Soon, it seems, it is really happening, after much back-and-forth, a first visit by Vladimir Putin since he started his Ukraine war to a NATO country, and not to Hungary but to Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, both men with March elections looming. Nothing remarkable in Putin and Erdogan talking, they are talking all the time – and they do have a lot to talk about – but the talks to be held this time in Turkey, that is remarkable, in view of the icy current status of NATO-Russia relations and of the overwhelming Western support for the International Criminal Court indictment of Putin – even though for a host of reasons Turkey has remained outside of that normative community. But regardless of the controversial summit venue, the two leaders do have a lot to talk about.
So why the Russian-Turkish summit, and why now? What interests are at stake? Some answers can, provisionally, be summarized in 5 points.
- The wider context is essentially provided by the two simultaneous wars, Russia’s war in Ukraine and Israel’s war in Gaza, and the risk of horizontal spread of both, directly and indirectly involving and affecting both countries, Russia and Turkey. Furthermore, this format is the bilateral Russian-Turkish leg of the trilateral, with Iran, the Astana process, which came to being years ago in an attempt to harmonize coinciding and conflicting interests in Syria with a view to seeking a final settlement. Then there are the ongoing aspirations on the part of Erdogan to play an independent, balanced and mediating part in the Ukraine war, whether at issue are exchanges of prisoners, arrangements for grain exports (from Ukraine and Russia) or the larger, more distant questions pertaining to negotiating ceasefires or even peace in some form or other.
- And then there is – for Erdogan to report on – the outcome of Turkey’s extended negotiations with the US over Sweden’s NATO membership, US supply of F-16 planes, and more. On the latter, there have been interesting news on further developments these days, in that US vice foreign minister Victoria Nuland, visiting Turkey, reportedly has communicated to her counterpart that if Turkey can “solve” the S-400 issue satisfactorily (the controversial Turkish procurement of the Russian S-400 air defence system) then Turkey would be welcome to rejoin the community of fifth generation F-35 plane operators, alongside Greece, Israel and a hosts of allied countries. This is an indicator that the US-Turkey strategic dialogue is much broader than the recent media focus on F-16/Sweden/NATO. A component part of this is also – and has long been – if and when Biden will extend a formal state visit invitation to Erdogan. So presumably it takes a state/summit visit by Putin to Turkey to balance and to announce news on these two or more topics, both sides seeking to balance good and bad news.
- For Erdogan’s pivotal balancing act continues: Russia-Ukraine, Russia-the West, guided by the ambition to be respected as, and to be in demand for, a (or the) mediating power in a turbulent region, in view of history, geography and national capabilities. Key here is the issue of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, negotiated by Turkey and the UN between Ukraine and Russia but shelved last summer by Russia’s refusal to continue, under prevailing terms, to the detriment of global food supplies and Ukrainian (and Russian) export income needs. Erdogan’s earlier attempts to persuade Putin to re-enter the initiative having failed, some replacement has since occurred under a trilateral Turkish-Bulgarian-Romanian (NATO-) agreement, circumventing Russian objections. But for Turkish diplomacy, reviving the original initiative is of vital significance. So lots to talk about here, perhaps with some surprises ready, up their sleeves.
- And then there is the MENA region in general and Syria in particular, and the continuous balancing act over the years between the two’s partly colliding and partly coinciding interests, with Iran providing the third leg in the Astana process. The issue now concerns how to reconcile Russian and Turkish security interests in the new context of the Gaza disaster tending to escalate horizontally, with the current situation in the Red Sea threatening global trade and developments between Iran and the US (and Israel) threatening a lethally dangerous regional war. Specifically, as the 160 or so pro-Iranian militia attacks since October 7 on US military installations have necessitated US responses – and at the time of writing the region and the world is holding its breath in anticipation of Biden’s response the recent killing of three soldiers and wounding of droves of others – the issue of US military presence in both Iraq and (hence) Syria has become critical. So lots to sort out between Putin and Turkey now that regional developments potentially open up new scenarios for the chess players in the Syrian security fabric; a Syria without US military presence (as Trump once controversially promoted) – what kind and degree of compatibility will there in such a scenario be between Turkish and Russian (and Iranian, and Israeli, etc) interests. Lots to talk about here too.
- We may assume, also, that the two leaders will find time so spend some time to discretely discuss another theme of joint – but not identical – interest: what to expect from the election process in the US, more years with an ageing Biden or a turbulent come-back for Trump. Assuming that Putin has a clear interest in the latter scenario, presumably even to the point of letting that guide his Ukraine war strategy (perhaps even to the point of actively seeking to help it materialize!), but what about Erdogan? Is he anxious to see a Trump come back, or has his world view changed since the last round? This is unclear. After all, the Trump years were for Erdogan a mixed bag of personal warmth and tough talk, compared to the Biden years of cool distance, and so far no invitation to the White House. Still an interesting topic of conversation – or hinted mutual understanding, to some degree – between two controversial leaders, with White House residency performing the act of “the elephant in the room”.