Russian President Vladimir Putin hosts his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayip Erdogan today in the Russian resort town of Sochi, with the two leaders set to discuss military invasions—both potential and ongoing.
Putin and Erdogan last met less than three weeks ago in the Iranian capital, Tehran. Despite their differences over the war in Ukraine (Ankara is a major arms supplier to Kyiv) their countries have made diplomatic strides.
The most striking has been a deal to resume Ukraine’s grain shipments from its remaining Black Sea ports. The agreement, which was also facilitated by the United Nations, was the first positive step in relations between Russia and Ukraine since the invasion began and has already borne some fruit. The first shipment from Odesa since the war began is on its way to the Lebanese port of Tripoli with 27,000 tons of corn on board.
The two men have good reasons to keep up a good working relationship. For Putin, Erdogan serves as a reliable spoiler on NATO policy as well as a willing customer for Russian gas. For Erdogan, Putin helps showcase Turkey’s independent foreign policy as well as keep the lights on at home: Russia supplies 45 percent of Turkey’s gas, and Russia’s Rosatom is constructing a nuclear plant on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast which is expected to power 10 percent of the country’s domestic energy needs when fully operational.
Today’s talks are expected to continue a topic pursued in Tehran: Turkey’s impending invasion of Syria. In an echo of Moscow’s description of its war in Ukraine, Ankara describes the incursion as a “special military operation.”
Erdogan has stated his desire to establish a 30-kilometer [19-mile] deep “security zone” that extends from the Turkish border into Syrian territory and one that is likely to come dangerously close to Russian, Syrian, (and Iran-backed) forces.
The move is seen as a direct assault on Kurdish militias in the region including the People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which make up the majority of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. When Turkey sees YPG, it also sees PKK—the Kurdistan Worker’s Party—a group deemed terrorists by Turkey, the United States, and European Union.
As FP’s Anchal Vohra wrote in June, there is also a supposedly humanitarian fig leaf attached to Erdogan’s machinations. Faced with rising anti-refugee sentiment at home—which could pose an electoral threat to Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2023, as Idil Karsit explained in an FP profile of far-right leader Umit Ozdag last month—the Turkish leader has announced plans to resettle 1 million Syrian refugees in the newly created “safe zones.”
Today’s meeting can be seen as another attempt by Erdogan to deconflict with a major military power before going all in. “Erdogan really wants to get his ducks in a row so he can launch a further operation in northern Syria, and he really needs to make sure that there’s no risk of Russia intervening in direct opposition to Turkish forces,” Howard Eissenstat, a Turkey expert at St. Lawrence University and the Middle East Institute, told Foreign Policy.
There’s obvious electoral benefit to Erdogan in stirring up nationalism before an election, but there’s more at stake than optics, Eissenstat said:
“There’s a profound sense from the national security establishment that the YPG needs to be ended, in particular because of its relationship with the U.S., and as a political determination on the part of the AKP to appear to be doing something with regard to refugees.”
The United States, which considers the YPG a key partner in its war against the Islamic State in Syria, has repeatedly cautioned against the incursion. But, Eissenstat said—despite the leverage Washington has over Turkey in terms of military sales and economic might—the decision might be one the White House is unwilling to make, given the many sensitive diplomatic issues at play.
Eissenstat cautioned against underestimating Ankara’s will, no matter what Washington thinks. “I think that we often assume that the biggest kid in the room gets to decide who gets the cookies, but sometimes it’s who’s closest—and who wants it more.”