Istanbul, Turkey – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet his Russian counterpart on Friday in Sochi, after brokering 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 came in the same week that a ship carrying Ukraine grain was able to set sail, the first since the conflict began, under an agreement between the warring sides arranged by the United Nations and Ankara.
The Turkish leader’s international credentials have been bolstered by the agreement that summarizes exports of Ukrainian and Russian agricultural products, easing the threat to global food security.
Erdogan’s trip – his eighth to Russia since the start of 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 succeeded in positioning itself as Russia’s diplomatic conduit to the international community,” said Eyup Ersoy, visiting research fellow at the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, King’s College London.
“This diplomatic rearrangement has shifted the relational asymmetry more in Turkey’s favor and is expected to curtail, to some degree, Russian resistance against Turkish policies and initiatives in issues of common concern.”
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 backer of President Bashar al-Assad, controls most of the north Syrian air space.
Erdogan raised the prospect of another operation against Syrian Kurdish fighters in May.
“We are determined to eradicate the evil groups that target our national security from Syria,” 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 likely 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 “terror” group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
Ankara has launched four cross-border operations into Syria since 2016 and controls land in the north with the goal of pushing away the YPG and establishing the 30-km (19-mile) secure zone.
An incursion in October 2019 into northeast Syria against the YPG drew widespread international condemnation.
“Erdogan wants a green light for a military operation in Syria,” said Kerim Has, a Turkish political analyst based in Moscow.
“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 domestic situation in Turkey because Erdogan wants to launch the operation before the elections so he can consolidate at least a few percentage points in the vote.”
Turkey is experiencing its worst economic crisis in two decades – annual inflation hit 79.6 percent on Wednesday – and Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections by June next year.
The Kremlin could ease this instability, especially through natural gas. Russia supplied Turkey, which is dependent on energy imports, with 45 percent of its gas needs last year.
“Turkey wants to keep its energy flows from Russia over the winter while maintaining economic cooperation to alleviate its difficulties and opening a [currency] swap agreement or getting investment from Russia,” said Emre Caliskan, research fellow at the London-based Foreign Policy Centre.
“Erdogan could present this as a victory to the Turkish public and perhaps alleviate the high food and energy prices that are likely to present a challenge in the coming elections.”
However, it remains to be seen whether this would be enough to win over voters.
“We’ve seen these operations in Syria before and they don’t do anything to help us,” said Istanbul tobacconist Cemil Sener, 39.
“People know these are just ploys to give the 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 armed aerial drone expertise with Russia.
Bayraktar TB2 drones sold to Ukraine have proven to be highly effective against Russian forces.
Last month, Erdogan reportedly said Putin had suggested setting up a drone factory in Russia during their Tehran meeting.
The Kremlin said last week that “technical and military cooperation” would be on the agenda at Sochi, an indication of Russia’s interest in procuring Bayraktars, according to Ersoy.
“The recent news on the Russian interest to acquire Iranian drones is indicative of the urgency of the matter for Moscow,” he added.
However, such a move would undermine the main plank of Turkish support for Ukraine as well as raise eyebrows among fellow NATO members.
Earlier this month, the head of Baykar, which makes the Bayraktar TB2 drones ruled out supplying them to Moscow.
“If Turkey was to further participate with Russia in military matters at a time when Russia is considered the greatest threat to NATO, it would seriously damage relations with the West,” Kerim Has said.