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[OPINION] Erdoğan remains an unreliable partner for Putin

Türkmen Terzi

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has gained international recognition for his role in the Ukraine-Russia grain deal.

This is a UN-backed agreement that was realized in İstanbul last month after months of effort by the Turkish government and is vital for food security for many Middle Eastern and North African countries.

While Erdoğan has received praise for this deal, he has also received global condemnation over his plans to conduct a military operation against Kurdish groups in Syria.

Erdoğan has established a very “special relationship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has faced international isolation since Russian armed forces invaded Ukraine in February.

The Russian president is willing to establish strong business ties with Turkey, especially in the areas of trade and energy, but Erdoğan’s close ties to jihadist groups in Syria remain a significant security concern for Putin.

Consequently, he still has not given the green light for Erdoğan’s planned military operation in Syria.

Erdoğan and Putin visit each other frequently, and bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia entered a new phase in the early 2000s, with the two leaders establishing a close dialogue.

Turkey’s trade volume with Russia reached a record high of $34.7 billion in 2021. According to the Turkish Foreign Ministry, “1,972 projects with a total value of over $75.7 billion have thus far been realized by Turkish contractors in Russia, while reciprocal investments have reached 10 billion dollars each.” According to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat), 4,900 Russians purchased houses in Turkey between February and June 2022.

Energy is the foremost interest between Turkey and Russia. The TurkStream project, which has been developed in line with an agreement between Russia and Turkey, runs more than 930 kilometers through the Black Sea, carrying Russian gas to Europe since January 2020.

“The Turkish Stream, unlike all other routes of our hydrocarbon supplies, works properly, works smoothly, without any failures. I think our European partners should be grateful to Turkey for ensuring uninterrupted transit of our gas to the European market,” Putin said in praise of the TurkStream project, according to Russia Today.

Russia’s state-run nuclear energy firm Rosatom is building four reactors worth $20 billion on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast.

The plant is expected to meet up to 10 percent of Turkey’s domestic electricity needs.

Russian tourists have constituted the majority of tourists visiting Turkey in recent years, with 7 million Russians visiting Turkey in 2019 and around 4.7 million last year in the wake of the Covid pandemic.

While the war with Ukraine has negatively affected the tourism sector, the Turkish tourism industry at present expects some 1.7 million Russian guests this year.

Despite close business ties, Turkey and Russia have often found themselves supporting opposing sides in many key conflicts.

In Libya, Turkey supported the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), while Moscow backed General Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruk-based Libyan National Army (LNA).

The Turkish-Russian relationship faced a serious test as a result of the Syrian civil war. Erdoğan has become the main supporter of the Syrian rebels and jihadist forces fighting against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey currently controls certain northern Syrian cities and towns as a result of direct military operations.

Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down a Russian warplane in the Turkey-Syria border area in November 2015.

Erdoğan then apologized to Putin for the downing of the Russian jet, and this seemed to have strengthened relations between the two leaders.

Another shocking incident to occur was when Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, an off-duty Turkish police officer who allegedly had close ties to the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, assassinated Andrei Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, on Dec. 19, 2016.

After fatally shooting the ambassador, Altıntaş shouted slogans referring to Russia’s offensive in Aleppo as well as a war chant used by a jihadist group in Syria.

That major security failure in the Turkish capital forced Turkey and Russia to confront a new crisis related to Syria as Islamist Turks were protesting against Russia before the assassination for destroying the historic northern Syrian city of Aleppo and killing its people.

Following several meetings in 2017 and 2018, Turkey and Russia once again entered a new phase in their relationship.

Turkey, Russia and Iran launched a trilateral initiative called the “Astana Process” to bring the warring sides in Syria together to find a permanent solution to the decade-long war.

On top of that, in a deal that angered NATO members, Turkey purchased Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems in 2017.

Washington has warned its NATO ally Turkey against purchasing new weapons from Russia.

The Ukraine crisis gave Erdoğan the upper hand in his relationship with Putin as the Western world introduced harsh economic sanctions on Russia.

