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Why this NATO member wants to stay friends with Russia

Diplomatic and economic pragmatism, as well as mutually beneficial relations, are what keeps Moscow and Ankara talking despite their differences

On July 3, ahead of the SCO summit, a meeting took place in Astana between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The presidents of Russia and Türkiye met for the first time since September 2023. At that time, Erdoğan had come to Sochi for talks, and since then, experts and the media had been anticipating a reciprocal visit from the Russian leader at Erdoğan’s invitation. 

However, Putin did not go to Türkiye, leading to intense public discussion about a “crisis” in Russian-Turkish relations. There was talk of Turkish authorities’ inaction in resolving payment issues, Erdoğan’s desire to strengthen cooperation with Washington, Brussels, and London following the pro-Western Republican People’s Party’s victory in the municipal elections in March of this year, and much more.

However, as demonstrated by the leaders’ meeting in Astana, Moscow and Ankara are neither turning away from nor towards each other. The best reflection of the relationship between the countries is a comment made by Russian presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov. When asked by journalists if “all problems with Türkiye that concerned Russia” had been resolved, he replied, “No, not all are resolved. All issues are resolved where no work is being done. Where extensive work is being done, where a very wide range of bilateral relations is implemented, different problems inevitably arise. But there is political will to resolve them,” Peskov said, noting that a normal diplomatic process is ongoing.

The meeting between the presidents took place in a warm atmosphere. “I am very glad to see you, Mr. President, we are in regular contact, exchanging views on the situation between our countries, in the region, and the world as a whole on a regular basis. But indeed, we haven’t seen each other for a long time; I am very glad about our personal meeting,” Putin said.

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Erdoğan also commented that he and Putin had not seen each other personally for a long time, but telephone diplomacy continued, and members of the governments of both countries remained in contact. Erdoğan emphasized the importance of constructing the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, which is being built in Türkiye by the Russian energy giant Rosatom. According to Erdoğan, Türkiye’s Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources is constantly in touch with its Russian counterparts. Contacts between Botas, the country’s state-owned oil and gas pipeline company, and Russia’s Gazprom are also ongoing.

Erdoğan noted that trade turnover between the countries is currently $55 billion. “We have set a goal to reach $100 billion. I believe that this will happen. There is potential to achieve this,” said the Turkish president. He also highlighted the importance of the tourism sector. According to him, 7 million tourists visit Türkiye annually. Türkiye attaches great importance to this and will continue to work in this direction, Erdoğan said: “The main thing is that Russian tourists are satisfied with Turkish hospitality.” The open part of the talks concluded with Erdoğan saying that he “expects Putin in Türkiye in the near future.” Putin responded that he would definitely visit.

Thus, it can be noted that the meeting on the eve of the SCO summit served as a “prelude” to a long-awaited Putin visit to Türkiye. The excitement surrounding such a potential visit is understandable, as the Russian president has long been awaited in Ankara. His last visit was in 2018, while Erdogan has been to Russia several times since then. Moreover, after the start of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine and the confrontation with NATO, this will be the first visit of the Russian leader to a member country of the North Atlantic military bloc.

The meeting of the leaders is also, as usual, expected “with great impatience,” as the established personal trust-based dialogue between Putin and Erdogan has had a very positive effect on the strategic partnership between the countries, which covers various areas of cooperation.

Political issues at the regional and global levels are closely intertwined with bilateral cooperation between Moscow and Ankara. This is confirmed by the conflict resolution processes in Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus, as well as Türkiye’s mediation in the Ukraine crisis.

The economy remains one of the key areas of the bilateral agenda between Russia and Türkiye. The volume of trade turnover between the two countries has increased significantly in recent years and reached impressive figures. Large Russian companies invest in various sectors of the Turkish economy, including energy, tourism, construction and much more, while Turkish business is expanding its presence on the domestic market after the introduction of sanctions and the departure of Western companies.

How can Ankara help resolve the Ukraine crisis?

President Erdogan remains one of the few politicians who maintains direct dialogue with both the West and the authorities in Kiev, as well as with Moscow. In Ankara, everyone sees and understands that Moscow has always been open to using diplomacy to resolve the situation. Turkish officials have repeatedly emphasized at the highest level that the West’s attitude towards Russia is incorrect. 

The settlement of the conflict in Ukraine is one of the key priorities of Türkiye’s foreign policy. Erdogan has repeatedly spoken about Türkiye’s readiness to provide any mediation, up to the resumption of the Istanbul peace talks and a meeting between the leaders of Russia and Ukraine. During his latest phone call with Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky, Erdogan reiterated this readiness.

Ankara understands that Moscow has previously indicated a readiness for negotiations on numerous occasions, however, Kiev has imposed a legislative ban on them. The West has called upon Russia to pursue negotiations, but at the same time ignores Kiev’s constant refusals to engage in dialogue. Instead of taking effective and realistic steps towards peace, Washington and its allies continue to supply Kiev with weapons, thereby only further fueling the conflict.

Putin stated later that if Ukraine wants to talk, theatrical gestures are unnecessary; it needs to revoke the decree prohibiting negotiations with Russia. According to him, Russia has never been against a peaceful settlement of the conflict in Ukraine, but only on the condition of security guarantees for the Russian Federation. 

