At Cafe Erdogan, There’s More on the Menu Than Turkish Coffee and Wheaties

Presidents Putin and Erdogan ostensibly meet at Sochi to revive the Ukrainian grain deal, but Russia and Turkey are up to more than that.

Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool via AP
Presidents Erdogan and Putin during their meeting at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi, September 4, 2023. Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin pool via AP

Turkey, not unlike Russia, is a country that has the curious lot of being at the center of everything and nothing at the same time. The two countries with generally inglorious imperial pasts are bound to look at the future in ways intrinsically foreign to many outside observers. 

Those observers would be misled if they thought the only thing that presidents Erdogan and Putin discussed at Sochi yesterday was the fate of a much ballyhooed deal for the safe export of Ukrainian grain. When the two autocratic leaders meet, there is always more on the menu than what plays for the cameras.

While there had been some speculation last month that Mr. Putin might travel to Ankara to meet with Mr. Erdogan, that was always going to be an unlikely prospect as long as the International Criminal Court has a warrant out for the Russian strongman’s arrest. But only the Black Sea or a nice 250 mile coastal drive separates the Turkish border from the Russian resort city of Sochi. 

It was easier, of course, for Mr. Putin to dig in his heels on not renewing an arrangement by which Ukraine could export grain via secured sea lanes traversing the Black Sea. Turkey and the United Nations helped broker the grain deal that Russia called off in July, complaining that a parallel agreement that was to remove obstacles to Russian exports of some foodstuffs and fertilizer had not been honored. Both Ukraine and Russia are major suppliers of vital commodities like wheat, barley, and sunflower oil. 

At a news conference held alongside Mr. Putin at Sochi, Mr. Erdogan said, “We believe that we will reach a solution that will meet the expectations in a short time.” He also, perhaps in deference to the setting, took aim at Kyiv, telling reporters: “Ukraine needs to especially soften its approaches in order for it to be possible for joint steps to be taken with Russia.”

Yet it would not be the first time that both leaders were essentially playing for time, and on two fronts. By meeting publicly about the restoration of a deal, they create the optics of throwing a lifeline to the developing countries that rely heavily on Ukrainian grain. Mr. Erdogan also wants to placate Washington.  

Unlike America and the EU, Turkey has not sanctioned Russia. The more it sidles up to Moscow on the commercial front, the more it risks alienating partners at both Washington and Brussels, and could eventually risk being the target of some sanctions itself. 

As evidence of mounting apprehension at Ankara, Turkish banks recently stopped issuing bank cards to Russians, in what was seen as a move to avoid running afoul of existing American sanctions on Russian banks.

If Russia is in fact leveraging Turkey’s position on the periphery of Europe to maximum advantage, Mr. Erdogan too is playing the game. With its soaring inflation and assorted economic woes, Turkey needs all the cash it can get. Russian tourists fill Turkish seaside resorts in summer, and year-round Turkey is heavily dependent on Russian energy. Russia’s state nuclear firm, Rosatom, is nearing completion of a $20 billion nuclear power plant at Akkuyu, southern Turkey, that will eventually supply a tenth of Turkey’s electricity. 

At a virtual unveiling ceremony earlier this year, Mr. Putin said of the Turkish plant, “This is a flagship project and it brings both mutual economic benefits and, of course, helps to strengthen the multifaceted partnership between our two states.”

Mr. Erdogan has his eye on more traditional forms of Russian energy, too. Earlier this year Turkey signed an agreement with Bulgaria to allow Russian gas to flow into the EU member country — at the precise time when the EU is trying to wean itself off of Russian energy. 

Bulgaria’s state-owned natural gas company will reportedly pay $2 billion in fees to a Turkish gas company, Botaş, over 13 years. While the deal does not break EU law, it is widely acknowledged that Bulgaria is one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. 

When it comes to countries that do nothing out of altruistic motives, Turkey and Russia can generally be spotted toward the front of the line, though for different reasons. 

Russian media reported that another subject broached in the three-hour meeting between Messrs. Erdogan and Putin was the presence of Turkish troops in northern Syria. Russia, with its various bases in Syria, wants to see Turkey pack it up.  

Yet for the world’s press outlets, Mr. Putin prefers to stay on topic and play the virtue-signaling card as necessary for his own propaganda purposes. No talk of Syria or cluster munitions at the Sochi press conference, but he did pledge to ship free grain to half a dozen countries in Africa. 

Russia will also, it emerged, ship more than a million tons of cheap grain to Turkey so it can be processed there and shipped out to developing nations. It was not immediately clear, though, whether the bulk of that grain is really Russian or if it comes from Ukrainian territory seized by Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. That ambiguity may partly explain the reaction of Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, who dismissed Mr. Putin’s maneuvers as “a cynical game.”

The New York Sun

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