Dimensions of Turkish President’s Visit to Russia – The Arab Wall
Dimensions of Turkish President’s Visit to Russia

Dimensions of Turkish President’s Visit to Russia

On September 4th of this year, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made an official visit to the Russian city of Sochi. The purpose of his visit was to engage in discussions with his Russian counterpart regarding the reinstatement of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. This meeting took place against the backdrop of escalating tensions between the two nations and growing disruptions in food supply chains. These issues stemmed from Moscow’s withdrawal from the grain agreement in July of the previous year.

President Erdogan’s objective was twofold: first, to mitigate the disagreements with Moscow and underscore the significance of the bilateral relationship. Second, to deflect Western pressure on Turkey regarding contentious matters. The summit also had several key objectives, including creating a favorable environment for the revival of the grain agreement, addressing contentious Turkish-Syrian compliance issues, and ensuring Turkish neutrality in developments related to the Ukrainian war.

Erdogan’s visit to Moscow on September 4th came at a critical juncture in the ongoing tensions between the two nations, which had reached a climax in recent times. This was evident from the cancellation of a planned visit by the Russian president to Turkey in August of the previous year. Erdogan’s visit generated considerable anticipation and interest, given Moscow’s opposition to renewing the grain agreement and its increased scrutiny of grain shipments in the Black Sea region. Additionally, Turkey had been shifting towards the West, notably marked by its approval of Sweden’s NATO membership. Furthermore, Turkish-American relations had significantly improved, as evidenced by the late August deployment of the United States’ aircraft carrier, the “USS Gerald R. Ford,” to Turkey and joint military exercises conducted by both nations in August 2023.

Diverse Implications of Erdogan’s Moscow Visit

President Erdogan’s meeting with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, in Moscow occurred within a backdrop of increasing contentious issues between Ankara and Moscow, along with growing concerns about Moscow’s reactions. This meeting carried several implications, which can be discussed as follows:

  1. Addressing Tensions in Bilateral Relations: President Erdogan’s visit to Moscow coincided with escalating tensions between the two countries. Russia expressed notable displeasure over Ankara’s approval of Sweden’s NATO membership and its support for Ukraine’s accession to the alliance. Additionally, the relationship soured due to shipping disputes between the two nations after Turkey handed over five Ukrainian servicemen who had sought refuge in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol to the Ukrainian president during his visit to Turkey in July 2023. Furthermore, competition in Central Asia and the Balkans remains a contentious issue between the two countries.
  1. Neutralizing Russian Pressure in the Syrian Arena: Russian pressure on Turkish actions in Syria intensified following the stalled normalization process between Ankara and Damascus, with Syria insisting on the withdrawal of Turkish forces from northern Syrian regions. Moscow also increased its targeting of Turkish influence zones in Syria, exemplified by Russian airstrikes on the village of Al-Muhsinli, east of Aleppo, after it was taken over by factions of the “National Army” loyal to Turkey in early September. These airstrikes were not the first of their kind, as Russian airstrikes had previously targeted the outskirts of Idlib in northwestern Syria, which falls within the “Putin-Erdogan” zone, on August 8th.

Erdogan’s visit is partly aimed at neutralizing Russian pressure on Turkish interests in Syria. Turkey sees Russia as a country it can rely on in its efforts to cut off American support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or in advancing Turkish goals in Syria. It’s worth noting that the Russian president, on the eve of hosting Erdogan, stated that he had “done a lot with his Turkish counterpart regarding the situation in Syria” and added, “I know how sensitive this issue (Syria) is for the Republic of Turkey, and we stand by you.”

  1. Neutralizing Western Pressure on Turkey in Contentious Issues: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Russia underscores Turkey’s interest in developing relations with Russia, a strategic priority for Turkey to mitigate Western pressure on contentious issues. Moscow also serves as a balancing point for Turkey in the context of conflicts with European countries, especially Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Concurrently, Erdogan’s visit to Russia took place as Turkey maintained its neutral stance on the Ukrainian crisis, refraining from aligning with Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. Turkey also worked on developing a common vision for peace and stability in the Russo-Ukrainian crisis. Therefore, Erdogan sought to reaffirm his country’s position as an active and reliable mediator between the parties involved in the Ukrainian crisis through this visit.
  1. Securing Mutual Interests in Energy and Defense Sectors with Russia: President Erdogan’s visit to Russia underscored Turkey’s commitment to securing shared interests, particularly in the energy sector. Turkey heavily relies on Russian gas imports to meet a significant portion of its energy demands. Moreover, as Turkey advances its nuclear energy initiatives, Moscow holds strategic importance. Erdogan discussed plans with Putin for the construction of a second nuclear power plant in the Turkish city of Sinop, following Russia’s financing of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant project, which amounted to approximately $20 billion. The Akkuyu nuclear power plant plays a pivotal role in the energy sector relations between Ankara and Moscow.

