While President Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin were in their 4-hour meeting in Sochi, the Razoni ship carrying corn from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to the Lebanese port of Tripoli was sailing between Marmaris and Rhodes. Türkiye’s Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar, who is the part of the coordination committee for the grain shipment from Ukraine to the world, said a day before on Aug. 4 that 3 more grain ships were preparing to depart from Ukraine, and an empty ship will be set off to Ukraine after the controls are made in Istanbul. The system built by joint efforts of the United Nations and Türkiye seems to be working for now.
Putin’s Spokesman Dmitry Peskov praised the personal efforts of UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and President Erdogan because of the grain agreement and said, “The agreement is a good example of how the most difficult issues can be resolved, taking into account the interests of all parties.”
In Sochi, this issue was in the first place. In the previous statements from Moscow, it was as if there was a tone that the only topic to be talked about would be the grain issue. However Peskov added the Syria issue that Erdogan really wanted to talk about, before the meeting.
Indeed, following the meeting the joint press release published by the Presidency read: “Noting the importance they attach to the protection of Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity, the leaders reaffirmed their determination to act in solidarity and coordination in the fight against all terrorist organizations in Syria”.
I will come to Syria issue again, but some questions are needed to be asked first.
Who sets the agenda in Sochi?
For example, did Erdogan, who said “it was very important for Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant Project to be finished in time” before the meeting, ask Rosatom’s latest move to terminate the contract of the Turkish company and grant the contract with a Russian company? Will the Turkish company İçtaş, which complains that it was disabled when it was about to access critical technologies, find the support that they cannot get from the Ministry of Energy from President Erdoğan? Before the meeting, Rosatom General Manager Akeksey Likaçev made a statement accusing Içtaş of breach of contract, which makes the situation more interesting.
For example, was the project of a joint production of firefighting aircraft with Russia was agreed upon in Sochi? What about weapons industry projects? Russia neither transfers any critical technology while establishing a nuclear power plant on the “warm sea” coast of NATO member Türkiye, nor sells S-400 missiles to NATO member Türkiye and also shares any technology there. On the other hand, Türkiye sold its own technology and own production of Bayraktar TB-2 UCAVs to Ukraine (and donated by the Baykar company) and that hurt Russia.
The Russian press writes that after the recent extreme depreciation of the Turkish Lira (TRY), the bilateral trade would be made in TRY and rubles, not dollars or euros as Türkiye demanded before. And will Russia offer Türkiye to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa trade union)?
Support requested in Syria
Almost all of the issues that Russia wants to open are about the economy, which will at least help Erdogan – as Türkiye is in the economic crisis with 10 months left until the elections. It is reported that even the 2 billion-odd dollars that entered the vault in the first stage for the Akkuyu agreement relieved the Central Bank. The situation is that delicate.
Syria is among the issues that Erdogan put on his agenda in order to revive the “spirit of unity and solidarity” towards the election.
Since the first Syrian operation, launched just 5 weeks after the 15 July 2016 coup attempt, whenever Erdoğan talked about the Syrian operation, the operation would start within two days at the latest. However, Erdogan said that he would launch a new operation against the PKK in Syria first on May 23, and it has been more than two months.
Neither the USA nor the European Union want the operation to be carried out, and they often say this in a way that disturbs Ankara.
However, the main reason why Erdogan did not press the button despite the fact that this issue was discussed at the May and July meetings of the National Security Council (MGK) is Russia’s opposition. And let’s not neglect Iran, the other actor in the Astana process.
No operation since 34 soldiers were killed
Ankara was offended when Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei told Erdogan that “PKK is not the only terrorists” and pointed to some jihadist groups that received support from Türkiye, and advised Erdogan to talk to Bashar Assad. As soon as Erdogan returned from Tehran, the Zakho attack happened. Ankara refused and reacted to the allegations of the Iranian-leaning Iraqi government, saying it was “provocative”, but there was another factor that could not be pretended not to exist.
All major operations against the PKK/YPG presence in Syria were made possible with the covert support of Russia. This covert support was embodied in Putin’s support of Bashar Assad, ensuring that Syrian jets do not touch Turkish troops and airspace support. The last operation carried out in this way was the Peace Spring operation in 2019. However, no comprehensive operation could be carried out after 34 Turkish soldiers were killed as a result of the attack of Russian (or Syrian-controlled Russian) planes on February 27, 2020, in the conflict in Idlib, which is a part of the Astana process. It is necessary to exclude the strikes of the National Intelligence Organization (MIT), mostly with the use of military-supported UCAVs, from the scope of major operations.
Is a new balance possible?
Putin is well aware of Erdogan’s distress and is trying to take advantage of it.
Erdogan is well aware of Putin’s troubles and is trying to take advantage of it.
For example, NATO member Türkiye, despite all its support to Ukraine, is not on the black list of “unfriendly countries” like Greece. In the words of Presidential Spokesperson İbrahim Kalın, Türkiye wants to maintain its position as “the communication bridge between Russia and the West”. Russia also wants to maintain this for both geo-political and economic reasons (such as energy). Of course, this has come with the costs. For example, it is not in anyone’s interest to question whether all the grain that will go to the world markets from Ukraine belongs to Ukraine, or whether a part of it belongs to Russia. After all, the world grain exchange is managed from neither Moscow nor Kiev; it’s run from the USA, Chicago.
Türkiye and Russia relationship based on mutual distrust as well as mutual interest. The current affairs may allow the establishment of a new balance between Türkiye and Russia, however, there is a major obstacle in front of this new balance that can be established in Sochi to work in favor of Türkiye.
Economic crisis barrier
What determines what Erdogan can take or give from Putin in Sochi is, unfortunately, largely the economic collapse we are experiencing. The huge factor that will cause the issues to turn against Türkiye in this relationship is the same; the severe economic crisis we are experiencing. Erdogan’s refusal to admit that the crisis stems from his own policies is the biggest problem of Türkiye, and indeed of himself.
I think what former president Süleyman Demirel once said in the 1990s, reminding the economic crisis of the 1970s, shed a light on this: “Türkiye should never again be looking for money with a political provisions”.