Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Sochi, Russia, on September 29. The meeting of the leaders lasted almost three hours and was productive. This is the first face-to-face meeting between the leaders of Russia and Turkey in a long time, due to coronavirus restrictions. The extreme importance of these talks for both leaders is reflected by two facts: President Erdogan flew to Russia specifically for this meeting, and President Putin met with President Erdogan personally, despite the fact that he was for a long tine in self-isolation due to Covid contamination in his staff.
After the public speeches, the Presidents discussed all important topics behind closed doors, thus, they made no statements after the talks were finished. But Erdogan said on social media that he left Sochi after a “productive” meeting with his Russian counterpart.
“Our talks are sometimes not easy, but their outcome is always positive. Our agencies have learned to find compromises that benefit both parties”, Putin said.
A significant part of the negotiations was devoted to financial and economic issues, investments and joint projects. Turkish-Russian trade plunged by over 20 percent, but it increased by over 55 percent during the first nine months of this year, actually eight and a half months, Putin mentioned. He also said, Turkish investments in the Russian economy have reached $1.5 billion, while Russian investments in the Turkish economy reached $6.5 billion.
Putin admitted that sometimes negotiations between the parties were “difficult”. “Negotiations are sometimes difficult, but with a positive final result. Our [government] bodies have learned to find compromises that are beneficial to both sides,” he said.
Erdogan thanked Russia for its contribution to the help and support Turkey has received in fighting the forest fires.
“It is notable that Turkish-Russian relations, including political, economic, trade, military and defense, as well as industrial ties, are progressing. This is obvious. Despite a minor decline in our mutual trade, relations are moving forward positively”, Erdogan said.
As an example, the construction of a nuclear power station Akkuyu will be completed on time, the Turkish leader added.
The geopolitical context: the collapse of the West
It is very important to get the geopolitical context of the talks right. They are taking place against the background of a major crisis and restructuring of Western-centric security systems. The United States has just left Afghanistan in disgrace. Another crisis is occurring in the NATO: President Biden, whom the Europeans had expected to deepen transatlantic relations, has stabbed France in the back. The multi-billion dollar French-Australian contract for the construction of submarines was sacrificed to the new Anglo-Saxon alliance AUKUS. Europe thus has become aware that, no matter who is in the White House, Biden or Trump, the U.S. is changing its geopolitical line. The priority is not Europe or even the Middle East, but the Pacific, where the U.S. is openly at odds with China and prefers to rely on Australia, New Zealand and Britain, pulling the QUAD countries, including India and Japan, into an alliance. France, despite its vast Pacific holdings and nuclear forces, had no place in this company.
France itself faced its own “Afghanistan” in Africa. Simultaneously with Biden’s decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, Emmanuel Macron announced a reduction of French military presence in the Sahel. The French operation Barkhane failed. The French failed to ensure the security of the former colonies. The pro-French regime in Mali collapsed last year under the pressure of a patriotic military, and a recent coup in Guinea could also pose serious difficulties for the French presence in the region. French neo-colonial power in Africa is imploding at the seams because of the failure of Paris, the rise of anti-French sentiment in Africa and the activity of more effective powers offering African countries a fair partnership: Turkey, Russia and China.
Syria: in the spotlight
In this geopolitical context, the Presidents discussed first of all the situation in Syria. “The steps we take together regarding Syria carry great importance, – Erdogan said, – The peace there is dependent on Turkish-Russian ties”.
Syria was in the spotlight, because the fighting in Idlib has intensified in the recent weeks. Russia, as the main ally of the Syrian goverment, is providing crucial support for air operations against the radical militias that have entrenched themselves in the province. “We are abiding by the principles of the agreement reached with Russia”, Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar declared right before Wednesday’s meeting. Akar said that Ankara was expecting Moscow to also “abide by their responsibilities under the agreement.”
Idlib is a stumbling block in relations between Ankara on one side and Damascus and Moscow on the other. For the Syrian government and Russia, the fighters in Idlib are terrorists. Ankara is trying to cooperate with the forces that control the province, leaning on less radical fighters against the more radical ones. There are observation posts of the Turkish military in the province in accordance with the agreements reached within the framework of the Astana process. Nevertheless, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls most of the province, is defined as a terrorist organization in Turkey.
Turkey opposes the military operation in Idlib, as it will force about 3 million more refugees into Turkey. Both, fighters as well as their families and relatives are concentrated in Idlib. This migration factor is a threat to Turkey’s social stability, security and economy.
Also important for Turkey is what is happening in northeastern Syria, where the U.S. supports Kurdish separatists. However, while Turkey has been able to agree with Russia on Idlib all these years, the Americans have shown that they are not ready to hear the opinion of the Turkish side.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last Friday that recent talks with U.S. President Joe Biden were disappointing and that his country, a NATO member, would seek closer ties with Russia. Last Friday, speaking after prayer in Istanbul, Erdogan said he and Biden failed to overcome their differences in a meeting during his visit to New York attending the U.N. General Assembly this week.
