Ending the war in Ukraine and starting another war in Syria are expected to dominate Friday’s talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan will rank highly on the diplomatic success of helping orchestrate the resumption of Ukraine’s grain shipments across the Black Sea when he visits Sochi for his second meeting with Putin in just over two weeks.
But there are tensions. The Turkish leader was told by Putin in Tehran last month that Russia remains opposed to any new offensive Turkey is planning against Kurdish militants in northern Syria.
Analysts believe these tribes are part of the “competitive partnership” that has shaped the two leaders’ relationship over the past 20 years.
“Russia’s war against Ukraine has restored Turkey’s self-image as a major geopolitical player and has given Erdogan greater visibility than at any time in recent years,” Asli Aydintasbas, a colleague of the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a report last week.
“Most Turks support their country’s balancing act and the quasi-neutral position between the West and Russia.”
– File discussions –
Attempts by NATO member Turkey to remain neutral in the face of Moscow’s historic standoff with the West over Ukraine are beginning to bear fruit.
Months of Turkish efforts, Moscow and Kiev signed a UN-backed agreement in Istanbul last month to resume grain deliveries from Ukrainian ports.
The first ship from Ukraine sailed through Istanbul on Wednesday. Three more are expected to leave on Friday under a landmark deal designed to alleviate the war-induced global food crisis.
Turkey wants to translate this success into ceasefire talks in Istanbul between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“We discussed whether the grain deal could be a trigger for a lasting ceasefire,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday after talks with Russia’s counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Asia.
These efforts complicate his repeated threats from Erdogan to launch a new military operation in Syria – a country where Russian and Turkish interests clash.
The Russian army helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad survive a decade-long uprising by groups backed by Turkey.
But Erdogan threatens to invade northern Syria to establish a buffer zone that expels Kurdish groups he links to “terrorists” who are waging an uprising against the Turkish state.
Putin told Russian media in Tehran that he still has “certain disagreements” with Erdogan over Syria.
“In all likelihood, the meeting (Friday) has something to do with a possible incursion into Syria, for which Turkey was not given the green light from Russia – or Iran, for that matter,” said foreign business analyst Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Hasselt. University.
“Russia should get something in return,” Ozel added.
– Waiting game –
Some Turkish media speculate that what Putin really wants are drones.
Turkey has supplied Kiev with deadly Bayraktar aircraft that have proved effective in destroying Russian armored columns in the Ukrainian war zone.
US officials say a Russian team has visited Iran to arrange the purchase of hundreds of drones for its own troops in Ukraine.
Erdogan has added to the intrigue by telling his cabinet that Putin has asked him in Tehran to sell the Bayraktars to Russia.
A senior Turkish official later said Erdogan interpreted the suggestion as a joke.
But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov seemed to give credence to the idea.
“Military and technological cooperation is always on the agenda of the two countries,” Peskov told reporters.
An unlikely source of tension is how the two leaders — known as chronically late — will actually meet.
Erdogan left Putin in place for nearly 50 seconds before walking out to greet him in Tehran.
The camera of a Turkish state news agency focused the whole time on Putin’s nervous face.
Many interpreted this as a payback for the time Putin made Erdogan wait nearly two minutes for a meeting in 2020.