By Salih Yılmaz
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have met for the eighth time since the downing of the Russian jet on Nov. 24, 2015. The Sochi summit, their fourth meeting so far this year, was important in many respects.
It seems that the two leaders dealt primarily with energy issues. They agreed on the removal of the obstacles in the way of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant and the Turkish Stream. Following the energy talks, the most important issue that the two leaders discussed was Syria. With the physical conflict now over, they reached an agreement on transitioning to a political solution. They also discussed the PYD-Russia relations in connection with Syria, the statements Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump had made in Vietnam, and the continuation of the Astana process. Also on the table of discussion were the complete lifting of the restrictions on agricultural products between the two countries, readjusting the visa regime in line with the period before Nov.24, a strong cooperation in the field of tourism, and the decisions made during Putin's visit to Tehran. It is also noted that, although undisclosed, there was an exchange of ideas on a prospective Russian initiative for the resolution of the Nagorno-Karabakh crisis.
Are relations now back at pre-plane-crisis levels?
As the two leaders pointed out, it can be argued that bilateral relations have overall returned to pre-crisis levels. The depth of the mutual involvement on a number of issues has, however, exceeded even pre-Nov. 24 levels. For example, the completion of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant and the Turkish Stream project have the potential to take the current level of relations to a new strategic height. While Turkey wishes that the first reactor be activated by 2023, there are Russian theses that this would not be possible. But since the two leaders have agreed on holding the groundbreaking ceremony soon, it seems that the overall process will be picking up speed. At the summit, all the necessary permissions to proceed with the Akkuyu project were granted by Turkey and also the list of the Turkish companies to take part in the project was finalized, thereby clearing all of the obstacles in the way of the Akkuyu project.
As for the defense industry, there is an advanced cooperation on the co-production of the S-400s and other weapons. Nevertheless, we cannot yet say that we have returned to pre-crisis levels when it comes to the problems that Turkish businessmen operating in Russia still run into, the obstacles they face with regard to the sale of agricultural products, and the visa problems. In particular, Russia, claiming that a considerable amount of investment was made in greenhouse cultivation during the crisis, has imposed a 50,000-ton quota on Turkey's tomato import to Russia.
On the other hand, we would be mistaken if we were to say that the relations between the two countries are progressing in their natural course since they upgraded their cooperation to a new high in a very short time because of the need they feel for each other in the face of the pressures coming from the West and the United States. Turkey was left in the lurch by its NATO allies during the course of the Syrian crisis. It, for one, could not get help from his allies regarding a much-needed air defense system. The U.S., its NATO ally, did not even shy away from establishing a strategic alliance with the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, despite being one of the countries that recognize the latter as a terrorist organization. And to cap it all, the attitude taken by the U.S. after the July 15 coup attempt was a complete disappointment for Turkish society.
Russia sees Turkish Stream as strategic investment
And as for Russia, the embargoes imposed on it by the EU and the U.S. in the aftermath of the Ukraine crisis dealt a serious blow to its economy. The West succeeded in passing Russia off as a bogeyman. A fear of Russia has been established all over the world, and especially in the Baltic countries. The Western strategy to militarily contain Russia over the Black Sea has materialized to a significant degree. The corridor through Ukraine by which Russia pumped gas to Europe has been rendered defunct. A number of Russian projects, among which North Stream-2 stands out, by which Russia was planning to reach the West, now stand very little chance of realization. With the embargo imposed on Russian politicians and businessmen, foreign capital has been forced to leave Russia. Thus, the Western project of blockading Russia, both economically and politically, has succeeded. We can say that Russia needs Turkey to be able to overcome this blockade. And here lies the prominence of the Turkish Stream because Russian plans to pump gas to the West through Bulgaria had previously been hindered by the EU. Turkey has now arguably opened Russia a pocket of air by facilitating its gas delivery.
Turkish Stream and U.S. threat of sanctions
The Turkish Stream project is probably one of the most important issues to Russia in its relations with Turkey. There are, however, a number of major obstacles to this project as well: the new U.S. sanctions against Russia may negatively affect a series of Russian projects, one of which is the Turkish Stream. The U.S. sanctions target both the Turkish Stream and the North Stream-2 project, which will extend from the Baltic to Germany. Although the nature of the sanctions announced by the U.S. is not yet clear, all foreign investors cooperating with Gazprom may face sanctions. And as a matter of fact, foreign investors who saw this coming have started waiting in the stand-by mode, as it were.
One of the first things Trump did after he took office, in order to prove his virility, was to endorse a law that contained sanctions on Russia. The U.S. president was given mandate with this law to impose sanctions on all companies investing in the construction and maintenance of Russian pipelines, supplying technology to this end, or rendering any services for Russian companies. The most fundamental reason for Russia to make a very quick move with regard to the Turkish Stream is the desire to complete the project before being affected by any sanctions. Under the given circumstances, the U.S. and the EU, having figured out that Turkey now fully appreciates the Russian need for the Turkish Stream, is now giving Turkey the same kind of hassle that it has given Russia for quite a while.
Might Syria regress to Geneva process?
Syria constitutes one of the most important issues in the Turkish-Russian cooperation. The two leaders announced at the meeting that they had agreed for a settlement of the Syrian crisis based on territorial integrity. But here is another important point: Putin's emphasis on UN Resolution 2254 during his meeting with Trump in Vietnam led Turkey to ask for an explanation from Russia.
