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Putin and Erdoğan play down their differences in Sochi

The Russian president receives the Turkish leader less than three weeks after their last meeting to deepen their bilateral relations
Erdogan Putin

PHOTO/RUSSIAN PRESIDENCY   -   Russian President Vladimir Putin receives Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at his residence in Sochi

Putin and Erdoğan have met again. Just 17 days after their last meeting in Tehran, where they also had the opportunity to discuss alone and in the company of the ayatollahs, the Russian president received the Turkish leader at his summer residence, in the well-known palace on the shores of the Black Sea. With a wide range of topics and issues to resolve on the table, the conversation revolved around deepening bilateral cooperation in trade and energy matters, but did not ignore the convulsive geopolitical scenario that has arisen following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

Erdoğan has become the last bullet in the chamber. The Turkish leader is the loose link in the NATO chain capable of talking to Putin, of persuading him to extinguish the flashpoint of war. Although motivated by his own interests, which sometimes have nothing to do with those of the Western orbit, Erdoğan has achieved what he wanted: to set himself up as the main mediator between Kiev and Moscow. A mediator who, with the backing of the United Nations, is sewing up important agreements such as that of unblocking Ukrainian ports in order to resume grain exports. 

Externally, the Turkish president scored a diplomatic coup after months of arduous negotiations, marked by Ukrainian distrust of the Kremlin's devious methods. Domestically, he needed the pact to alleviate Turkey's deep economic crisis, with a plunging lira and runaway inflation. All this in the face of an Erdoğan stubbornly sticking to his monetary policy of lowering interest rates against the recommendations of experts. But he is aware that, faced with a Russia weakened by the invasion and its consequences, he can extract more concessions. 

Putin, for his part, is seeking to find new ways to keep the Russian economy afloat, which has been subjected to harsh Western isolation. Although economic indicators do not yet reflect the extent of the damage caused, according to analysts, and although Russia has tried to channel trade flows through countries such as China and India, the sanctions have undermined the capacity of Russia's industrial fabric. The Kremlin is now devising different strategies to circumvent the restrictions imposed by Washington and Brussels, safeguards that will allow it to continue operating relatively normally.  

In this context, a Turkish expedition led by Erdoğan landed in Sochi on Friday. Accompanied by the ministers of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Defence, Hulusi Akar, Energy, Fatih Dönmez, Finance, Nureddin Nebati, Trade, Mehmet Muş, and Agriculture, Vahit Kirişçi -many of the government's strong men-, the Islamist leader has closed a deal that had been on track since the beginning of the week by a Turkish delegation, an advance party with competencies in the diplomatic, economic and commercial areas, as the Kremlin spokesman, Dimitri Peskov, acknowledged at the end of the meeting. 

It was the turn of both leaders. Putin and Erdoğan first held a four-hour meeting alone and then brought their respective teams into the conversation. The meeting was a continuation, a second part of the face-to-face meeting on Iranian soil during the Astana format summit to discuss the Syria scenario. This time, however, there were more issues on the table. Trade ties, the grain export agreement, energy cooperation and arms contracts all came to the fore. 

Putin Erdogan
PHOTO/RUSSIAN PRESIDENCY  -   Russian President Vladimir Putin receives Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at his residence in Sochi

Putin opened the visit by extending sincere thanks to Erdoğan in front of the cameras: "With your direct involvement and with the mediation of the UN Secretary General, the problem linked to Ukrainian grain supplies from the Black Sea ports was solved. "Deliveries have already started. I would like to thank you for this and for the fact that, at the same time, a joint solution was adopted on the uninterrupted supply of Russian food and fertiliser to the world market," the Russian president told his counterpart. 

Putin's feigned closeness could be a response to his intentions to use the Turkish economy as a subterfuge to circumvent operational Western sanctions and shield himself from future ones. According to information gathered by Ukrainian intelligence and published by The Washington Post, Moscow has reportedly asked Erdoğan's government to acquire stakes in Turkish oil refineries, oil terminals and depots. As well as several Turkish state-owned banks allowing correspondent accounts to be opened for major Russian banks. There are no signs that Erdoğan will give the green light. 

In energy, Russia is one of Turkey's main suppliers. In 2021 alone, Moscow provided the Eurasian nation with a quarter of its oil imports and about half of its gas purchases. "Turkish Stream [the gas pipeline connecting the two countries across the Black Sea], unlike all other routes of our hydrocarbon supplies, works properly, dynamically, flawlessly (...), it has become one of the main arteries of Russian gas supplies to Europe," Putin stressed at the meeting. Turkey, for its part, is a key transhipment point for Russia-bound goods in the face of the disappearance of Western companies, according to the pro-government Turkish daily Dunya, and was already one of the main destinations for Russian tourists. 

Economic and trade dependencies between the two sides are severed in the area of arms. Ankara defied its NATO allies when it sought to acquire Russian S-400 anti-missile systems, a stalled operation to date, while Moscow intends to replenish and expand its arsenal with the purchase of Bayraktar T2 drones, produced by Erdoğan's son-in-law. However, the Turkish government has made it clear that it will not sell arms to Russia for its war in Ukraine. The Ukrainian army has such weaponry. 

The presence at the dialogue table of Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkey's National Intelligence Agency, Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MİT), the institution in charge of connecting state action with that of Syrian rebel groups, was noteworthy. One of his interlocutors on this matter appears to have been Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who has been seen entering the residence of Sochi, who is directly responsible for a large contingent of Chechen forces in Syria. Erdoğan intends to launch another campaign to establish a new 30-kilometre 'safe zone' in the north of the country, but needs Putin's approval. 

In this scenario, competing interests stand out. One fought Syrian autocrat Bashar al-Assad, the other perpetuated his regime; one is a NATO member, the other has become its main threat; one backs Libya's unity government, the other supports Marshal Khalifa Hafter's campaign in eastern Libya; one wants to gain influence in Central Asia, the other seeks to maintain its stronghold of influence there. And with the threat of renewed conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, where they support different sides, the gap between them is widening.