In the picture
Erdogan and Putin during their last meeting meeting in Sochi on 29 September 2021 [Kremlin].
Relations between Russia and Turkey are closely watched internationally. While some important issues separate the two countries' strategies, there is also a growing partnership that creates suspicions in the West, particularly in NATO. The annual meeting in Sochi between Putin and Erdogan serves as a catalyst for the state of these bilateral relations.
On 29 September, Turkey and Russia held their traditional annual meeting in Sochi. In anticipation of the event, popular speculation focused on the recent escalation of the Syrian conflict in the city of Idlib and the resulting influx of refugees that Turkey continues to receive; the growing technological cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine, which is not to Russia's liking; and the possible sale of more S-400 missiles by Russia to the NATO member state, news that has not been well received in the West. However, it was not so much what was discussed during the meeting, but rather the anticipation surrounding the pending talks between the two countries that led to a more in-depth analysis of these bilateral relations.
Compared to the meetings in 2019 and 2020, which lasted around six hours, this year 's meeting was surprisingly short, lasting only half as long. The interpretation given to this fact is that either each president held his own views so firmly that agreement soon proved impossible, or that, on the contrary, the two sides were able to reach an understanding very quickly.
In 2019, the result of these talks was the creation of a buffer zone of up to 30 km free of Kurdish fighters along the Turkish-Syrian border, while Turkey imposed a six-day deadline on Russia for Kurdish militias to withdraw and make way for Russian-Turkish forces to guardthe same area.
Unlike in 2019, the 2020 meeting was aimed at interrupting the conflict in the Syrian city of Idlib and showed that both powers, despite the confrontation, needed mutual cooperation; on the one hand, Russia expected Turkey to monitor the ceasefire in the area, and on the other hand Turkey knew it had to be cautious with its offensives against the Al-Assad regime, taking into consideration that it needs Russia to control the flow of refugees on its border.
In this latest edition of meeting, what brought both powers to Sochi was once again the conflict in Idlib and, more specifically, the accusations of non-compliance with the agreements made at their previous meeting in response to Turkey's accusations against Russia for airstrikes in Idlib and Turkish-controlled areas in northern Syria, and Russia's accusations that Turkey has failed to disarm jihadist militias as it promised it would.
What is noteworthy about bilateral relations between the two countries is that, despite tensions and rivalry, they are very careful to maintain and emphasise what unites them. That is why, before their conversation, the leaders took time, not to discuss their conflicts, but rather Erdogan's gratitude to the Kremlin for its financial aid in extinguishing the fires that ravaged Turkish territory this summer; to highlight the effective cooperation on the commissioning of the TurkStream gas pipeline; and to underline the importance of continued cooperation in maintaining stability in the Karabakh region of Azerbaijan.
A detailed examination of what characterises Russian-Turkish bilateral relations cannot focus only on what pits them against each other, nor underestimate their points of convergence, which are growing in strength. It is true that the sources of tension are many, and are not limited to Syria, but also extend to Libya and Ukraine.
In Libya, status is similar to the one found in the country ruled by Al-Assad, where the regime is supported by Russia while the rebel groups are backed by Turkey. In the case of Libya, it is Turkey that supports the Government of National Unity (GNU), and Russia that is aligned with the civil service examination, represented by the National Liberation Army, also known as the NLA. As in Idlib, a ceasefire was reached in Libya in October 2020 that brought a truce to the conflict.
The reasons that lead both powers to become involved in this conflict are, for Erdogan's country, to increase its influence on the African continent, obtain new economic resources and create a regional skill with Egypt, and for the Kremlin, to make a strategic leap in its expansion in Africa, where it finds itself with one of its main rivals, China, against which it is fighting for the appropriation of mineral resources.
In the case of Ukraine, Erdogan did not hesitate to stress before arriving in Sochi at the UN General Assembly that he does not recognise Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. However, it is important to note that, unlike other countries, he has not participated in the imposition of sanctions on Russia for this reason either. Statements such as this subject, together with the sale of Turkish drones to Ukraine and the Ukrainian advertisement of its intention to continue buying more to deploy them in the east of its territory, are causing Russia to be wary.
The July 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh does not seem to be so controversial. There, as result of this war, part of the disputed territory, and up to seven neighbouring districts of the enclave on Azerbaijani territory, under Armenian control for approximately three decades, returned to Baku's control. While Turkey supports Azerbaijan's recovery of these territories, while Russia sample takes a more ambiguous stance by supporting a possible pact with Armenia while wanting to maintain close relations with Azerbaijan, the two powers have come to understand each other through the creation of a joint military observation centre to monitor a ceasefire.
The sale of Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles to Turkey is one of the issues of greatest concern to the international community, and one of those that generated the most expectation prior to the meeting in Sochi. In 2020, the US already sanctioned Turkey for acquiring them, but now tensions have resurfaced as Erdogan announced his intention to acquire more units at the same UN General Assembly meeting where he made his statements on Ukraine. In this case, the US has again spoken out, warning that further purchases will mean further sanctions under CAATSA, the US Countering Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.
Finally, one of the reasons why both powers are interested in maintaining their rapprochement is the export of natural gas. Russia is the world's leading producer of natural gas and the second largest producer of oil. Turkey, in addition to being a country in need of these resources, is also a transit country that allows Russia to export its energy to southern Europe without having to pass through Ukraine (16). Turkey obtains natural gas mainly through the TurkStream and BlueStream pipelines, which cross the Black Sea and are controlled by Russia. More specifically, TurkStream is a project run by Russia's Gazprom business that aims to further strengthen relations between the two countries, with project consisting of two pipelines: one to supply Turkey and another extending to Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary. On the other hand, BlueStream, which is also run by Gazprom, exports gas from Russia to Turkey via the Black Sea.
Taking all of this into account data and by way of conclusion, it cannot be said that the meeting in Sochi provided much clarity beyond projecting the desire of both countries to avoid another escalation of tensions in Idlib. However, it is important to keep a close eye on how the relationship between the two powers evolves, as despite disagreements in Syria, Libya and Ukraine, and Turkey's NATO membership, it is a fact that Erdogan and the Kremlin need each other and that their energy and other interests outweigh geopolitical disagreements.