Moscow notes that there are currently no prerequisites for pursuing a peaceful course of action. The absolute priority for Russia is achieving the goals of the special operation, which at this point is only possible through military means. However, the situation in Ukraine can shift towards peace on condition that it take into account the de facto situation and new realities; all of Moscow’s demands are well-known.

The conflict in Ukraine negatively affects Türkiye itself, and it is difficult for Türkiye not only economically but also politically. Despite being a member of NATO, Ankara tries not to jeopardize its ties with Moscow, and abstains from providing real military assistance to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU). This has undoubtedly leads to increased pressure on Turkish authorities both internally from Western-oriented factions and externally from Washington, London, and Brussels. Moreover, the potential for conflict around the Black Sea is increasing, which clearly does not make Turkish authorities happy. 

Erdogan’s interest in mediating the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine has certain objectives. Firstly, a mediator must maintain dialogue with all parties, allowing Ankara to continue political dialogue with both Moscow and Kiev along with the West. Secondly, this increases Türkiye’s significance in international affairs, as successful mediation leads to an improved reputation and strengthens its position on the global stage. Thirdly, Ankara does not want to forfeit its profitable economic ties with Moscow, despite unprecedented pressure from Western countries, but the role of mediator in behind-the-scenes talks softens opinions about Türkiye.

However, it is worth noting that the meeting in Astana led to new statements that likely reduce Türkiye’s chances of becoming a mediator in resolving the Ukrainian conflict. Erdogan is not being considered a potential mediator in peace negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, according to Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, although he confirmed that the “Ukrainian issue was touched upon during the leaders’ talks.”

Many experts have already stated that Moscow’s position has changed, but most likely it has not; the Kremlin has just started to more clearly highlight its “red lines.” Although Ankara does not actively provide weapons to Kiev as other NATO member countries do, a mediator must remain as neutral as possible. In July 2023, Türkiye and Ukraine signed a memorandum on the development of joint production of drones, with the company planning to start producing Bayraktar TB2 and Bayraktar Akinci in Ukraine in 2025, investing $100 million in the plant. Moreover, it is possible that Moscow leans more towards the Chinese peace initiative.

Türkiye is closely watching the conflict, given that the stakes are rising and how this could threaten the entire world. Therefore, it is quite possible that Ankara could become a part-time mediator that can once again restart the “Istanbul format” and initiate the process of resolving the Ukrainian crisis. Moreover, at the SCO summit meeting in Astana on July 4, Putin stated that the conditions of the Istanbul peace agreement remain unchanged and initially suited Ukraine until the intervention of the US. The Istanbul agreements on Ukraine remain “on the table” and could serve as the basis of the negotiation process.

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Mediation in a conflict of this level would allow Erdogan to strengthen his positions both domestically and abroad. Türkiye, like many other countries in the world majority, desires change in the global political system, which Moscow is pushing for. The old, West-centric world order is crumbling, but on the path to creating a new order, Türkiye cannot do without a partner like Russia. Additionally, the resolution of the Ukrainian crisis will bring stability to the Black Sea region, which would undoubtedly be in Ankara’s interests.

Steady progress despite roadblocks

Turkish-Russian relations have gone through many difficult times. The countries have repeatedly found themselves on opposite sides of the barricades in various global and regional crises. Their interaction has been multifaceted and is characterized by both cooperation and rivalry, especially in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus.

Syria is a vivid example. Türkiye supports various opposition groups that are against the Syrian government, which is supported by Russia. Despite this, both countries have worked together to de-escalate the conflict in some areas through initiatives such as the Astana Process. They also conduct joint patrols in northeastern Syria under agreements aimed at reducing tensions. However, incidents such as strikes on Turkish troops by Russian-backed Syrian government forces have periodically led to difficulties.

During the twenty-first round of Astana talks on Syria in the capital of Kazakhstan on January 24-25, the parties again discussed the situation in the Levantine country. It is no secret that Ankara is interested in creating a “security zone” by eliminating Kurdish groups and other forces located in these territories. The current authorities want to resolve the issue of the threat from Kurdish militias in this way and then resettle Syrian refugees there, who are greatly “irritating” Turkish citizens amid the economic crisis in the country.

Recent events demonstrate this; mass riots have broken out in Türkiye amid growing discontent with Syrian refugees. On the positive side, there is a renewal of indirect dialogue about “good intentions.” Syrian President Bashar Assad expressed his readiness to take steps to improve relations between Syria and Türkiye in the context of the Arab Republic’s general efforts to pursue reconciliation with its neighbors. The step towards reconciliation did not go unnoticed in Ankara. Erdogan hastened to respond indirectly to his Syrian counterpart: “There are no reasons not to establish diplomatic relations. We will act together in developing relations with Syria as we have acted together in the past. We can never have problems or aims to interfere in Syria’s internal affairs.” 

