Amid tensions with US, Erdogan praises Russian ties

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MOSCOW – Relations between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Biden administration may crumble, but on Wednesday the Turkish leader made clear his access to an alternative partner for trade and military deals: Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.

At a three-hour meeting in Sochi, a seaside town on the Black Sea, Russia – the first for the two presidents in more than a year – Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan discussed arms purchases, the trade and a nuclear reactor that Russia is building in Turkey. .

The Turkish leader used the meeting to praise the military deals with Russia, even though Turkey is a member of NATO, the main Western military alliance. Military cooperation – in particular Turkey’s purchase of the sophisticated S-400 air defense system from Russia, which NATO opposed – had gone quite far, he said with Mr Putin in his side, that “there is no way back in this area.”

The deal for the S-400 missiles raised alarms in Washington, which subsequently rolled back Turkey’s purchase of next-generation F-35 warplanes in 2019 and the following year imposed economic and travel sanctions. Nonetheless, Erdogan reinforced at Wednesday’s meeting his intention to purchase a second batch of S-400.

Turkey and Russia have been both friends on energy, trade and military deals, and enemies in multiple conflicts in the Middle East. Through mercenaries and proxies, countries are on opposing sides in the wars in Syria and Libya, while Turkish and Russian troops serve as peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

But pointing out the fallout with the United States, and not the geopolitical dead ends, seemed to prevail Wednesday for the two leaders. In the public part of their meeting, Mr. Putin, whose overarching foreign policy goal has been to undermine NATO and the EU, only briefly mentioned “cooperation” in the three conflicts where Turkey and Russia are on the side of the opposition.

Erdogan often explains that successful relations with Russia are necessary for a regional power like Turkey and wondered why the United States should dictate Turkey’s bilateral relations. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and has opened a gas pipeline to Turkey under the Black Sea.

At Wednesday’s meeting, Putin praised the two energy deals and said alignment with Russia protects Turkey from high gas prices in Europe. “Now when we see somewhat difficult and turbulent processes in the European gas market, Turkey feels absolutely confident and stable,” Putin said.

Despite Mr Putin’s remarks, natural gas prices have skyrocketed in world markets, not just in Europe, and it is not certain that deals with Russia will give Mr Erdogan the relief he was looking for and badly needed.

The meeting took place as Syria and Russia prepare a new offensive against Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib, the last rebel-held region of Syria, after an 18-month truce. And in Libya, Turkey had deployed hundreds of Syrian soldiers and militants to support the government of national accord, while a Russian mercenary company linked to the Kremlin, Wagner, backed the opposing side led by General Khalifa Haftar. .

Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Erdogan stressed that peace in Syria was of the utmost importance among the issues between them, stressing that he wanted to discuss not only the immediate situation in Idlib, but also to find a way to end the war as a whole.

Nearly four million people live in the part of Idleb still held by the rebels and Mr. Erdogan is particularly concerned to prevent a new offensive that would send a wave of displaced Syrians across the border. Turkey is already hosting four million refugees, the majority of whom are Syrians, and the popular mood, amid an economic downturn with high unemployment and inflation, has turned against them.

But Mr Putin, at least in his public comments, has moved quickly on these issues. “Internationally, we are cooperating quite effectively, and I mean in Syria and our coordinated position on Libya,” he said.

Since a dangerous clash in 2015, when Turkey shot down a Russian plane on its southern border with Syria, Mr. Erdogan has carefully cultivated his relationship with Mr. Putin, meeting him in person often several times a year, to the detriment of the long alliance with NATO and the United States.

Much of Mr. Erdogan’s diplomacy is interpreted as a negotiating stance, threatening the United States by moving closer to Mr. Putin, but creating distance when he seeks something in Washington.

When asked at a press briefing in 2019 if he intended to withdraw Turkey from NATO, Erdogan dismissed the idea. Still, he has strained the alliance, suggesting this month that he would buy more anti-aircraft missiles from Russia.

Aykan Erdemir, director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington and former opposition member in the Turkish parliament, said Erdogan’s plans to buy more S-400 missiles should be a ” alarm clock “for the Biden. administration.

“The Turkish president will continue to play a spoiler role within NATO and will offer Putin new opportunities to undermine the transatlantic alliance and its values,” he said in comments sent by email. He added that Turkey’s offer to play a role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal was aimed at making the West dependent on Turkey there, in order to reduce any backsliding from Washington on other issues.

But Mr Erdogan was heading to Sochi with his ‘weakest hand’ to date in the couple’s 19-year relationship, Kerim Has, professor of Turkish-Russian relations at Moscow University, wrote in a personal blog .

Not only is he desperate to prevent the offensive in Idlib, but he is also in dire need of a favorable deal to buy natural gas from Russia, Has wrote. To achieve this, he added, Erdogan could be forced to purchase a second set of S-400 missiles.

“Erdogan may have to buy the second part of the S-400 for his ‘personal survival’,” he wrote.

When the meeting ended without a briefing for reporters, Mr Has concluded that Mr Erdogan was leaving empty-handed. “In my opinion, Erdogan did not get what he expected,” he wrote on Twitter.

As Mr. Erdogan sought to restore relations with the United States and the European Union, he recently acknowledged President Biden’s composure.

“In my 19-year life as a leader as Prime Minister and President, the point we have come to in our relationship with the United States is not good,” he told media Turks during a briefing. “I’ve worked well with Junior Bush, with Mr. Obama, with Mr. Trump, but I can’t say we have a good start with Mr. Biden.”

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Moscow and Carlotta Gall from Istanbul.


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