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Turkey’s Fidan, NATO chief discuss Sweden’s bid, Ukraine grain deal

The phone call comes a day after the meeting in Sochi between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Turkey's Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan speaks during a joint press conference with his Iranian counterpart in Tehran on September 3, 2023. (Photo by ATTA KENARE / AFP) (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

ISTANBUL — Turkey’s Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg held a phone call on Tuesday in which they discussed efforts to revive the Black Sea grain deal and Sweden's pending NATO membership.

Turkey’s state-run Anadolu confirmed the call, which comes a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to Sochi on Monday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Sochi gathering did not achieve an imminent breakthrough to restore the deal that allowed Ukrainian grain to reach world markets via the Black Sea. 

The agreement expired last July and Russia has refused to renew it without a loosening of the Western sanctions imposed on Moscow. But Erdogan on Monday expressed hope that it would be revived in short order.

“We believe that we will reach a solution that will meet the expectations in a short time,” Erdogan said during a press briefing after the meeting, Reuters reported. 

Following its withdrawal from the key deal in July, Russia has ratcheted up its attacks on the Ukrainian ports and storage facilities, fueling escalation in the Black Sea where — in addition to Ukraine — NATO members Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are also riparian nations. 

Four merchant ships have since left Ukrainian ports, safely reached Romanian waters and then crossed Turkey's Bosporus and Dardanelles via Bulgarian and Turkish seas, defying the Russian blockade in the Black Sea. 

The Swedish conundrum

In their call on Tuesday, Fidan and Stoltenberg also discussed the Swedish NATO membership bid that is pending ratification from alliance members Turkey and Hungary.

Dropping his objections after a year, Erdogan greenlighted the Swedish bid last July on the sidelines of NATO’s summit in Vilnius. 

In that statement, Sweden and Turkey agreed to form a bilateral counterterrorism mechanism called a “Security Compact” as part of Ankara’s request from Stockholm to step up cooperation against groups that Ankara considers terrorists. 

The statement also said the alliance would set up a "special coordinator for counterterrorism" post. Without elaborating, a NATO official recently told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the bloc was still “in the process of establishing the post.”

Speaking after the release of the statement, Erdogan pledged in July that he would initiate the ratification process as soon as possible after the Turkish parliament is back from summer recess in October, dampening hopes for a quick expansion.  

Erdogan’s ruling alliance holds the majority in the Turkish parliament. 

Speaking last week in Stockholm after meeting a US delegation, Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said that the statement given in Vilnius was still “valid." 

He argued that Erdogan had promised a swift ratification. "It means that the government of [Turkey] is committed to the ratification,” he said. 

Yet Turkey’s real beef on the pending NATO expansion is with the United States, as Ankara seeks guarantees for its bid to purchase new F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits from Washington, after overcoming congressional objections, as Al-Monitor reported in July.

The diplomatic traffic over the pending NATO expansion is expected to heat up in mid-September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York. Erdogan is set to travel to the United States next week. 

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