The issue of Syria was also discussed in Astana, but it is highly likely that a detailed discussion will take place during Putin’s upcoming visit to Türkiye. Moscow, for its part, will continue to work on the process of normalizing relations between Ankara and Damascus, which have stalled. Both countries recognize the benefits of working together to achieve common goals, such as regional stability, combating terrorism, and finding a political solution to the conflict. Such pragmatic cooperation allows them to manage their rivalry and keep competitive struggle under control, avoiding direct confrontation and finding common ground in areas where their interests coincide.

The South Caucasus, especially during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020, demonstrated another dimension of Türkiye-Russia relations. Türkiye openly supported Azerbaijan, providing it with military and political assistance. Russia, historically an ally of Armenia which at the same time maintained good relations with Azerbaijan, acted as a mediator and ultimately became a guarantor of the ceasefire agreement.

Today, Azerbaijan has finally resolved the issue of territorial integrity and is actively negotiating with Armenia on the conclusion of a peace agreement and the full opening of transport links between the countries. Moscow and Ankara, which, together with Iran, coordinate their actions with Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Georgia within the “3+3” platform to achieve peace in the region and intensify economic ties, are also interested in this.

In Libya, Türkiye and Russia also support opposing groups in the civil war in the country, but despite this, both countries are making diplomatic efforts to find a political solution to the conflict, which emphasizes their ability to maintain dialogue and seek areas of mutual interest even when strategic interests diverge. Such a pragmatic approach can help countries interact in the context of the current escalation of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the growing overall tension in the Middle East.

The next meeting of the leaders will undoubtedly affect the above situations, but it will also provide an opportunity to “compare notes” on the countries’ policies in Central Asia and Africa. As for Türkiye’s consent to Sweden’s accession to NATO, Moscow never had any illusions and understood that Ankara would agree to this on its own terms. At the same time, although Türkiye is a member of NATO, it achieves a better understanding with Russia on the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, and the South Caucasus than with its Western partners, in particular the US and France.

It’s all about economics

A significant economic partnership has developed between Russia and Türkiye, covering various sectors of the economy and reinforced by the strategic interest of both countries in maintaining and expanding bilateral economic ties. These relationships are characterized by cooperation in the fields of energy, trade, tourism, defense, and other areas.

Energy is the cornerstone of economic relations between Russia and Türkiye. Russia is one of the largest suppliers of energy resources to Türkiye, supplying a significant portion of its natural gas, oil, and coal. Key projects include the Turk Stream gas pipeline and the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant.

Turk Stream directly transports Russian natural gas to Türkiye and further on to Southern Europe, bypassing Ukraine. This is a vital infrastructure project that boosts Russia’s role as a primary supplier of energy resources to Türkiye and Europe and provides Türkiye with a strategic transit position. At negotiations, the leaders of the countries will continue to discuss the “international gas hub” project, the implementation of which has faced difficulties due to “administrative” issues. 

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In addition to the gas sector, there is also nuclear energy. Russia is building the first nuclear power plant in Türkiye, Akkuyu, which, after completion, will make a significant contribution to meeting Türkiye’s energy needs. This project is not only a symbol of Russian-Turkish cooperation but also Russia’s aspiration to expand its presence in nuclear energy worldwide. Furthermore, it is highly likely that the upcoming negotiations between Putin and Erdogan will initiate the process of coordinating the project for constructing a second nuclear power plant on the Black Sea coast near the city of Sinop.

Bilateral trade between Russia and Türkiye is growing, and both countries are working to eliminate trade barriers and strengthen economic ties. They have set ambitious goals to increase trade volume, striving to balance and diversify the range of goods. However, in order to do this, it is necessary that they resolve the issue of sanctions pressure on trade between the countries. During Putin’s upcoming visit to Türkiye, ways to resolve problems with financial transactions that have arisen for Russian and Turkish businesses due to Turkish banks’ refusals to accept payments from the Russian side will be discussed. This needs to be resolved, as the tourist season is ahead, and tourism is another important aspect of economic cooperation. Russian tourists comprise one of the largest groups visiting Türkiye each year and contribute significantly to the revenues of the Turkish tourist industry. 

Despite tensions with NATO, Russia maintains diplomatic and economic relationships with various countries, including Türkiye. The meeting of the presidents in Astana and Putin’s anticipated visit to Türkiye are evidence of diplomatic activity. Such meetings are typically used to discuss a range of bilateral issues, including energy cooperation, trade, regional security, and international affairs. Türkiye’s position as a NATO member does not preclude it from engaging in diplomatic dialogue with Russia. In fact, Türkiye has historically balanced its relationships with Western countries and other global powers, asserting its strategic autonomy.

These visits and negotiations often indicate that, despite attempts at isolation or sanctions from major international coalitions such as NATO or the EU, countries like Russia find ways to maintain international relations through strategic partnerships and bilateral agreements. 

Overall, relations between Russia and Türkiye are complex and multifaceted. The nature of these relations is largely determined by the foreign policy interests and strategies of both countries. Both states strive to cooperate in various areas and strengthen mutually beneficial relations based on mutual respect and understanding. The contacts between the leaders of the countries are aimed at protecting the national interests of each side and building a fair new world order, as both countries are weary of the destructive hegemony of the West led by Washington.

July 06, 2024 at 07:22PM

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