The media are continuing to discuss the likely forthcoming meeting between the Turkish president Recep Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. Both countries have repeatedly confirmed the possibility of such a visit, but no date has yet been fixed, largely because of the Russian leader’s busy schedule and the current situation in relation to the special military operation. Official representatives of the Turkish leader have suggested that he may make a short trip to Russia (possibly to Sochi) at the beginning of September.
Naturally, given the close relations between Russia and Turkey, and the personal ties between the two leaders, it is fair to say that meetings between them have become a frequent occurrence, and that this has enabled them to discuss a wide range of bilateral and international issues of mutual interest. Russia places a high value on its partnership with Turkey and hopes that these ties will grow in the future.
In the current situation, Ankara continues to act as a kind of mediator between Moscow and the Western centers (Washington, London and Brussels) which support the Kiev regime. As in previous meetings, the issues covered in the talks between Turkey and Russia include a range of pressing regional and global matters relating to Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan, transit corridors, foreign trade, energy, the “grain deal,” scaling down tensions in the Black Sea basin, the settlement of the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, military-technical cooperation, etc.
Meanwhile, Russia’s withdrawal from the Black Sea Initiative in response to the West’s failure to take into account Moscow’s economic interests has become an issue of particular concern to the NATO countries, and Turkey is trying to find new opportunities to relaunch the “grain deal.” It is clear that Ankara controls the Black Sea straits, and has, so far, refused to allow any warships from non-Black Sea NATO countries into the Black Sea. Equally, clearly, Russia’s maritime trade in the Black Sea is also linked to the straits, and is dependent on Turkey’s approach.
However, after the meeting between Erdoğan and Volodymyr Zelensky, held in Istanbul in early July this year, Turkey is known to have taken a number of steps that have caused concern, to put it mildly, in Russia. These include the Turkish president’s repeated insistence on the recognition of Ukraine’s territorial integrity within the Soviet-era administrative borders as they were until February 2014, the transfer of commanders of the Nazi Azov Regiment (a terrorist organization banned in Russia) to Ukraine contrary to the agreements on the exchange of prisoners concluded in autumn 2022, the discussion of alternative “humanitarian corridors” for the transit of Ukrainian grain in the Black Sea basin, military and technical cooperation and further supplies of Turkish arms and munitions to support the Ukrainian armed forces in the region where the special military operation is under way.
President Erdoğan has made repeated public statements about Turkey’s mission as an intermediary, and his determination to achieve a political solution to the Russian-Ukrainian crisis. But an intermediary should, as a general rule, uphold a neutral position and call for peace. In the case of Turkey, however, as any careful observer will agree, we find an exotic mixture of different opinions, approaches and policies.
On the one hand, Turkish diplomats call on both Moscow and Kiev to maintain peace and end hostilities, while on the other hand, Turkish officials accuse Russia of annexing the Crimea and other former Ukrainian territories. Turkey has not stopped sending military supplies to the Kiev regime, which has heightened tensions on the battlefield, the Turkish private military company SADAT continues to send fighters to the conflict zone in Ukraine, where they are used against Russia, and the Turkish intelligence services (MIT and MGK) provide professional cooperation and information to the Ukrainian intelligence services.
In Turkey, public and official support for the Crimean Tatar nationalist movement has continued virtually unabated. In recent years, (and especially in connection with the crisis relating to the “grain deal”), Turkish politicians have once again turned their attention to the issue of the Crimean Tatars, reiterating their support for the actions of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, which is opposed to Crimea’s inclusion as a subject of the Russian Federation.
Several days ago, Recep Erdoğan addressed the III Summit of the Crimean Platform, saying: “Turkey does not recognize the annexation of the Crimea, and has never wavered from its position that this step is illegitimate.” The Turkish leader also addressed the position of Crimean Tatars who have been imprisoned in Russia. “I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate my hope for the release of the deputy chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, Neriman Celal, and his colleagues, who are in prison.”
Naturally, Russia is well acquainted with Turkey’s position. Still, Moscow frequently insists that this difference of opinions in no way prevents the two countries from cooperating in other areas. However, as the present author sees it, Recep Erdoğan’s insistence on Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the issue of the Crimean Tatars shortly before the meeting with Vladimir Putin in Sochi in early September is no coincidence, but an attempt to pressurize Russia into making concessions in those “other areas” in which the two countries cooperate. Specifically, Turkey hopes to persuade Russia to revive the “grain deal,” to make concessions in relation to Syria and Armenia, and to build a new gas pipeline in the Caspian Basin.
Meanwhile, as the Russian media have frequently noted, certain Turkish politicians and experts have views on the Crimea and other issues which diverge widely from the official opinion of President Erdoğan, and which thus have no influence on Ankara’s position. For example, Ünver Sel, head of the Federation of Cultural Societies of Crimean Tatars in Turkey, and chairman of the Association of Friends of Crimea in Turkey, has recommended Volodymyr Zelensky, the head of the Kiev regime, to forget about Crimea and the restoration of Ukraine’s previous borders.
Naturally, such statements by public figures in Turkey or elsewhere cannot fail to please Russian readers. But such statements will have little effect on Turkey’s official position. Russia conquered the Crimean Peninsula from the Ottoman Empire in the 18th century during the Russian-Turkish wars, in furtherance of the far-seeing ethnic policies of Empress Catherine the Great, Prince Potemkin and Count Rumyantsev. It is therefore natural that Turkey, which has a long historical memory, has no reason to support the return of Crimea to its (Russian) “home harbor.”
At the same time, Turkey is making a show of its disagreement with Russia on various issues, even though, as a rule, it always agrees whenever it is financially and politically in its interests to do so. Thus, we in Russia should express our strong opposition to Turkey where our interests are not taken into account, while conversely, support Turkey when its policies correspond to Russia’s and further our interests.
If Turkey insists that it has a mission to act as a mediator, and also wants to have a partnership with Russia, then it should, at a minimum, observe neutrality in relation to controversial issues, and, at a maximum, abstain from attempts at manipulation, both in public and in private. Otherwise, its reputation as a mediator, at least in diplomatic circles, will plummet. Turkey cannot return the Crimea to Ukraine, and Russia has no plans to relinquish its territory.
We frequently hear of experts with murky agendas, who tell Russia that without Turkey’s support it would lose out in terms of gas exports and foreign trade, that the fragile peace settlements in the Caucasus and the Middle East will be undermined and heaven knows what else. However, those same pro-Turkish experts need to be reminded that without Russian gas and nuclear energy, Turkey would be much worse off, while Russia can get by without Turkish tomatoes, and that Russians have managed without Turkish resorts in the past and are in a good position to develop their own multi-faceted tourist industry. And as for oil and gas, Russia’s exports to the leading Asian economies far exceed its supplies to Turkey and via the Turkish transit route to the European market. So Turkey is no less dependent on Russia, and is in no position to dictate terms to Moscow.
Hakan Fidan, the Turkish Foreign Minister, has arrived in Moscow in the run-up to Recep Erdoğan’s visit to Russia, in order to coordinate the agenda of the summit talks and prepare for the meeting itself. In view of his long experience as the head of the MIT, it seems reasonable to hope that he has a good grasp of the whole range of issues affecting relations between Turkey and Russia, and that he will correctly assess the prospects of relations with the Russian Federation.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.