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Erdogan's personalized diplomacy with Putin may have been point of Sochi summit

The latest summit between the Turkish and Russian presidents in Sochi may have been more about style than substance.
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi on Sept. 29, 2021.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, came together for the first time in 18 months in the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi Sept. 29 for talks that were expected to focus on resurging tensions in Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib.

The two leaders had last met on March 5, 2020, in Moscow to hammer out a cease-fire deal after a violent escalation in Idlib that claimed the lives of scores of Turkish soldiers. Erdogan and Putin have had 26 face-to-face meetings since a severe crisis in bilateral ties over Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in November 2015.

In footage made available to the media, the two leaders appeared to enjoy a relaxed conversation ahead of their meeting in Sochi, which, surprisingly, ended without a press conference.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, Erdogan said, “I especially believe that it will be highly beneficial to continue to further strengthen the Turkey-Russia relations. Our joint steps regarding Syria are of great importance. Peace over there depends on Turkey-Russia relations.” He emphasized the importance of cooperation in the defense industry and signaled that Turkey would continue to collaborate with Russia on the S-400 air defense systems, the purchase of which has earned Ankara US sanctions. Putin, for his part, stressed the importance of economic ties with Turkey. Both leaders steered clear of problematic topics in their statements to the press.

Unlike earlier talks, Erdogan and Putin were not accompanied by respective delegations and an official Turkish interpreter during the meeting, which lasted about two and a half hours. Curiously, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu were absent from Erdogan’s entourage in Sochi. Standing out in his delegation were Turkey’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, and two presidential aides, spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin and communication chief Fahrettin Altun.

Given the time spent with translation, the actual discussion between Erdogan and Putin is unlikely to have lasted more than an hour and a quarter, which appears too short for their first face-to-face meeting in 18 months and the plentitude of thorny topics on the agenda, such as the expected withdrawal of Turkish forces and Turkish-backed groups to the north of the key M4 highway in Syria, leaving control of the route to Damascus; the mutual establishment of safe corridors or trade crossings on either side of the road; efforts to draft a new constitution for Syria, not to mention other dossiers such as Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea; Turkey’s growing military technology cooperation with Ukraine; and energy issues including the pricing of the gas Turkey buys from Russia, which is up for review in three months.

So what was the core purpose of the meeting? To start with, one has to note that Turkish-Russian relations have become so personalized around Erdogan and Putin that any major issue has come to be discussed between the two. That Erdogan did not feel the need to take his foreign minister to Sochi is the best illustration of how the institutional framework of shaping and executing Turkish foreign policy has collapsed and decision-making has concentrated in the presidential palace. What did the two leaders discuss? Did Erdogan make any promises to Putin and in return for what? Did they discuss their political prospects as well? We will never know that. And the Turkish state’s archives will know only as much as Erdogan is willing to share. This again shows that Turkish foreign policy as we knew it is no longer, having been reduced to external relations aimed at ensuring the political survival of one person: Erdogan.

Since the duration of the meeting allowed little time for detailed discussions on outstanding problems, Erdogan and Putin are likely to have only tested each other’s intentions, made some declarations of intent and taken up potential cooperation on mutually important issues, which, in Erdogan’s case, are highly likely to be related to his political fortunes at home amid his slipping poll numbers and growing opposition calls for early elections.

New areas of cooperation might have come up in return for Russia helping Turkey on a number of issues that Ankara has been increasingly struggling to manage, including Libya, northwest Syria, and the US military presence in northeast Syria and its support for the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG), an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party from Turkey, which Ankara lists as a terrorist group. Speaking to journalists on the flight back from Sochi, Erdogan did mention potential cooperation with Russia in striking new areas such as space technology, joint rocket launches to space from land and naval platforms, and joint production of submarines and other ships.

Commenting on Ankara’s controversial S-400 purchase, Erdogan made remarks that would certainly cause eyebrows to raise in Washington and other Western capitals. “The process on the S-400 issue is going on,” he said. “Stepping back is out of the question for us. We spoke about all this in detail and discussed how we could take it to a further level.”

This author finds it a strong possibility that the two leaders also discussed fundamental principles on how they could maintain their “bromance” down the road. This could be a reason why the meeting ended without a joint statement or a press conference. Analysts now need to focus on upcoming developments on the ground and the moves Erdogan and Putin will make for clues about what was discussed behind closed doors.

Although the meeting is said to have ended in an atmosphere of calm content, various ups and downs should be expected in bilateral ties in the coming period, especially in Syria. Russia is likely to conduct a military offensive on Idlib, albeit a partial one. The operation might not come immediately, pending the resolution of technical issues, but Russia appears bent on tightening its ground and aerial grip over Idlib.

On Ukraine and Crimea, two of the most contentious issues between Turkey and Russia, the two sides are expected to maintain their positions in balance within the framework of mutual understanding. Still, Moscow might retaliate against Ankara's stance on Crimea by deepening cooperation with the YPG in Syria.

As for Azerbaijan and its territorial conflict with Armenia, Ankara and Moscow would prefer to maintain the existing regional balance. The Turkish-Russian joint observation mission in Nagorno-Karabakh, the scene of occasional low-intensity conflicts, stands out as the only problem-free area between the two countries.

After the Sochi meeting, the future of Turkish-Russian ties appears increasingly tied to the political future of Erdogan first and then that of Putin.

The answer to why Erdogan is keen on personalizing foreign policy has two aspects. First, he wants to be the primary interlocutor in Turkey’s foreign ties, especially with heavyweights such as Russia, the United States and Europe. All of Turkey’s foreign policy decisions are shaped accordingly at present. Foreign leaders such as Putin and US President Joe Biden are expected to personally engage with Erdogan for the resolution of any bilateral issue.

Second, Erdogan’s claim at being the primary interlocutor serves to bolster his image at home — the pro-government media often calls him a “world leader” — and advance domestic propaganda, primarily among his own base, that Turkey under Erdogan has become stronger and more influential on the international scene.

The pro-Erdogan Daily Sabah, for instance, headlined an article about Erdogan’s trip to Sochi as “President Erdogan to pressure Putin to restore peace in Idlib” as if the Turkish leader had the upper hand on the issue. In reality, he had a rather weak hand, heading to Sochi amid grave economic woes at home and after a disappointing trip to New York for the UN General Assembly where he failed to meet with Biden.

Under Erdogan’s lead and reflecting his personal style, Turkey’s foreign ties have become an overly personalized affair that is often confrontational, quarrelsome, and fraught with grandstanding and bluster. It looks like Putin is the leader who analyzes this foreign policy style the best and manages to use it to his advantage the best. Whether Biden will be as willing as Putin to accommodate Erdogan will become clear in late October, when the Turkish and US presidents are expected to meet on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Rome.

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