What happened at Erdoğan-Putin summit in Sochi?
I accompanied President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his working visit to Sochi, Russia on Monday. The need to reinstate the grain deal, which expired on July 17, attracted the world’s attention to his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some argued that Erdoğan’s visit might take place in a “difficult” atmosphere as Ankara signed off on Sweden’s NATO membership at the Vilnius Summit, revitalizing Türkiye’s relations with the West. Everyone agrees, however, that the Turkish and Russian presidents engage in a special type of leader-to-leader diplomacy and the bilateral relationship, which was restructured after 2015, has some unique qualities.
Successfully managing the risk of a confrontation in Syria, the two leaders strengthened their cooperation in a broad range of areas, including energy, tourism and defense. As the bilateral trade volume reached $69 billion, the two nations set a new target of $100 billion. Against the backdrop of the construction of Türkiye’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu, there are ongoing talks over the possibility of building another plant in Sinop.
The war in Ukraine changed the nature of Türkiye’s relations with Russia to some degree. Ankara did not join Western sanctions to showcase its strategic autonomy and engage in an exceptional balancing act. President Erdoğan remains the only leader promoting diplomacy by speaking with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. His administration maintained that balance without hurting Türkiye’s relations with either nation. It is important to note that the grain deal and the prisoner exchange were the most significant diplomatic breakthroughs since the Ukraine war started.
That is exactly why the world was closely watching Monday’s meeting in Sochi. As President Erdoğan’s motorcade drove through the city, locals demonstrated their interest by recording videos or waving at the visitors. That Türkiye, a key NATO ally, has not joined sanctions certainly factored into that warm welcome. Another important factor was Erdoğan’s ability to connect with people as an esteemed leader.
The Turkish ministers of Foreign Affairs, Energy, Defense, Treasury and Finance, Industry and Technology, Agriculture and Forestry, and Trade all attended the Sochi talks – which attested to the scope of bilateral issues. At the same time, the central bank governor being part of the Turkish delegation highlighted the importance of using local currencies. Last but not least, Türkiye’s intelligence chief was present – a reminder of the Syria file.
It is no secret that the Syrian “theater” has been particularly active last week. The United States aims to contain Iran’s influence by seizing control of the Syria-Iraq border. There are violent clashes between YPG, the terrorist organization PKK’s Syrian presence, and Arab tribes around Raqqa. At the same time, anti-Assad protests remain underway in Deir ez-Zor. Under the circumstances, Syria might be the most interesting subject of negotiations.
Meeting for the first time since the Turkish elections, Erdoğan and Putin discussed a broad range of issues in Sochi – as they always do. They exchanged views on the Ukraine war, global issues and other topics. The two leaders tend to make their final decisions on various issues that official delegations negotiate in detail beforehand. Their one-on-one meetings, in turn, facilitate strategic assessments.
Russia and Ukraine plan to create an alternative grain corridor. Whereas Kyiv wants to ship grains via the continental shelves of Bulgaria and Romania, Moscow complains that the existing corridor has not functioned as promised – citing its exclusion from the SWIFT system and the ban on fertilizer imports. Ankara, in turn, has worked with the United Nations on a new plan including Russia and Ukraine because it does not want any violence in the Black Sea.
For two months, the Russians insisted that the West must keep its promises for the grain deal to be reinstated. At a joint press conference, the presidents of Türkiye and Russia committed to strengthening their cooperation on bilateral issues (including the use of local currencies, nuclear cooperation, the natural gas distribution hub, agricultural cooperation and higher tourism targets). They will also continue to negotiate the grain deal, but Putin argued that the West had cheated Russia because the grains did not reach poor countries in the end. Accordingly, he said that the corridor would reopen if all sanctions were lifted. The Russian leader added that 1 million tons of grain could be delivered via Türkiye and in cooperation with Qatar.
Welcoming Russia’s decision to open an office in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), the Turkish president maintained that the grain deal “should be reinstated” with its shortcomings addressed. He also highlighted Ankara’s ongoing cooperation with the U.N. and noted that he shared Putin’s frustration over the delivery of grains, which were earmarked for African nations, to Europe. Last but not least, Erdoğan unveiled an agreement to process Russian grains and ship them to Africa.
The main takeaway from Sochi is that Moscow will keep waiting for the West to keep its promises. In the meantime, the relations between Türkiye and Russia will continue to strengthen.