Ankara did not join the Western sanctions and instead welcomed Russian oligarchs, investors and citizens to Turkey.

Erdoğan and Putin met for the second time in a month in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, after their last meeting in Tehran. They agreed to boost cooperation in the transport, agriculture, finance and construction sectors and switch part of the payments for Russian gas to rubles during a four-hour meeting in Sochi on Aug. 5.

“Putin and Erdoğan may discuss the topic of BRICS during their talks in Sochi,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had told reporters on Friday in Sochi.

BRICS is an acronym for the grouping of the world’s leading emerging market economies, namely Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The first BRIC summit took place in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on June 16, 2009. The elected leaders of the four countries formally declared the membership of BRIC, and South Africa was invited to join the bloc in December 2010, resulting in BRICS. BRICS accounts for 17 percent of world trade, and the countries are home to 45 percent of the world’s population

Turkey’s Syria operation was high on the agenda in Sochi as Erdoğan is now planning another military operation to take over the northern Syria cities of Tell Rifaat and Manbij to create a 30-kilometer-deep buffer zone in Syria.

The two cities are controlled by Syrian Kurdish armed group the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Turkey sees the YPG as the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the armed group that has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 and is listed as a terrorist organization by Ankara and much of the international community.

Erdoğan has tried to convince Putin regarding his Syria operation, but Putin has remained firm, warning Erdoğan to avoid destabilizing Syria and encouraging him to find a solution in Syria with Assad.

A statement issued by the Turkish presidency after the Sochi meeting between Putin and Erdoğan indicated that Putin is not happy with Turkey’s attacks targeting Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Turkey can target Kurdish forces without getting the green light from Russia, but the operation will need to remain limited. For a large-scale operation, Turkey desperately needs to use Syrian airspace, which is largely controlled by Russia.

Russia has not listed the PKK or the Syrian armed Kurdish groups as terrorists, and the Kremlin’s main concern is not Kurdish groups but rather jihadists in Idlib.

While Turkey is not directly in control of Syria’s Idlib city, the last stronghold of jihadist forces, it is protecting the city from Russian-backed Assad forces.

The tension between Turkey and Russia was high following an incident in which Russian-backed Syrian regime forces killed 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib in February 2020.

Russia fears that the many Caucasian jihadists who have been fighting in Idlib and northern Syria might return to threaten Russia.

Russia has long been critical of Turkey’s relationship with jihadist groups in Idlib.

“Idlib province is … a sort of zone of responsibility of Turkey; it is their responsibility to separate the moderate opposition from the extremists, from Jabhat al-Nusra and other groups, other terrorist groups,” Russia’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev told reporters in Geneva in September 2018.

At his press conference with Erdoğan in March 2020, Putin complained that terrorists and radical elements were increasing and that they had attacked the Russian-operated Khmeimim Air Base 15 times since the beginning of the year.

Another point of contention between the two countries is that the Erdoğan government has been supplying Kyiv with lethal Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, which have been effective in Ukraine’s defense against Russian attacks.

Erdoğan claims that Putin asked him in Tehran to start selling the Bayraktars to Russia, but Haluk Bayraktar, CEO of Bayraktar drone manufacturer Baykar, said in an interview with CNN International in July that “it has not and will not supply its products to neighboring Russia.”

Erdoğan and Putin have developed “competitive cooperation” over the past two decades.

Russia benefits from close ties with Erdoğan as Turkey can limit the passage of Russian warships from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea through its Dardanelles and Bosporus straits under the Montreux Convention.

Turkey’s airspace is also key for Russia reaching Syria, and Turkey’s energy corridor remains the most secure route for Russia to transfer its oil and gas to Europe.

Turkey remains an important strategic and economic partner of Russia, but since Turkey has become the preferred transit route for jihadists heading to the Middle East and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has become active in Turkey since the eruption of the Syrian civil war, Erdoğan increasingly looks like an unreliable partner for Putin.

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