Russia-Turkey reset eases regional tensions

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) met Turkish President Recep Erdogan at Sochi, Russia, on August 5, 2022

The 4-hour meeting on Friday at Sochi between President Vladimir Putin and President Recep Erdogan promises to be a defining moment in regional politics. The single biggest takeaway from the Sochi meet is, of course, the “win-win” economic partnership between Russia and Turkey that helps Russia, on the one hand, to continue to interact with the world market circumventing Western sanctions, while, on the other hand, is a boon for the Turkish economy. 

Turkey is a member of the European Uinion’s Customs Union and it is no secret that there is a lot of Russian money floating around in the wake of the western sanctions. If that money can be turned into investments in Turkey to set up production units with western technology and market access, creating jobs and revving up the country’s economy, it is a “win-win”. This is one thing.

At Sochi, Putin and Erdogan agreed on phasing out the use of dollar in their transactions. Part of Turkey’s purchase of Russian gas will be settled in rubles, which will of course strengthen the Russian currency. Equally, Sochi meeting tasked 5 Turkish banks to accept Russia’s Mir payment system, which Moscow developed following Russia’s exclusion from the SWIFT.

At its most obvious level, the Mir system enables Russian nationals, especially tourists, to freely visit Turkey. Indeed, the West’s prying eyes can also be kept out. A Bloomberg News report last week suggests that sensitive money transactions that are beyond western scrutiny may already be taking place. Basically, Turkey helps Russia to mitigate the effect of western sanctions while taking care that it won’t face any collateral sanctions either! 

Quite obviously, all this is only possible within a matrix of political understanding. The 4-hour conversation in Sochi was almost entirely conducted in one-on-one mode. Erdogan cryptically remarked later that his talks with Putin would benefit the region. He did not elaborate. 

Conceivably, there are three major areas where the matrix will be felt in immediate terms— Syria, Black Sea and Transcaucasia. Turkish and Russian interests crisscross here.  

In the Black Sea, Turkey, as the custodian of the Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits (1936), has a key role to play with regard to the passage of warships in times of war through the the Dardanelles strait, the Sea of Marmara, and the Bosporus strait. The current implications are self-evident. 

Again, in Transcaucasia, Turkey can play a stabilising role, which Moscow expects, given Ankara’s influence in Baku. Even as Russia is coping with the new geopolitical conditions, Turkey’s normalisation with Armenia serves a big purpose in unlocking the communication links between Azerbaijan and Turkey, which in turn will open up a direct highway link connecting Russia and Turkey. The economic implications are far-reaching, especially as Turkey has well-developed road links already with Iran and the West Asian countries all the way to the Gulf region.

However, when it comes to Syria, a complex tapestry appears. The Turkish press has reported that Erdogan is planning to have a call with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Putin has been encouraging Erdogan to think on these lines as the best way to address Turkey’s border security issues in northern Syria — by directly communicating with Assad instead of launching military incursions. 

Putin’s vision is that the moribund Adana Agreement (1998) still has a lot of unused potential, where Damascus had guaranteed the containment of militant Syria-based Kurdish separatist groups. The “Adana spirit” evaporated once the Obama administration lured Erdogan into its regime change project in 2011 to overthrow Assad. Until that time, Erdogan and Assad, including their families, had enjoyed a warm friendship. 

However, circumstances today are propitious for a rapprochement between Erdogan and Assad. First, Assad has successfully beaten back — thanks to Russian and Iranian backing — the US-led jihadi project in Syria. Damascus has liberated most of the regions from jihadi groups and the residual issue concerns the US occupation of a third of Syrian territory in the north and east. 

Assad has consolidated the government’s staying power for years to come.  Second, Assad is steadily gaining regional acceptance too among Syria’s Arab neighbours. Syria is seeking membership of the SCO alongside Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE. Third, Turkish-American relations have soured in recent years since the CIA-backed military coup in 2016 to overthrow Erdogan.

One main factor today is the US’ politico-military  alliance with the militant Syrian Kurds who are its foot soldiers and aspire to establish a Kurdish homeland in northern Syria bordering Turkey under American protection. Erdogan is deeply suspicious of US intentions. 

Fourth, stemming from the above, Turkey sees eye to eye with Moscow and Tehran (and Damascus) in their demand for the vacation of US occupation of Syria (which is neither mandated by the UN nor is at Syrian invitation.) Fifth, Russia and Iran have contacts with Syrian Kurdish groups but a reconciliation between the Kurds and Damascus cannot gain traction so long as the US military presence continues.

Quite obviously, any endeavour to cut this Gordian knot will have to begin with the reconciliation between Erdogan and Assad. It is in Turkish interests to strengthen Damascus and promote a Syrian settlement, which will ultimately make the US occupation of Syria untenable and open the pathway for pacifying the Kurdish regions in northern Syria. 

Meanwhile, in a development that has bearing on Syria’s security, Russia today launched an Iranian military satellite from its Baikanur Cosmodrome. It is a Russian-built Kanopus-V Earth-observation satellite that will boost Iran’s capability to conduct continuous surveillance on locations of its choosing, including military facilities in Israel. 

Moscow negotiated the satellite deal in secret with Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (which is involved in Syria) and experts from Moscow have trained IRGC’s ground crews in the satellite’s operation. 

Russia’s ties with Israel have sharply deteriorated lately due to Israel’s involvement in Ukraine as a participant in Pentagon’s “coalition of the willing”. Moscow is probably expelling the hugely influential Jewish Agency, which has kept an office in Moscow since the Gorbachev era. (See my article With eye on the CIA, Moscow cracks the whip at Israel.)

Moscow’s criticism of Israeli missile strikes against Syria has noticeably sharpened lately. Russian-Israeli relations will languish for the foreseeable future. Israel seems acutely conscious of its growing isolation. President Isaac Herzog reached out to Putin today to discuss the closure of Jewish Agency, but it turned out to be an inconclusive conversation. Moscow will be extra-vigilant, given the Biden Administration’s strong intelligence nexus with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid. The fact that Lapid avoided calling Putin speaks for itself.

Suffice to say, together with Israel’s fraught ties with Moscow and Ankara and the deep antagonism toward Tehran, a Turkish-Russian-Iranian condominium in Syria is the last thing that Israel wants to see happening at the present juncture. Israel is the odd man out, what with the Abraham Accords losing its gravitas.  

Putin’s initiatives to create axis with Turkey and Iran  respectively mesh with the broader trend of the region reshaping itself through processes dominated by the countries within the region against the backdrop of the US retrenchment.