Turkey’s Erdoğan sticks with Putin, defies U.S.

Another month, another meeting between Erdoğan and Putin.

We have grown accustomed to this double act. From Syria, to Europe’s energy geopolitics, to what pundits label “the rise of illiberalism”, the two strongmen roll on and on, to the consternation of European Union and U.S. policymakers.

Monday’s summit in Moscow gave Erdoğan an opportunity to strike a defiant pose vis-à-vis America. He declared, for the umpteenth time, that Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system was a done deal and there was no going back.

The U.S. decision to punish Turkey by stopping delivery of F-35 fighter jet components and the looming prospect of Ankara being expelled from the multinational consortium involved in the development of the advanced aircraft have failed to dent Erdoğan’s resolve to see the delivery through. In fact, on Tuesday he said that the planned July delivery of the S-400 could be brought forward.  

Turkey is sticking to its guns, arguing that the S-400 system will not compromise NATO’s cohesion or allow Russia to collect intelligence on the F-35, as they will not be integrated into the alliance’s air defences. Needless to say, this line does not fly with U.S. Congress (pun intended).

“Turkey is an important partner in the F-35 programme, but it is not irreplaceable,” leaders of the Senate’s Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees warned in New York Times op-ed urging Erdoğan to choose between Russia and NATO. Their message: do not rely on cutting a deal directly with U.S. President Donald Trump, because we can stop that.  

In the meantime, Putin is doing what he does best: fanning the flames. At a joint press conference with Erdoğan he touted the prospect of deepening defence cooperation with Turkey through further deliveries of military equipment and even joint production. The latter of course, is music to Ankara’s ears as it wanted badly, and failed, to make Russia transfer technology in exchange for the S-400 contract.

Erdoğan is holding the line for domestic reasons too. Smarting from losses in Turkey’s local elections and pushing for a re-run of the vote in Istanbul, he has a huge incentive to resist external pressure. Caving in now would only hurt him at home, adding to the list of woes that have led to swing voters abandoning his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). A punch-up with the United States, on the other hand, could help energise his base.

The Moscow summit also highlights how difficult progress is on other issues. Energy stands out. Though the undersea section of the TurkStream pipeline is now complete and Russia is negotiating extending it to Bulgaria and Serbia, Russia’s Gazprom and Turkey’s BOTAŞ have still not agreed on a price for the gas deliveries to Turkey. Russia wants a flexible formula indexed to the price of oil and the rates at key European hubs. Turkey is insisting on a fixed lower price and demanding a discount from Gazprom based on the fact it that, as of next year, it will be also be shipping Russian gas to customers in the EU.  

The two leaders discussed the issue but failed to iron out differences. “As for the energy carriers, they are formed by the market,” said Putin. “Such are the market prices; they are not imposed by a Gazprom directive. Although there are also issues and problems here, our Turkish friends insist on some formulas for commercial reasons, while Gazprom offers other solutions.”

To put the negotiations in context, Turkey has sharply reduced Russian gas imports this year. With liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices dropping, it has ramped up imports from suppliers other than Gazprom. In January, Turkey imported a record 2.34 billion cubic metres (40% of its need) of LNG from sellers such as Algeria, Nigeria and Qatar.

This gives Ankara leverage in its negotiations with Moscow, and is likely why Putin publicly reminded his guest that Russia has been a more reliable supplier than its competitors and that its prices are not as volatile as those on the LNG market.

To sweeten its offer, the Russians seem prepared to offer some side benefits, such as lucrative contracts for people close to the AKP. But it has expectations too. Turkey has to pay its share of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant, but after the Çengiz-Kalyon-Kolin consortium pulled out from the venture a year ago no new partner has been found.

Another issue concerns the fate of the Idlib enclave in Syria. There too, no major progress was made. Putin and Erdoğan vowed to launch joint patrols in the area, which is good news for Turkey as it is playing for time. The threat of an offensive by the Syrian government and Iran will remain as long as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the dominant, al-Qaeda-linked militia in the area, remains armed and capable of attacks.

Erdoğan and Putin seem happy to kick the can down the road. But for how long?

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.