The most recent high-level talks held in Sochi between the presidents of Russia and Turkey received a great deal of attention in various world capitals. This interest has continued following the end of the summit, on September 4. Many experts unsure about what actually happened at the summit – did the two leaders just met to inform each other about their political agendas, or was any kind of agreement reached?
Clearly, Erdoğan is not the kind of politician who makes a foreign trip accompanied by a delegation including the heads of the military and intelligence service merely in order to have a conversation lasting four and a half hours (one and a half hours in the presence of the full delegation and three hours in private).
Some commentators are of the opinion that the Turkish leader focused his attention entirely on the potential renewal of the “grain deal,” and that having listened to the position of his Russian counterpart, he will convey this information to the leaders of the collective West, who represent the main obstacle to the extension of the Black Sea initiative.
In general, we can agree with this view, which has been voiced by various different commentators, but with one amendment. It would be wrong to reduce Erdoğan’s role to that of a mere letter carrier (or “diplomatic courier”) between the West and Russia. Naturally, the Turkish president will convey to his western partners President Putin’s firm position on the issue of the “grain deal” – namely that there is just one sole condition for the continuation of joint work, which is that they must respect Russia’s interests. However, Moscow’s position on this matter has been repeatedly set out in a number of different official sources, including by President Putin himself. The only thing that needs to be added in this discussion is a mention of the Russian leader’s reaction to any possible threats of military escalation in the Black Sea basin, along so-called “alternative transit routes” for ships carrying Ukrainian grain accompanied by NATO naval and air convoys.
The author tends to agree with the opinion of Russian political analyst Vladimir Avatkov, which is that the key issues in such negotiations are discussed on camera, and the most important decisions and agreements are reached in private conversations. He also points out, quite rightly, that President Erdoğan does not generally go to visit his foreign partners with such a high-level delegation.
In dealings between Russia and Turkey, the agenda for talks may include a very wide range of bilateral and international relations. In the present case, it is likely that the parties discussed the possible export of Russian wheat through Turkey to needy countries in Africa, with financial assistance from Qatar, as well as such issues as the construction of a gas hub in Eastern Thrace, the preconditions for the construction of a second nuclear power plant in Sinop, cooperation between the two countries on financial matters, and the “parallel transit” of goods from third countries.
No doubt the overall economic relations between Russia and Turkey were discussed, with a focus on their established history of partnership in the development of new transport and logistics projects serving the interests of both countries, and possibly other countries as well. Unfortunately, when international transit routes are planned, it generally happens that the countries through whose territory the routes pass raise unexpected obstacles and adopt contradictory approaches. To overcome these obstacles, larger countries can sometimes attempt to use force, but with regional political processes in their current state, such a tactic would not achieve the desired results and might lead to insurmountable problems and an escalation of the confrontation. It is therefore possible that the parties to the talks in Sochi discussed options for a political settlement of the issues in dispute, based on economic benefits and the localization of any potential conflict.
The opening of one potential transit route, the Zangezur corridor through Armenia, is a topic that is viewed with some concern – to put it mildly – by both Armenia itself and its neighbor, Iran. It is no coincidence that the Turkish Foreign Minister, Hakan Fidan, traveled to Iran to meet with his counterpart Amir Abdollahian following his visit to Moscow, which took place shortly before the presidential summit in Sochi. In any discussion concerning international relations in this highly sensitive region, neither Russia nor Turkey can afford to ignore Iran
Unfortunately, the foreign policy U-turn recently announced by Armenia’s Prime Minister also risks adding to tensions and complicates the process of resolving certain areas of dispute in which extra-regional forces have become involved.
As for the dialogue between Russia and Turkey on the Syrian direction, it goes without saying that during their talks in Sochi, Presidents Putin and Erdoğan discussed the issue of the normalization of relations between Syria and Turkey as part of the Astana process (which has unfortunately now become a thing of the past, due to a change of policy by the Kazakh authorities). However, the Turkish president has, rightly, suggested that any attempt at dialogue with the Syrian president through an intermediary is doomed to failure. Erdoğan expects to enter into direct talks with Assad. However, the two countries still have diametrically opposed positions on the issue of the withdrawal of Turkish troops from Syria’s occupied northern provinces. Erdoğan has called on Damascus to recognize the de facto situation on the ground and has no plans to withdraw the troops, which are allegedly there to ensure Turkey’s security from the threats of Kurdish terrorism and separatism, while in reality Turkey’s goal is to change the ethnographic map of the occupied areas of Syria in favor of the local Turkmen population and expand the Turkic foothold in the Middle East.
In addition to Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi is also concerned about the situation in Northern Syria, as Iran sees the Kurdish problem as one of the various potential internal and external threats to its territory, and his views on such situation will become clearer following the expected meeting between Raisi and Erdoğan in Ankara. It is no secret that Tehran, while acknowledging Turkey’s fears and concerns in relation to the Kurdish issue, still insists on the withdrawal of the Turkish troops currently occupying regions of Northern Syria.
Naturally, any meeting between heads of state always provides them with the opportunity to recalibrate their relations with each other and define new areas for subsequent collaboration (or confrontation). Given the situation as of the beginning of September this year, Russia could offer Turkey to apply for membership of BRICS, a grouping that is enjoying increasing prestige in the international community. After the grouping’s 15th summit, held in South Africa, it has not only agreed to more than double its number of members (5 current +6 future members), but has also grown into a more influential international structure with enormous economic potential.
The above summary shows that Sochi has become a new forum for the development of discussions between Russia and Turkey on issues of current mutual, regional and global concern.
Aleksandr SVARANTS, PhD in political science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.