Bhadrakumar, The Cradle, September 6, 2023 —
The Ankara-Moscow relationship challenges western expectations: Here is a unique model of cooperation among regional powers, built on mutual interests, respect, and the recognition of each country’s independent foreign policies and strategic autonomy.
What makes a power relationship intriguing in international relations is that it is never quite static, and its delicate equilibrium demands constant nurturing, balancing acts, and fine-tuning. Turkish-Russian relations fit neatly into this paradigm.
The 10-month hiatus in a face-to-face interaction between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at their Sochi meeting on 4 September was unnatural, given the torrent of vital geopolitical events that have transpired in the interim.
Since the two heads of state last met in Astana last October, Moscow has gained the upper hand in the battlefields of Ukraine; the so-called grain deal involving Russia and Ukraine, brokered by Ankara under UN auspices, ran its course; security of the Black Sea region touched a new level of criticality as the Anglo-American obsession with Crimea surged; and, above all, Erdogan secured another term as president, which puts him in the hot seat to reverse Turkiye’s financial and economic crisis.
Foundation of Russia’s relations with Turkiye
In the full flush of his election victory, Erdogan made certain efforts to mend fences with the west, signaling a willingness to agree to Sweden’s induction into NATO and showing solidarity with Ukraine. In moves that could seriously upset Moscow, Ankara wantonly released Azov commanders who were captured by Russia in Mariupol last year and announced an intent to jointly produce weaponry with Ukraine.
Nonetheless, Moscow reacted cautiously. The Kremlin could afford to mark time since this is also an asymmetrical relationship where Russia holds the upper hand. Moscow could sense that Erdogan was not really “pivoting” to the west, but was rather showing an interest in improving western ties which had soured in recent years -and its outcome remains far from certain.
Basically, Russia’s relations with Turkiye are fortified by the warm personal equations between Putin and Erdogan, and both leaders are consummate realists with shared interests and a keenness to challenge Western dominance in regional politics. Moscow is only too well aware that Turkiye’s hopes for membership in the European Union remain a far-fetched dream.
The “body language” of the meeting in Sochi confirmed that there is no change in the verve of the personal relationship between the two leaders. Television footage showed the two men smiling and shaking hands upon Erdogan’s arrival at Putin’s residence, where the Russian president suggested that his guest take a vacation in the Black Sea resort.
Game-changing grain export deal
In his opening remarks, Putin put Erdogan at ease by reassuring him upfront that the Russian offer to create a global “energy hub” in Turkiye is very much in the cards and will materialize soon.
However, the icing on the cake is the proposed agreement that would facilitate free exports of grain from Russia to six African nations with the help of Turkiye and Qatar. In Erdogan’s presence, Putin announced:
“We are close to completing agreements with six African states, where we intend to supply foodstuffs for free and even carry out delivery and logistics for free. Deliveries will begin in the next couple of weeks.”
The political and geopolitical resonance of this decision in Africa is simply immeasurable — Russia is offering, on the one hand, the Wagner Group as gatekeepers, and on the other hand, food security for the continent. In one fell swoop, western propaganda was trashed, with some help from Ankara.
Erdogan, on his part, expressed confidence that Russia would “soon” revive the Black Sea grain deal, while also echoing Putin’s stance that the west had betrayed its deal commitments with Russia. Equally, he distanced Ankara from rival western plans to send grain across the Black Sea – which now becomes a non-starter. As he put it:
“The alternative proposals brought to the agenda could not offer a sustainable, secure and permanent model based on cooperation between the parties like the Black Sea Initiative.”
Significantly, Erdogan voiced optimism that he still believes a solution can be found soon to revive the grain deal, including filling the remaining gaps.
The Turkish president was accompanied in Sochi by a large delegation that included Turkiye’s defense, foreign, energy, and finance ministers, as well as the central bank chief who met his counterpart separately to carry forward negotiations on a payment system in local currencies. Which Erdogan publicly supported when he said:
“I believe that switching to local currencies is extremely important in bilateral relations.”
Russia’s respect for Turkiye’s sovereignty
Indeed, trade is the locomotive of the Russian-Turkish relationship, registering a massive increase of around 80 percent to touch $62 billion. Five million Russian tourists visited Turkiye this year. Putin voiced satisfaction that he and Erdogan have raised the relations to a “very good, high level.” Interestingly, Putin singled out the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant – Turkiye’s first, built by the Russians – which will be fully operational next year, as he described Turkiye as a new member of the “international nuclear club.”
These are measured words, no doubt. The message out of the Sochi talks is that Russian-Turkish relations have gained maturity. The summit followed last week’s talks between Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow.
Later, in the presence of Fidan, Lavrov spoke at some length and with extraordinary clarity about Russia’s policies towards Turkiye. The salience lies in Russia’s profound appreciation of Tukiye’s independent foreign policy, “which is geared towards its own national interests,” resisting Western pressure.
Lavrov said Turkiye’s “constructive and equitable interaction” with Russia is not only mutually beneficial economically and advantageous, but also strengthens “the sovereign basis” of Turkiye’s foreign policy. Lavrov expressed the hope that Turkiye “will continue to respond with reciprocity despite pressure from the United States and its allies who seek to pit everyone against the Russian Federation,” concluding:
“The effectiveness of our policy dialogue and economic cooperation will continue to depend on mutual willingness to consider each other’s concerns and interests and to seek to balance them. Our Turkish partners possess the necessary strategic vision. We will continue to adhere to approaches based on mutual respect and a balance of interests.”
An Equal and Evolving Partnership
Evidently, Lavrov spoke with great deliberation and purpose. What emerges is that although NATO-member Turkiye has not yet sought membership in the expanded BRICS or the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) — unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Egypt — Russia nonetheless gives pivotal importance to Turkiye given its strategic autonomy, which is both a game changer in regional politics and a trendsetter.
His remarks show the futility of assessing power relationships in terms of hierarchy. Not once did Lavrov claim ideological affinities with Turkiye. Rather, Turkiye’s robust independence from US hegemony under Erdogan’s leadership is what matters most to Russia. Does that qualify as a strategic partnership? The jury is still out.
Russian-Turkish relations are anchored on mutual interest and mutual respect, where differences do crop up every now and then, but both take care to prevent them from snowballing into disputes. It was Putin’s turn to travel to Turkiye, but instead Erdogan came calling. There is no junior or senior partner in their equal relationship.
The relationship with Turkiye has evolved into an interesting vector of Russian foreign policies, which is, of course, consistent with its vision of multipolarity. It can also provide a new model for Russia’s relations with other west-leaning regional powers, given the prevailing geopolitical uncertainties. As Lavrov stated recently, Russia is willing to cooperate with any country that treasures its independence.