Putin-Erdogan Meeting - Breakup, Breakdown

Russia and Turkey want different things out of a renewed relationship

Wed, Aug 10, 2016
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All law students in England, meeting the law of torts for the first time, used to study Scott v Shepherd. That was a case decided in 1773 in which a man in a marketplace was struck in the face by a lit firework that put out his eye.  The legal rule was --  if you toss fireworks, you are liable for blinding a man, even if you didn’t mean to. 

In the preliminaries to this week’s meeting in St. Petersburg, the Turkish President, Tayyip Recep Erdogan, has been playing games with fireworks.  The President of Russia, Vladimir Putin, wasn’t  closing his eyes.  At the conclusion of their meeting in St. Petersburg on Tuesday afternoon, Putin’s eyes revealed more than his mouth about Erdogan’s  incendiaries.      

Officials on the Russian and Turkish sides, and their staffs, have already made clear  there are four  strategic points on the agenda of Russian-Turkish negotiations; one political corollary; and several commercial payoffs.

The priority is the commitment from Turkey to stop attempts at regime change in Syria, the Russian Caucasus, and the CIS states, including Armenia and Tajikistan.  This means the expulsion of Chechen fighters from their havens in Turkey and areas under Turkish control; closure of the Turkish-Syrian border for ISIS and other jihadis; and an end to Turkish support for the Azeri war against Armenia and for Islamic oppositionists in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan,  and Crimea.  

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In return, the Turks want a Russian commitment not to support Kurdish groups to establish territorial autonomies or statelets along Turkey’s borders with Syria and Iraq,  nor encourage the Kurds to fight their way back into Turkey to establish an independent Kurdistan. 

Another Russian priority – the key to the wars which the Kremlin fought against the Ottomans for more than two centuries -- is Turkey’s undertaking not to violate the limits of the treaties governing the straits between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean,  and allow a permanent NATO naval deployment of Aegis missile systems, targeted against Russia  in the Black Sea.

For details of vessel operating conditions in the so-called Turkish Straits, read this. http://www.afcan.org/dossiers_techniques/tsvts_gb.html

The political corollary is that Russia and Turkey will not allow the US and NATO to establish  and arm Turkish forces under a NATO flag on the territory of Cyprus. 

The payoffs include revival of plans to increase Gazprom’s flow of gas to and through Turkey, in either the Turkish Stream or South Stream variants; resumption of Russian tourism to Turkey; removal of mutual restrictions on construction projects on both sides,  including the Russian nuclear reactor at Akkuyu;  and an end to Russian sanctions banning Turkish fruit and vegetable exports to the Russian market. 

Left: the nuclear reactor site at Akkuyu; right, the 2011 plan of the reactor layout; for details, click. http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Site_work_to_start_for_Turkish_plant-2502115.html

Just before Erdogan’s arrival in St. Petrersburg, he and the Kremlin agreed to stage a television interview in which Erdogan mixed several metaphors to ingratiate himself with the Russian audience. The meeting with Putin,  Erdogan claimed, is “a new landmark in bilateral relations, a clean slate from which to start anew.” Erdogan referred to the Russian president as his “dear friend Vladimir” every four minutes of the interview. Read the Tass version in English.

Erdogan did more than apologize for the shooting-down of the Russian Su-24 fighter-bomber last November. He admitted the aircraft was in Syrian airspace, not Turkish, when it was attacked. “The culprits in what happened in Syrian territory have been detained and brought to justice already. The investigation is continuing. In fact, I conveyed that in my message [to President Putin].  As for the pilots, I ordered a probe into the circumstances that occurred beyond the bounds of our customary rules of response. You also know that the man who caused the Russian pilot’s death, who killed the Russian pilot, is now in custody. He is standing trial. I would like to emphasize that.”

Erdogan was also fed the question reported widely in western media – had Russian intelligence provided Erdogan with a warning of the coup plot?  Erdogan overdid his cue: “This is the first time that I have heard such a thing. Even if it had really been so, those concerned would have been obliged to inform me first thing. I received no such information, not from intelligence, nor through any other channels. We don’t know who said what and to whom. I believe that this is a groundless rumor.”

