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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Friendly Putin-Erdogan meeting keeps West guessing

President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Tuesday, July 11, 2023.

By Ben Hubbard and Paul Sonne

Just two months ago, many in the West thought Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan could be shifting away from what they considered his overly close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Erdogan had a warm meeting with President Joe Biden. Turkey allowed a group of celebrated Ukrainian commanders, being held in the country as part of a prisoner exchange deal, to return to the battlefield, angering Russia. And Erdogan dropped his resistance to allowing Sweden to join NATO, strengthening the military alliance’s efforts to isolate Russia.

But there was no signal of a major change in Erdogan’s balancing act between Russia and the West earlier this week, when he and Putin stood side by side in the Russian resort city of Sochi and spoke of further expanding their countries’ partnership. They would increase trade and work together on energy issues, they said, despite efforts by Erdogan’s NATO allies to cripple Russia’s economy and limit its access to global energy markets.

They also discussed a more pressing geopolitical topic — the resumption of an agreement to allow the export of Ukrainian grain through the Black Sea — although they announced no concrete progress.

The leaders’ joint appearance made clear that their relationship endures and will likely continue to develop, largely because both sides have more to gain from the partnership than they stand to lose, analysts said.

As Russia finds itself ostracized from the West, Turkey has served as a vital channel, declining to join Western sanctions and continuing to ship much needed goods to Russia. For Turkey, struggling with an economic crisis, Russia has proved a fertile market for Turkish exports and has bolstered the Turkish government’s finances with delayed gas payments and deposits in Turkey’s central bank.

“As far as Erdogan is concerned, he is, in my opinion, living in the best of both worlds,” said Ahmet Kasim Han, a professor of international relations at Beykoz University in Istanbul.

The Turkish leader has managed to take steps to please his NATO allies, like agreeing to admit Sweden to NATO and meeting with Biden, without jeopardizing the many perks of his relationship with Putin.

Putin also benefits from his open channel with the leader of a NATO country, Han said, because it gives him an indirect way to communicate his views to the rest of the alliance, sometimes to the frustration of other members.

“If I were in the Kremlin, I would prefer a member of the alliance that sometimes hinders and delays issues that are of tactical importance to the members,” Han said. “It is nice to have a nuisance like that among your rivals.”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine 18 months ago, deciphering the relationship between Putin and Erdogan has been an evolving puzzle for Western policymakers as they navigate the complex diplomacy surrounding the war.

For the West, Putin is the conflict’s villain, and the United States and other NATO members have sought to hobble his war machine with sanctions.

Erdogan staked out a more complex position, condemning Russia’s invasion and offering aid to Ukraine while expanding his country’s economic ties with Russia and referring to Putin as “my friend.”

That approach gave Erdogan a unique diplomatic role, allowing Turkey to help broker prisoner exchanges and the grain deal, which he and others have credited with facilitating food deliveries to poor countries. But his refusal to shun Putin frustrated NATO allies and led some policymakers to privately question which side he was on.

This summer seemed to offer indications that Erdogan wanted warmer ties with his NATO allies. During his meeting with Biden, Erdogan spoke of “a new process” with the United States. Erdogan welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Turkey and said that Ukraine “deserves NATO membership with no doubt,” a position that is anathema to Russia.

But on Monday, it was clear how entwined Russia and Turkey have become.

Putin noted how much trade between Russia and Turkey had increased in recent years. He mentioned Turkey’s status as a go-to destination for Russian tourists who now struggle to travel elsewhere in Europe. About 5 million Russians visited Turkey last year, Putin said.

The two countries increasingly cooperate on energy issues, and plan to do so more in the future. Last winter, Moscow allowed Erdogan to delay payments for Russian gas and permitted the Turkish government to make some payments in currency other than dollars, easing pressure on Turkey’s reserves.

For his part, Erdogan spoke proudly of a nuclear power plant that Russia is building near the Mediterranean coast in Turkey and expressed interest in a second one.

Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, said the leaders also likely discussed other issues.

Both countries’ delegations included their central bank chiefs, suggesting talks about conducting more trade in their national currencies, Gabuev said. He also noted the attendance of Dmitri Shugayev, director of the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, meaning that military matters were also likely discussed.

“There is the underwater part of the iceberg, which we don’t know,” Gabuev said.

Despite their talk of increased cooperation, the two leaders failed to restore the Black Sea grain deal, which had been brokered by Turkey and the United Nations last year. Russia withdrew in July, saying that it had not received the benefits expected from the arrangement.

Putin said Monday that Russia would resume the agreement once its demands were met.

Since withdrawing from the agreement, Russia has frequently attacked Ukrainian ports and grain facilities, and Ukrainian officials said it did so again Monday, when swarms of Russian drones struck warehouses and other targets on the Ukrainian side of the Danube River in the region of Odesa.

Turkey and Russia have previously discussed establishing a gas hub in Turkey. The idea appeals to Erdogan as a way to improve Turkey’s weak position in global energy markets, and it could allow Russia to sell its gas to countries that would not buy it directly.

Putin said Monday that the Russian state energy giant Gazprom had given a “road map” for the project to its Turkish counterpart, BOTAS.

Energy experts, however, have questioned the viability of Putin’s proposal, saying it seemed unlikely that the European Union would approve new Russian gas conduits or seek to increase supplies to Europe.

Europe has put considerable effort into reducing its reliance on Russian gas imports and finding alternative sources like liquefied natural gas shipments from the United States, Qatar and elsewhere.

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