also one of the main reasons why Turkey did not and cannot participate in anti-Russian sanctions. And I think, the worsening situation in the Turkish economy is very well known by Western authorities and that is also exactly why they do not increase the pressure on Ankara yet.

What do you want to say about Akkuyu, again a very important subject for both countries?

In this respect, the recent flow of billions of dollars from Russia to Turkey through Akkuyu nuclear power plant project seems to be a kind of a cover for both parties. Neither Akkuyu nowadays needs this amount of huge money for construction or technology transfer nor Kremlin has a luxury to send billions of dollars to Turkey while limiting it inside Russia. Here it seems to me that Putin is attempting to carve a hole in the sanctions policy of the Western bloc and at the same time to ensure some guarantees and income for its long-term investments in Turkey using Erdogan’s ambitions to stay in power in Russia’s favor. And Erdogan tries to get some financial support from the Kremlin keeping Turkey’s economic situation under control at least before the presidential elections in 2023 and plays a role of a broker or middleman in weakening the negative impacts of sanctions on Russian economy. It is possible that such kind of money and investments flow from Russia to Turkey and vice versa might continue by different means for some time during this hard period of sanctions.

Also, in the Sochi meeting leaders agreed on Turkey’s partial payment of Russian gas and to deepen the financial ties by extending the use of Russian Mir payment system in Turkey. Surely, it will assist Russia to hold the dollar/ruble parity under control, diminish the role of US dollar in its foreign trade and have a chance to own a stronghold in the Turkish banking system. But, it might also help Erdogan to prevent a possible balance-of-payments and currency crisis in Turkey at least in the short-term. Turkey’s needs for gas and its gas import from Russia are going to increase in the following period, and Turkey collects some Russian rubles from its trade and tourism sector, especially in the last 6 months after the start of war in Ukraine. Even though Turkey is not in the “unfriendly countries” black list of Russia for establishing such a ruble payment obligation for gas, that seems to be a mutually beneficial decision for both Ankara and Moscow.

How do you see the future in Syria?

In regional dimensions, Syria was the number one topic for the Turkish side. However, it seems that Russian leader didn’t give a green light to Erdogan to launch a new military operation in northern Syria yet. However, in my opinion, the bargaining is not over yet, and it is going on. Russia still keeps the door open, and shows that it can give a way to Turkish president on this issue. Putin and Erdogan are also going to meet in September in Uzbekistan, where a summit of Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is going to be held. That summit will also be quite symbolic in every sense. Iran will be accepted as the 9th member of SCO and there will be given a start for Belarus’ membership. Also, considering the recent tensions in US-China relations over the Taiwan issue, participation of Erdogan in such a meeting will absolutely have carnival event effects in Western policy circles and media. In this regard, I think, Russia’s consent for such a Turkish military operation and many things related with bilateral ties will depend on what a role Erdogan would be willing to play in Russia-West relations and sanctions policy.

Can the export corridor for grain be a step to ceasefire?

In general terms on the crisis around Ukraine, the grain deal was another crucial topic for discussion between two leaders. Ukrainian grain deal is already in effect, and I don’t foresee any huge problem in its technical and political implementation in the following months throughout the duration of the agreement (120 days). It can also be extended one more time. But, I’m not sure that Russia has totally given up its plans to capture the Odessa and Nikolaev regions, or the border regions of Ukraine to the Black Sea. The decision will be shaped according to the course of the war. So, there is still a possibility that the grain deal can collapse at some point.

 During the bilateral summit in Sochi, Putin probably has asked Erdogan to play a more active role as a mediator to ease the indirect restrictions and alleviate the negative effects of sanctions on Russian grain and fertilizer exports under the framework of “package deals” which were reached in Istanbul. The sides have agreed on 3 deals in Istanbul: Turkey-Ukraine-UN, Turkey-Russia-UN, and Russia-UN deals. The implementation of the first and second deals is related with the last one which is about lifting the barriers on Russian agricultural exports, and all are intertwined in each other. In this context, Turkey’s role will be critical in the proper implementation of those deals and persuading all the sides on the topic.

However, I don’t think that the grain deal will be a stimulating factor on reaching a peace deal between Moscow and Kyiv. In fact, the grain deal was the unique area of overlapping interests and beneficial for all parties, including Ukraine, Turkey, Russia and the Western block. So, it seems to remain the only exceptional issue for warring sides that can still be temporarily agreed on.

How will it be possible to stop the war and bring peace?

Peace is still far from today. Because none of the parties (Russia, Ukraine and the Anglo-Saxon-led Western bloc) could still have reached their aims in the war. Russia couldn’t even reach its minimum goals yet, taking the control of Donbass region and to present a small victory for domestic auditorium. Also, the Western military aid with modern NATO weapons and financial support to Ukraine is increasingly proceeding and it encourages Zelensky administration to show strong resistance, defend Ukraine’s territory and pushes him to continue the fight against Russian advancement, though a military victory of Kyiv still seems to be less realistic. But also, the UK- and US-led Western bloc also couldn’t sufficiently weaken Russian military and damage its economy, and failed to reach their goal for a regime/leader change in Russia. Instead, Putin has strengthened its power since 24 February. Of course, we should wait for some more time to assess the situation more competently. But, in this context, I think we’ll continue to talk about the war at least in the first half of the next year.

There were also other subjects…

Of course, the leaders have also talked on the recent military clashes in Karabakh, Azerbaijan-Armenia relations and Armenia-Turkey normalization process. But, first, these topics are all huge to discuss in detail and have to be handled separately, and second it seems to me that they were secondary items of importance in this summit. Libya issue is also keeping its actuality in Turkish-Russian relations and there is a slow convergence of Ankara and Moscow’s positions on the settlement of the political stalemate there in recent months. There are mainly two reasons for this: First, Turkey is calibrating its policy on Libya and attempting to establish a dialogue channel with eastern Libya during the last year. And second, Russia’s main attention has shifted from the Middle East and North Africa region to the war in Ukraine, so it also had to make some adjustments on its policy in Libya in recent months.

What about the relations between Erdogan and Putin, Turkey and Russia?

Erdogan has become the first and unique NATO country leader who visited Russia after 24th February. And it seems that the dialogue and relations between Turkey and Russia not only will continue, but also deepen in the foreseeable future. To be frank, I think, keeping an open channel with Russia through Turkey is also in favor of the Western interests. Predicting Putin’s further plans in economy or in Ukraine or elsewhere, reaching the grain deal in Istanbul, and hosting negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian delegations in a NATO country rather than in Minsk or Nur-Sultan are also absolutely in West’s interests. Nevertheless, it should also be taken into account that this pragmatic rapprochement between Erdogan and Russia surely contains some risks for Turkey’s ties with its Western partners considering the bad record of Erdogan government’s previous sanctions policy regarding Iran, military and diplomatic adventures in foreign policy, and authoritarian and corrupt practices inside the country.

Political establishment in the West has seen Erdogan for a long time as an indispensable ally, and it is still so. But now, Russia can also openly join the Western block to maintain this consensus on Erdogan’s stay in power. Erdogan loves to take risks, whereas Putin has no better chance than dealing with him. At least in the nearest future.

*Born in Istanbul, Kadikoy in 1989, he has written for many different newspapers and magazines. He received his Cultural Studies Master's degree from Bilgi University. His first book “Futbol mu? Yok daha neler” was published in 2012, which was a compilation of his many interviews. He analyzed Resat Nuri Guntekin’s political views in his own material in his second book “Operada Mucella Suzan,” which was published in 2019. His first novel “Aksamlar Artik Serin” was published in November 2020, and his second novel “Biraz Ses Olsun” was published in January 2021.