Erdogan also claimed the Russian and Turkish peoples are as close as he and Putin. “If I cry out someone will hear my voice in Sochi,” Erdogan appealed to Russian sentiment. “while if one calls out to me from Sochi I will hear it. This is how close we’re to each other.”

Erdogan’s responses on the real agenda were as far apart as ever.  He put a stop to press hints that he is suspending his campaign to overthrow the Syrian president, Bashar Al-Assad. “We don’t want Syria’s disintegration, but the departure of Bashar Assad who is guilty for the deaths of 600,000 people. This is the condition for preventing this scenario. Syria’s unity cannot be kept with Assad. And we cannot support a murderer who has committed acts of state terror.”

He denied any role in the financing , oil trade,  weapons and other supplies for ISIS forces in Syria and Iraq.  He repeated Turkish backing for the Crimean tatars fighting Moscow with support from Kiev and Washington. 

On the future of the Gazprom projects and the Akkuyu reactor, he offered more talks, no commitments. Vegetables and fruit weren’t mentioned.  As for tourism, Erdogan declared that no tourist had been killed in last month’s military putsch, and that “currently the beaches are safe.”

The Tass interviewer, deputy director-general of the news agency Mikhail Gusman,  carefully avoided mentioning the Chechens, the Straits, NATO, Cyprus, Crimea, or the Azeri-Armenia war. 

“Erdogan used the Tass interview to take off the table what the Russians had been hoping might be a breakthrough,” a Moscow observer noted. “He used Tass to out-manoeuvre Putin – it’s clear from the St. Petersburg record Putin wasn’t happy. Putin is the big loser from the Turkish hype – and the Russian propaganda organs, especially the English language ones, are also covering up.” 

“Let’s see how the western main stream media spins the latest, in what is becoming a long list of Putin victories, over the teleprompter President [Barack Obama]”, claimed an English-language website funded by the Kremlin.  RT tweeted incelebration (right)

, claiming “the two leaders were effusive in their praise for each other”.  Sputnik News called the meeting a “reset” adverse to the US and the European Union. 

The official record of the delegation talks, which started at 1 in the afternoon, and ended after three hours, reported no discussion and no agreement on a single Russian political or security priority.    The presidential press conference revealed that despite declarations of best intentions, nothing of importance to either side was agreed. The Russian Foreign Ministry has reported nothing on Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s meeting with his counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, hours after it concluded.

There was no discussion of Syria between the presidents. According to Erdogan, “during the negotiations which took place we didn't discuss this question yet. After a press conference we intend to discuss it…Therefore, so far  I can't tell anything as we didn't discuss this subject.” Putin added: “I confirm what now has been told by our guest, dear President of Turkey.  Everybody knows that our views on settlement have not always coincided on the Syrian direction. We have agreed that after this part we will gather separately with Ministers of Foreign Affairs, with representatives of the special services, we will communicate and we will look for a decision.”

Although Kremlin officials had earlier announced the Turks would be asked to pay compensation for the Turkish killing of the Su-24 pilot, Oleg Peshkov, there was no discussion of this issue.

Russian media reports identified as participating in the talks General Valery Gerasimov (below, left), head of the Russian General Staff,  and Alexander Lavrentiev (centre), the intelligence officer who is the Kremlin negotiator for the Syrian war. There was no officer from the rebellious Turkish military in Erdogan’s delegation. Instead, he brought Hakan Fidan (right), the US-educated chief of the Turkish intelligence agency, MIT.

Putin made no mention of Russia’s security concerns during the press conference. He made it appear  his talks with Erdogan had been limited to economic policy,  and he reported no agreement on any issue,  except to continue talking. “As for recovery of the relations in full,” Putin said, “yes, we want. And we will do it. Life very quickly develops. And after certain restrictions have been brought to bear, within these restrictions in life certain transformations have begun to happen. We need to consider these transformations in the event of implementation of plans for recovery of our trade and economic relations.”

