Istambul, Turkey – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet his Russian counterpart in Sochi on Friday, after negotiating a grain shipment deal between Moscow and Kyiv and as a new Turkish military intervention in Syria remains a possibility.
The summit with Vladimir Putin comes in the same week that a ship carrying grain from Ukraine was able to set sail, the first since the conflict began, under a deal between the warring parties brokered by the United Nations and Ankara.
The Turkish leader’s international credentials have been bolstered by the deal that resumes exports of agricultural products from Ukraine and Russia, alleviating the threat to global food security.
Erdogan’s trip, his eighth to Russia since early 2019, follows a three-way meeting with Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran last month.
According to Ankara, regional and global developments will be on the agenda, as well as bilateral ties.
“By virtue of its role in the grain deal, Turkey has managed to position itself as Russia’s diplomatic conduit to the international community,” said Eyup Ersoy, a visiting scholar at the Institute for Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London.
“This diplomatic rearrangement has shifted the relational asymmetry more in favor of Turkey and is expected to reduce, to a certain extent, Russian resistance against Turkish policies and initiatives on issues of common interest.”
Analysts said Turkey’s main focus would be Moscow’s acquiescence, or at least its lack of opposition, to a Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
Russia, a key supporter of President Bashar al-Assad, controls most of northern Syria’s airspace.
Erdogan raised the possibility of another operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters in May.
“We are determined to eradicate from Syria the evil groups that attack our national security,” he reiterated during the Tehran summit two weeks ago.
Tal Rifaat and Manbij, cities west of the Euphrates River controlled by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), are possible targets.
The Syrian group is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 38-year armed uprising against Turkey. The PKK is considered a “terrorist” group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Ankara has launched four cross-border operations in Syria since 2016 and controls land in the north with the aim of driving out the YPG and establishing a 30 km (19 mile) safe zone.
An October 2019 raid in northeastern Syria against the YPG drew widespread international condemnation.
“Erdogan wants a green light for a military operation in Syria,” said Kerim Has, a Moscow-based Turkish political analyst.
“As we saw at the Tehran summit, Iran and Russia are against this operation, but I think Erdogan can persuade Putin. Many things depend on the internal situation in Turkey because Erdogan wants to launch the operation before the elections so that he can consolidate at least a few percentage points in the vote.”
Turkey is experiencing its worst economic crisis in two decades (annual inflation reached 79.6 percent on Wednesday) and Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections in June next year.
The Kremlin could alleviate this instability, especially through natural gas. Russia supplied Turkey, which relies on energy imports, with 45 percent of its gas needs last year.
“Turkey wants to maintain its energy flows from Russia during the winter while maintaining economic cooperation to alleviate its difficulties and open a [currency] swap deal or get investments from Russia,” said Emre Caliskan, a researcher at the London-based Center for Foreign Policy.
“Erdogan could present this as a victory for the Turkish public and perhaps alleviate high food and energy prices that are likely to present a challenge in the upcoming elections.”
Whether this would be enough to win over voters, however, remains to be seen.
“We have seen these operations in Syria before and they do nothing to help us,” said Istanbul tobacconist Cemil Sener, 39.
“People know these are just gimmicks to give TV stations something positive to report. And I don’t see how the Russians can really help our economy while they are being sanctioned by the West.”
Erdogan and Putin may also discuss the possibility of Turkey sharing its experience with armed aerial drones with Russia.
Bayraktar TB2 drones sold to Ukraine have proven very effective against Russian forces.
Last month, Erdogan reportedly said that Putin had suggested setting up a drone factory in Russia during their meeting in Tehran.
The Kremlin said last week that “military and technical cooperation” would be on the Sochi agenda, an indication of Russia’s interest in acquiring Bayraktars, according to Ersoy.
“Recent news about Russia’s interest in acquiring Iranian drones is indicative of the urgency of the matter for Moscow,” he added.
However, such a move would undermine the mainstay of Turkish support for Ukraine, as well as surprise other NATO members.
Earlier this month, the head of Baykar, which makes the Bayraktar TB2 drones, ruled out supplying them to Moscow.
“If Turkey were to engage more with Russia on military issues at a time when Russia is considered the biggest threat to NATO, it would seriously damage relations with the West,” Kerim Has said.