Through this decision, it can be seen that the U.S. is seeking to assume control over the developments in Syria by carrying them onto an international platform in line with the Geneva process. The fact that both Russia and the U.S. have veto powers in the UN Security Council might be interpreted as the desire to eliminate countries such as Turkey and Iran, two players still sitting at the discussion table set up for Syria. But it is too early to make a definitive judgment in this regard. The real problem lies in the U.S. vigorously promoting its opinion that all foreign powers must leave Syria once everything has been settled politically, and it is basing this opinion on Resolution 2254. What we can infer from this is that Hezbollah, which is considered a threat to Israeli security, and Iran, by extension, are not wanted in Syria. But the ongoing Russian collaboration with Iran in Syria suggests that this will not be the case.
We see that the U.S., by creating a safe zone in the north through the PYD up to the Jordan-Israel border, is trying to prevent Iran from forming its "Shiite Crescent". Thus, it wants to foil Iranian efforts to be effective in Lebanon through the land border and become neighbors with Israel. Netanyahu's words during his speech at the 72nd General Assembly of the UN [last September], "We will act to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria for its air, sea and ground forces. We will act to prevent Iran from producing deadly weapons in Syria or in Lebanon for use against us," may indeed be a clue for us to make out the implications of the agreement that Trump reached with Russia in Vietnam. It seems that both Russia and the United States are taking Israel's sensitivities into account here. But such agreements and disclosures pose risks for Russia. Only time will show how long Russia will be able to keep the scales balanced between Iran and Israel. Another possibility is, in cleansing the region, extending from Iraq to Israel, of Iranian influence, the U.S. might as well be planning to use the energy lines there in the future. The PYD, deprived of its chance to open a corridor to the Mediterranean by Turkey's Operation Euphrates Shield, might realize this project over Israel with the help of the U.S.
Is Russia's PYD policy changing?
Having reached an agreement that it is time to transition to a political settlement in Syria, as is prescribed by the Astana process, Russia and Turkey will now be leading the efforts toward drafting a civil constitution and finalizing the political settlement process. But the risk factor here boils down to whether the U.S. -- not a player in the Astana process -- will accept the decisions made there. The U.S. is actually pursuing its own policy.
There is also a PYD crisis between Turkey and Russia. Before the Sochi summit, Russia's inviting PYD to the Syrian Peoples Congress, which Russia itself convened, triggered a Turkish reaction. Although Russia took PYD out of the list of invitees, this situation might lead to disagreements between the two countries. The kind of strategy Russia will adopt regarding the PYD will be decisive. Even though Russia heeded Turkey's sensitivities and did not extend an "official" invitation to the PYD, it will surely continue its talks with this group because it does not want to leave the PYD under absolute U.S. control.
Since Turkey is having security issues on its own borders due to the PKK-affiliated PYD, there has recently been frequent mention of likely Manbij/Afrin operations. However, if a political settlement is achieved in Syria, then those likely Manbij/Afrin operations may never take place. That's why we can argue that Russia brings up the likely Turkish operation in Afrin with the PYD [to keep it at the table by its side] while playing the PYD card to persuade Turkey [to continue cooperating with itself].From President Erdogan's statements we understand that Turkey reminded Russia that the PYD, a threat to its national security, is the Syrian branch of the terrorist PKK, reiterated its sensitivities, underscoring Ankara's red lines once again.
Delays on S-400 deal may turn against Russia
President Erdogan expressed that Turkey attaches great importance to the common steps taken with Russia in the field of defense on the basis of S-400 missile defense system. The issue of S-400s is being closely monitored by NATO countries as well. Although Turkey has repeatedly announced that it is acquiring the S-400s for its own national security, independent of NATO, we see that this situation is being used against Turkey in the West. The Russian public also has its reservations regarding Turkey's acquiring this Russian air defense system. Some circles claim that Turkey is merely using the S-400 as a threat to the U.S. and will not actually buy them. However, Turkey's sincerity in this regard and the words of President Erdogan seem to have convinced Russia. The greatest risk here can be experienced at the designated delivery date of the S-400s. Russia is talking about a two-year time frame before the first delivery. However, during this period, changes that may occur in the political and military conditions might cause some second thoughts on the part of Turkey's willingness to buy them.
It is also stated that during their meeting, Putin and Erdogan discussed the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as well and exchanged opinions on how to accelerate the process. As a matter of fact, Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan's going to Russia on Nov. 15 for a working visit upon his Russian counterpart's invitation immediately after the Sochi summit strengthens this possibility.
The most concrete result of the Sochi Summit is that both leaders are in agreement on deepening the relations between their countries. The two leaders are leading the way in covering significant distance in strategic cooperation. The fact that the leaders have met a total of eight times since the plane crisis demonstrates the point the Turkish-Russian relations have arrived at. If Putin comes to Mersin for the groundbreaking ceremony in Akkuyu, that will be the ninth meeting of the two leaders since the plane crisis.
Translated by Omer Colakoglu
[ Salih Yılmaz is a professor at the Department of History in Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University. He is also head of the Ankara-based Institute of Russian Studies (RUSEN) ]
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.