Obviously, solving the problem of Idlib and northeastern Syria requires the wisdom of both leaders: Erdogan and Putin. Both are interested in maintaining contacts and friendly relations between the two countries. The way to solve the problem may lie in jointly pushing the Americans out of the country and protecting the territorial integrity of Syria. If Moscow should take into account the fundamental soreness of the issue of Kurdish separatism for Ankara, then Ankara should take into account the Ukrainian issue. It is obvious that supporting Kiev, which is anti-Russian and geopolitically non-self-sufficient, completely dependent on the United States, is not in Turkey’s long-term interest, as it indirectly makes Turkey a hostage of U.S. interests, implemented through U.S. proxies in Kiev.
Other key issues of bilateral cooperation were discussed too. First topic among these was the possible acquisition of new S-400 air defense systems. Washington had previously made clear that it strongly opposed the deal, but Ankara showed political will and insisted on its own priorities.
Erdogan told Putin that he wanted to discuss further defense cooperation despite U.S. objections. “At the UNGA, the typical persons especially asked us about certain issues specifically of course,” Erdogan said. Turkish leader said that Ankara gave Washington “the necessary response anyway”.
“It is not possible for us to turn back from the steps we took. I especially believe this: it is of great importance for us to continue strengthening Turkish-Russian ties every day.”
From Afghanistan to Libya
The Turkish and Russian presidents at the talks expressed “red lines”, each of their own, not only on Syria, but also on a wider range of issues. “We are cooperating quite successfully on the international stage, including on Syria and our contacts held to coordinate our positions on Libya”, Putin said.
Thus, according to media reports, the agenda in Sochi included Libya and the South Caucasus.
Libya is waiting for elections in December, reason why it was on the agenda of the talks as well. Turkey supports the national unity government in Tripoli and considers General Khalifa Haftar to be a putchist. Moscow is in contact with both General Khalifa Haftar in the east and the government in Tripoli. However, both countries are interested in weakening Western (European and U.S.) influence down to zero. This position could be the basis for further policy coordination in the region. More importantly, Moscow is not opposed to Turkish interests in the Eastern Mediterranean; it’s presence in Libya is determined by other interests – the fight against pseudo-Islamic extremism and the unipolar hegemony of the United States.
In Afghanistan, where Turkey intended to retain influence but was forced to withdraw, the Taliban have demonstrated a negative attitude to a foreign presence in the country. Perhaps the relationship could have been much better if Turkey had not been a NATO member. Both Moscow and Ankara are interested in stabilizing Afghanistan. For Russia, it is important that the situation in Central Asia is predictable and secure. For Turkey, it is important that Afghanistan does not become a source of migratory threat.
Russian and Turkish interests overlap in the South Caucasus. A year ago, fighting broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan. With the help of Turkish arms, Azerbaijan established control over most of Nagorno-Karabakh, previously alienated by the Armenians. During the Sochi meeting, Putin cited the important role of Moscow-Ankara in establishing the Nagorno-Karabakh peace in 2020. The Russian President noted that the Joint Russian-Turkish center monitoring the ceasefire on the border between Azerbaijan and Armenia is working actively, and “this collaboration is a major guarantee of stability and of coordination of the sides’ positions on the further steps towards reconciliation”.
Russia did not prevent this and facilitated peace agreements between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The issue now is the economic integration of the region and the creation of a Nakhchivan corridor that would connect most of Azerbaijan with the Nakhchivan region and Turkey. Moscow can also get involved in the development of economic integration in the region and Armenia now also faces prospects of economic development as well. The general trend towards the weakening of the West, especially France and the United States, is foiling the revanchist plans of the Armenian elites. Armenia, which is closely connected to Russia, is more predictable for Turkey. In the South Caucasus, there is also the potential to displace the negative influence of the U.S. and France and manage the processes within the framework of the agreements of the powers of the region, Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Africa: a promising destination
Africa wasn`t mentioned directly during Sochi meeting, but leaders may have discusses it behind close doors. It is a strategically important continent for both countries.
Sub-Saharan Africa has long been a grey area in Turkey-Russia contacts. However, it is obvious that against the background of the failures of France, Turkey, Russia and China will fill the vacuum.
Russia is already demonstrating that it can effectively displace the French in Africa. Russian military specialists will soon appear in Mali, where the French military presence, according to the country’s prime minister, has in recent years led to the complete paralysis of the state. The Russians have already shown in another African country, the Central African Republic, that they are capable of dealing effectively with security problems. It was the sovereign choice of the people and authorities of Mali, who made it despite unprecedented pressure from France, which is still threatening to give up the fight against terrorism in Mali altogether if the Russians go there.
Turkey is also active in Africa, and Moscow and Ankara could draw the lines of their interests. Harmonization between the two actors would benefit them as well as the African countries themselves, which are fighting against Western neocolonialism. France, which is active against Turkey in all directions, including in the Eastern Mediterranean, is Russia’s adversary in Africa. Therefore, it is the harmonization of efforts with Moscow on the Black Continent that is extremely important for Ankara, in order to jointly fight against the neo-imperialist ambitions of Paris.
The meeting between Putin and Erdogan was a meeting of representatives of the two poles of a multipolar world. The new geopolitical situation opened up opportunities for them not only to discuss difficult but tactical topics, such as Idlib, with confidence and honesty. They can sketch out a broader picture, sharing their vision of the new multipolar world, their interests, security zones, red lines, and possible areas for cooperation globally.