Erdogan gets close to Putin, keeps Biden at a distance - GulfToday

Erdogan gets close to Putin, keeps Biden at a distance

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

President Erdogan converses with President Putin during a meeting in Moscow.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan converses with Vladimir Putin during a meeting in Sochi.

The results of Friday’s summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart have been couched deliberately in such vague terms as to make it a secretive summit.

During their meeting at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the leaders pledged to cooperate on transport, agriculture, tourism, and construction but gave no specifics and failed to mention differences over Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. While these differences remain unresolved, the two men appear to have focused on defining the extent of cooperation that will be tolerated by the West at this time.

During this, their second, summit in three weeks, Putin and Erdogan had to take into consideration the raging Ukrainian elephant in the elegant hall where they met. Due to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Russia and NATO-member Turkiye are meant to be on opposite sides over the war.

But, they are not. Taking sides is not in the national interest of either Moscow or Ankara which has not succumbed to NATO’s risky proxy campaign to defeat and humiliate Russia. In recent years, as relations soured with the West, Putin and Erdogan turned to each other.

Turkiye has sold Bayraktar armed drones to Ukraine but has not joined the US and Europe by donating vast amounts of weaponry to the Ukrainian military. Ankara has also refused to impose sweeping sanctions on Russia as have NATO and European Union (EU) members. Turkiye has too much to lose by jumping on the NATO-EU bandwagon.

Instead, Erdogan has tried to be useful by positioning himself and his country between NATO and Russia with a tilt toward Moscow. Soon after the war erupted, Turkiye tried and failed to mediate a ceasefire and negotiate a peace deal between Moscow and Kyiv. Turkiye has recently brokered agreements to ensure the transit of Russian and Ukrainian grain to desperate consumers in this region, Asia and Africa.

For severely sanctioned Russia, grain and fertiliser sales provide essential reveue. Grain alone earned Russia $11 billion in 2021. In 2019, Russia exported 5.5 million tonnes of fertiliser, including major consignments to Europe and the US. The absence of Russian and Ukrainian grain is not the only food problem. Farmers in Brazil, India, and the US complain of the lack of fertiliser.

Russia and Turkiye are determined to act in their national interest. In 2021, Russia sold to Turkiye $28.96 billion in oil and gas (45 per cent of its needs), grain, oilseed, wood, charcoal, lead, tobacco while Turkiye exported to Russia $5.77 billion worth of fruit, vehicles, parts, accessories, electrical equipment, clothing, fish, and other items. Before Covid, seven million Russians and 1.5 million Ukrainians travelled to Turkiye for holidays, generating billions of dollars in tourism revenue. Covid, war and sanctions on Russia have halted this lucrative flow.

Last week Moscow tranferred $5 billion to Ankara to finance the first phase in the construction of a $20 billion nuclear power plant. This project employs 20,000 workers, the majority of them Turks, at a time unemployment in that country is over 11 per cent of the active workforce.

Putin and Erdogan have considered cooperation in the military sphere. Moscow has expressed interest in building a Turkish drone factory in Russia while Ankara could apply for Russian aid in the development of advanced warplanes. A key issue on which Ankara and Washington parted company was Turkiye’s purchase of Russia’s S-$00 anti-missile system rather than the US Patriot model. In response, the US cancelled Turkish participation in the development of advanced F-35 jets, angering Erdogan.

In an attempt to court Ankara, US President Joe Biden has said he would support Turkiye’s request to purchase F-16 aircraft although Democratic lawmakers argue that Turkiye must drop the S-400 contract and cut relations with Russia.

Close ties on several levels do not prevent strain. Despite Turkiye’s reliance on Russia for energy, Russia’s Gazprom last month temporarily shut down the TurkStream gas pipeline, allegedly, for “maintenance.” However, oil traders suggested Moscow took this action to demonstrate its disapproval of Ankara’s agreement to accept NATO membership for neutral Sweden and Finland. Ankara had said it would lift its veto if these two countries would end the anti-Turkish activities of dissident Turkish Kurdish residents and and extradite 12 from Finland and 21 from Sweden.

Putin and Erdogan have have managed to keep a lid on simmering disputes over Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Syria. Russia — along with the UAE and Egypt — has backed Benghazi during Libya’s civil strife while Turkiye has supported the government in Tripoli. In recent fighting over Nagorno-Karabakh, Russia allied with Armenia, Turkiye with Azerbaijan.

While Moscow backs the Syrian government, Turkiye supports insurgents and al-Qaeda affiliates who seek to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. Putin and Erdogan have managed to avoid engagements involving Russia’s warplanes and Turkish-recruited, funded and armed militias on the ground. In May, however, Erdogan declared his intention of mounting a military offensive against two Kurd-held towns, Manbij and Tel Rifaat, in northern Syria. Erdogan seeks to drive the Kurdish fighters from the towns and create a 30-kilometre wide “safe zone” where Syrian refugees could be settled. He claims the Syrian Kurdish forces are tied to Turkish Kurdish insurgents who rose against Ankara three decades ago.

In response to Erdogan’s plan, Russia shifted warplanes from a base in Latakia province in the west to Hasakeh in the east and the Syrian army and allied pro-Iranian militiamen have deployed near Manbij and Tel Rifaat. During the July 19th trilateral summit in Tehran, Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi expressed opposition to Erdogan’s cross-border offensive and occupation of Syrian territory. According to Turkish media, Erdogan had hoped to get a “green light” from Putin to carry out this plan. He, apparently, did not.

Erdogan’s objective is to deflect attention from the downward slide of the economy and he rapidly rising cost of living in Turkiye. The value of the Turkish Lira has fallen by a quar- ter this year and inflation now stands at 78.8 per cent. Erdogan seems to believe that he would gain the approval of Turkish voters ahead of next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections by seizing Syrian territory and deporting to occupied enclaves thousands of Syrian refugees who are deeply resented by Turks. This is unlikely as long as Turkiye’s economy is in crisis and Turks are focused on putting bread on the table for hungry families.

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