Conversely, Turkey acknowledges the significance of its economic and defense ties with Russia in the current context. The trade volume between the two nations has surged to over $60 billion by the end of the first half of this year. Moscow has also agreed to accept payment from Turkey for a portion of its gas imports in the local currency. Notably, a meeting occurred on the sidelines of the Putin-Erdogan summit between the heads of the Turkish and Russian central banks to discuss the use of local currencies in trade transactions. During the joint press conference with his Russian counterpart, Erdogan expressed optimism about increasing the trade volume with Russia to $100 billion.

At the same time, Turkey recognizes that given ongoing US sanctions on the Turkish defense industry, its exclusion from participation in the advanced F-35 fighter jet program, and opposition from Congress to Turkey’s acquisition of the upgraded version of the F-16 aircraft, prioritizing defense cooperation with Russia is imperative. It is noteworthy that both parties are exploring expanded collaboration in the defense technology sector, aligning with Turkey’s plan to enhance its domestic defense industries.

Key Objectives

Despite the contentious issues between Turkey and Russia, there are several objectives that both countries aimed to achieve during the Putin-Erdogan meeting. These objectives can be discussed as follows:

  1. Efforts to Salvage the Grain Agreement: President Erdogan made a concerted effort during his meeting with Putin in Sochi to persuade him to reconsider rejoining the Black Sea Grain Agreement. This agreement facilitated the export of Ukrainian food products, particularly grain shipments, to international markets. For Turkey, reinstating the grain agreement is crucial to bolster its role as a key mediator in the Ukrainian crisis and ensure stability in the Black Sea region. Moscow’s withdrawal from the agreement on July 18th led to increased targeting of Ukrainian ports and storage facilities on the Black Sea, potentially affecting Turkey’s interests and trade activities in the region.

However, Erdogan’s visit did not yield significant progress on this front. While Putin had earlier expressed openness to discussions, he conveyed during his meeting with the Turkish president that Moscow would consider rejoining the grain agreement only when Western sanctions related to the transportation of Russian grains and fertilizers are lifted. He also pointed out that “the West had misled Russia regarding the humanitarian objectives of the grain initiative” and emphasized that Moscow’s withdrawal from the agreement was a response to Western sanctions imposed on Russia.

  1. Reviving Turkish-Syrian Normalization Efforts: Amidst the ongoing evolution of the Syrian crisis, characterized by complex local developments within Syria and an increased American role in Syrian affairs, and as part of Russia’s strategy to maintain control over Syrian dynamics while curbing the influence of regional powers, especially Turkey, Putin used the meeting with his Turkish counterpart to promote Turkish-Syrian normalization efforts and urge Ankara to cooperate with Damascus. This entails addressing the issue of Turkish military presence in northern Syria. Notably, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasized the need to accelerate Turkish-Syrian rapprochement during his meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, on August 31st.
  1. Ensuring Turkey’s Balanced Position on the Ukrainian War: Russia has been closely monitoring Turkey’s stance on the Ukrainian crisis, particularly since Erdogan’s declaration of support for Ukraine’s NATO membership during the NATO summit in June of the previous year. Additionally, there have been indications of improved Turkish-American relations, exemplified by joint military exercises conducted by both countries in August of the current year. One of Putin’s primary objectives in hosting his Turkish counterpart was to secure Turkey’s continued neutrality and its avoidance of alignment with Western policies aimed at encircling Moscow and exerting pressure on Russia. Despite their disagreements, Moscow still regards Turkey as a crucial mediator in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis.

A Crucial Relationship

In conclusion, President Erdogan’s visit to Russia is a key component of Turkey’s efforts to address contentious issues and underscore the pivotal nature of its relationship with Russia. This relationship is intricately tied to regional interests and extensions, offering potential benefits such as the alleviation of Western pressure on Turkey in contentious matters and significant economic and defense advantages.

However, Turkey’s success in persuading Moscow to return to the grain agreement is contingent, in part, on Turkey’s ability to convince the West of the importance of easing sanctions on Moscow. Moscow views the agreement as a bargaining chip that could potentially reshape the dynamics of the Ukrainian conflict and influence the strategies of regional and international actors involved in the crisis. Notably, Moscow conducted an airstrike on one of Ukraine’s major wheat export ports just hours before the meeting between Russian President Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Sochi.