Vaccine, Black Sea and other codes of Erdoğan-Putin talk
If the Directorate of Communications of the Turkish Presidency had remained the sole source of the April 9 phone call between President Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, then we would have been contented with a two-sentence statement. The Turkish Presidency announced that the two leaders contacted, adding that they talked about “issues that would improve the Turkey-Russia relations and regional developments.”
The first details were given by Russia’s semi-official news agency Sputnik, then Ukraine’s semi-official Crimean News Agency. The Turkish media –but only those who could dare to report about the issue without waiting for an official statement from Ankara– picked to highlight the “Keep the Montreux Convention,” Putin’s demand from Turkey to keep the 1936 international agreement on the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits unchanged.
One reason for it is that the issue has links to Kanal Istanbul, Erdoğan’s plan to build an artificial waterway between the Black Sea and the internal Marmara Sea as an alternative route to the Bosphorus Strait. Another reason is Turkey’s expectancy to get vaccine supply from Russia since the vaccine from China is insufficient to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
As of April 10 afternoon, when this piece was published, neither the Presidency nor the Foreign Ministry made a further statement on this very crucial conversation. However, the Twitter account of the Kremlin made an unusually detailed statement regarding the Erdoğan-Putin talk.
Ukraine crisis, US warships, Montreux
Before moving on to that statement, let’s draw the picture of the international politics in our region.
Erdoğan and Putin talked on the phone one day before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was scheduled to visit Turkey on April 10. He visits Turkey fr High-Level Strategic Council talks. Yesterday, as Erdoğan and Putin were talking on the phone, Zelensky was inspecting troops in the Donbas region of Ukraine, where Russian troops were conducting border exercises.
On the same day, Ankara announced that “A notice was sent to us 15 days ago via diplomatic channels that two U.S. warships would pass to the Black Sea in line with the Montreux Convention. The ships will remain in the Black Sea until May 4.” According to the Montreux, warships of non-coastal countries can stay in the Black Sea for at most 21 days. We can conclude that U.S. ships will cross the Bosphorus to the Black Sea on April 12-13.
Let us remind that Russia dispatched 10 warships of its Caspian Sea fleet to the Black Sea in early April through the rivers of Volga and Don. In addition to that, media reports said that Russia moved two warships of its North Sea Fleet to the Mediterranean Sea as two ships will be transferred to the Black Sea from the Mediterranean.
In short, the Black Sea is turning into a powder keg.
The Erdoğan-Putin contact
According to the Kremlin’s statement, the following issues were discussed at the Erdoğan-Putin phone call, as I keep the order of the Kremlin:
• The presidents discussed in detail issues of countering the spread of the coronavirus, expressing willingness to build up cooperation in this area, in part, in the context of supplies and potential joint production of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine.
• President Erdoğan spoke about the anti-epidemiological measures taken by the Turkish authorities. The presidents agreed to maintain close contacts between the relevant agencies, in part, in order to protect the health of Russian tourists in Turkey.
• Discussing the situation in Libya, the two leaders were pleased to note the observance of a ceasefire by the sides and the successful formation of transitional government bodies.
• They noted the topicality of joint efforts to counter terrorism in Syria, particularly in Idlib Province, in line with the provisions of the 2018 Sochi Memorandum and the relevant Additional Protocol of March 5, 2020.
• “At Erdoğan’s request,” Vladimir Putin described Russia’s approaches to resolving the domestic crisis in Ukraine. Putin accused the Ukrainian government of provocation and mentioned that there was no solution other than the 2015 Minsk plan (which NATO was not satisfied with).
• Erdogan highly praised Russia’s efforts to promote stabilization there and to ensure step-by-step implementation of the trilateral agreements of November 9, 2020, and January 11, 2021. Putin told Erdoğan about the results of his recent contacts with the leaders of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Both leaders emphasized the need to restore the transport infrastructure in the South Caucasus – good news for contractors.
• In the context of Turkey’s plans to build the Istanbul Canal, Putin noted the importance of preserving the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits with a view to ensuring regional stability and security.
Current situation and conclusions
• Chinese vaccine is not sufficient to fight the pandemic. Health Minister Fahrettin Koca’s remarks that the contracts on vaccine supply are not complied with brings to mind the suspicion that China does not send enough Sinovac vaccine to Turkey due to the Uighurs issue problem, but we cannot get an answer from the official authorities about this. Erdoğan wants a vaccine supply from Russia. He highlights the matter of “protecting the health of Russian tourists”. The Turkish people, on the other hand, have been exposed to the heaviest wave of the pandemic.
• Russia approaches Kanal Istanbul from a single angle: The Montreux Convention. It is strategically important for Russia. Russia’s Ambassador to Ankara Alexei Yerkhov had said this before, and now it is Putin. As Erdoğan prioritizes it, Montreux is not only about the Bosphorus crossing but it also concerns the size and duration of ships that non-coastal countries can have in the Black Sea. Therefore the U.S. has been advising Turkey – as suggestions mix with pressure – to amend the Montreux Convention.
A recent statement by 104 retired Turkish admirals, who called for keeping the Montreux Convention unchanged, an initiative that was named a “call for a coup” by Erdoğan, is still like the Russian dolls as we cannot guess that is on the inside. But it has room even tiny, in this international picture.
Erdoğan has to keep a crucial balance between the U.S. and Russia in the issues of Kanal Istanbul, Black Sea security and Montreux Convention. It is important not only for Black Sea security but also for health and tourism. On the one hand, there is still an expected Erdoğan-Biden contact on relations with the U.S.
All these make the Erdoğan-Putin meeting before the Erdogan-Zelensky meeting even more important.