By Henry Srebrnik, [Saint John, N.B.] Telegraph-Journal
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Sept. 16 at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation regional security summit in Uzbekistan.
He praised Erdogan’s efforts to end the war in Ukraine, but asserted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was not prepared to hold peace talks.
In July, Erdogan had been instrumental in brokering a deal between Ukraine and Russia to start up grain exports again. Since the Russian invasion, Moscow had been blocking Black Sea ports, causing a disastrous lack of supply for many countries.
This was one of many signs that Erdogan and Putin were developing an informal entente as the war continues.
Turkey had already been dragging its heels on allowing Finland and Sweden to join NATO. Ankara wants both Finland and Sweden to strengthen their antiterrorism laws and to extradite wanted individuals who have been given sanctuary there but deemed by Turkey to be “terrorists.”
Meanwhile, Moscow was seeking Erdogan’s assistance to bypass restrictions on its banking, energy and industrial sectors. Though a NATO nation, Turkey has not joined other member states in levying sanctions against Russia. In fact, exports to Russia from Turkey are surging.
In a meeting held in the Russian resort city of Sochi on the Black Sea in early August, Putin and Erdogan agreed to boost bilateral trade and take steps to work more closely in the transportation, agriculture, industry and finance sectors.
Turkey announced it would switch part of its payments for Russian gas to roubles and extend the use of Russia’s Mir payment system. Rouble payments help Russia avoid dollar payments and restrictions placed on those payments because of sanctions.
Russian banks have been cut off from the international SWIFT payments system that banks use to make cross-border payments. It is used by more than 11,000 financial institutions in over 200 countries and territories.
The two presidents agreed that five Turkish banks would extend the use of the Mir system, making things easier for Russian tourists in Turkey, one of the few remaining countries in Europe still offering flights to and from Russia.
Erdogan told reporters on his return flight that he hoped this cooperation would total $100 billion. It was, he added, part of a new “road map” to enhance bilateral relations that will serve as a “source of power between Turkey and Russia in financial terms.”
It is a relationship that angers Washington and the EU, as Erdogan provides Putin a sizable hole in the dam of sanctions the West has constructed. Some wonder where his loyalties lie, beyond his own self-interest.
However, Turkey is not a member of the EU; therefore, politically speaking, “Turkey is not obliged to follow EU decisions,” Huseyin Bagci, head of the Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara, argued.
Turkey also appears to have refrained lately from taking action in Syria due to Russian pressure. Its last full-scale military intervention in northern Syria against Kurdish rebels allied with Bashar al-Assad’s forces was two years ago.
During a Turkish-Iranian-Russian summit in Tehran on July 19, Moscow effectively ruled out a full-scale Turkish ground offensive in northern Syria.
It appears that Russia’s Rosatom State Nuclear Energy Corporation’s plan to send at least $15 billion to Ankara for the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear reactor in the southern city of Akkuyu has had a critical role in Turkey’s choice not to irritate Russia.
The bottom line: Turkey needs Russian cash, gas and business as Erdogan faces presidential and parliamentary elections next June, while Moscow needs friends to try to evade Western sanctions.
Inflation has soared in Turkey since September 2021 amid the slump of the Turkish lira, fueled by unorthodox rate cuts by the central bank. The surge in global energy and commodity prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February has only made matters worse.
Consumer prices in Turkey are rapidly rising month to month, official data showed Sept. 5, with annual inflation surging to an incredible 24-year high of 80.2 per cent. Not surprisingly, Erdogan’s popularity has declined amid the economic crisis.
Polls suggest that Erdogan will face his most difficult contest next year since coming to power, with several opposition politicians beating him in head-to-head races, while his Justice and Development Party (AKP) would lose its parliamentary majority.
Russia is Turkey’s main energy supplier, so any Russian gesture to ease Turkey’s energy bill is important for Ankara as it scrambles to prop up the lira and curb rising foreign currency prices. Russian energy giant Gazprom tossed Turkey a life preserver Sept. 6 by announcing that Turkey will be allowed pay for 25 per cent of the natural gas it purchases from Russia in roubles.
A day later, Erdogan made his views very clear. “I can clearly say that I do not find the attitude of the West right. Because there is a West that follows a policy based on provocation,” he said, according to Turkey’s state news agency. “I say to those who underestimate Russia, you are doing it wrong. Russia is not a country that can be underestimated.”
Although it’s rarely expressed out loud, we’ve always known that Turkey, a Middle Eastern Muslim nation that has effectively been refused entry into the EU, has always been the “wild card” in an Atlantic alliance centred around North America and Europe.