Turkey-Russian relations are still on track
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Monday met his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for a sixth time this year. A seventh encounter is also possible before the end of the year for the groundbreaking ceremony of the Akkuyu Nuclear Plant to be built in Turkey by Russia.
The Syrian crisis seems to have dominated the talks. During the press conference held in Ankara before his departure for the meeting in Sochi, Erdoğan criticised a joint statement by Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump, which supported the political process in Syria. But the same day, after the meeting Putin, Erdoğan used softer language on the same statement and said that he supported the political process.
This indicates that Putin has persuaded Erdoğan of the wisdom of the political solution. This is one of the important outcomes of the visit. Thanks to such modest steps, Turkey’s Syria policy is becoming more compatible with the reality in the field.
Russia is planning to convene a ‘Congress of the Syrian National Dialogue’, which will include all actors in Syria, whether in the opposition or in the government’s side. Turkey opposed the inviting Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that it considers as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) terrorist organisation in the Syrian territory. Russia will do its best not to antagonise Turkey, but will probably invite the members of the YPG under a different name.
The next important subject in the summit talks was economic cooperation. An ambitious target was agreed during the previous summit to increase bilateral trade volume from the present $15 billion to $100 billion. Erdoğan asked the Russian side to facilitate the issuance of visas to Turkish businessmen so that the target could be reached at an earlier date.
Another important cooperation project is the Turkish Stream gas pipeline. This project came almost out of the blue, during Putin’s visit to Turkey on Dec. 1, 2014. The original project, called South Stream, was going to cross the Black Sea and come ashore on the Bulgarian coast. It was designed to carry 63 billion cubic metres of gas per year (cum/y) to European Union countries. When Putin became weary of the slow progress in its implementation, he decided to change both the name and the scope of the project. He decided to name it Turkish Stream and the landing point was shifted from Bulgaria to Turkey. The first part of the project, composed of two parallel pipelines each with a capacity 15.75 billion cum/y, is now under construction.
Turkey depends on Russian gas for more than 40 percent of its supply. This dependence will go up to 60 % when the Turkish Stream project becomes operational in 2018.
The energy dependence will continue to increase with the completion of the nuclear power plant to be constructed and run by Russia. The first unit of the plant is expected to become operational in 2022 and three remaining units in the three successive years.
Erdoğan said he is planning to organise the groundbreaking ceremony of the nuclear power plant before the end of this year in the presence of Putin.
The two leaders also agreed to lift the remaining restrictions on the import of fresh fruits and vegetables from Turkey.
The purchase of Russian-made S-400 missiles was discussed, as some technical details had to be sorted out. Turkey has been severely criticised by other NATO countries for the purchase, but Turkey remains undeterred, though it is also interested in joint R&D projects under way in certain NATO countries.
The interoperability of the S-400s with NATO weapons is still an open question. Turkey may have purchased the Russian missiles to demonstrate its unease in the face of the NATO countries’ attachment of conditions to their arms sales and refusal of technology transfer.
There may not be any significant achievement to be celebrated during this summit meeting in Sochi, but as a whole the visit reconfirms that bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia are still on track.