“In this regard we have made the decision at the ministerial level to prepare medium-term programs, I spoke only about that -- trade and economic, scientific and technical and cultural cooperation now for 2016-2019. I very much calculate that this program will be adopted in the nearest future.” Putin refused to agree to a Turkish demand for  lifting visa restrictions on Turkish workers in Russia; he offered to “consider all this to unblock questions of economic interaction.”

Putin’s demeanour throughout the press conference was grim.

Not since his press conference in June 2013 with US President Barack Obama has Putin’s body language been as demonstratively  hostile to his counterpart; click to open.   Putin was much more relaxed and affable during his meetings two days ago with the Presidents of Iran and Azerbaijan, Hassan Rouhani (below, left) and Hassan Rouhani Ilham Aliyev (centre).  

Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52666

The Kremlin issued a videotape and several large photographs of Tuesday’s session of Russian and Turkish businessmen over which Putin and Erdogan presided.  

Source: http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52675/photos/45193

The published text of the session reiterated conditionals. “From you, businessmen,” Erdogan passed the buck, “we wait for serious steps in respect of the embodiment of projects which will make a contribution to economic development between our two countries…If we remove all obstacles before our trade relations and we will create new areas for cooperation, I think, we can achieve these objectives. Therefore the serious weight of this freight falls also on your shoulders, our dear businessmen.”  He referred once to the Bosphorus Straits only to mention that he is about to start building a tunnel underneath. Putin was referred to as “dear friend” only once in his six-and-a-half -minute speech.  Putin grimaced and fidgeted.

The two presidents recited the trade statistics confirming the extent of the financial losses Turkey has suffered since the start of sanctions last December. Trade turnover in the first five months of this year has fallen from $10.7 billion to $6.1 billion, a loss of $4.6 billion. The Turkish share of Russia’s global trade has dropped from 4.8% to 3.6%. 

RUSSIAN IMPORTS OF TURKISH VEGETABLES AND FRUIT, JANUARY TO MAY 2015, 2016

The table shows Erdogan’s farm and food trade constituents have suffered losses to May 31 of $812 million; more than $1 billion by the time Erdogan arrived yesterday.  The losses are concentrated in several segments of the Russian food market.

The Russian Customs Agency has reported that Turkish tomatoes, which held 57% of the import market in value before the Su-24 was shot down in November, have been wiped out. Turkish apricots, strawberries, peaches, onions, and cucumbers have also occupied large shares of the Russian market, but have been hit hard since January.  Alexander Khorev of APK-Inform,  a leading Moscow consultancy on the food trade, says that last year --  before the Turkish conflict but after sanctions cut supplies of vegetables and fruit from the European Union --  Russia purchased a total of 665,000 tonnes of tomatoes, of which the Turkish share was 52% in volume. The imported cucumber supply totalled 545,000 tonnes; 23% of them from Turkey; and 264,000 tonnes of onions, 14% of them Turkish.

One of the curiosities revealed in the customs figures is the apparent leap in the volume and value of Armenian tomatoes. 

 Moscow sources say the volume of Armenian tomatoes imported to Russia this year exceeds the capacity of Armenian growers to ship them. The suspicion in the Moscow trade is that the Turks have been smuggling tomatoes into Russia disguised as coming from their arch-enemy, Armenia. 

One reason Putin said nothing about reviving this trade is that Russian growers have invested swiftly in greenhouses, subsidized in part by state banks, in order to produce import substitutes. They are relying on keeping the market share and price point which the Turks enjoyed nine months ago.  Alternative sources of imported supply—Syria, Tunisia, South Africa, Uzbekistan, Iran and Armenia – have also gained at the Turks’ expense. Philip Owen of Volga Traders  comments that it is costly to set up logistics, payment and marketing arrangements for imported foodstuffs, and so the Russian market may not return to Turkish suppliers.  Erdogan provided no political reason for the  Kremlin to revive Turkey’s food trade;  Russian growers say there is now good reason not to do so. 

At the press conference in St. Petersburg yesterday, Erdogan said: “If you remember, we had a purpose – to reach a business volume of 100 billion dollars, and we will resolutely aim at achieving these objectives. As of today,  I can say,  we again begin the process, we begin to go towards this aim.”  A Russian business source responds: “Erdogan can tell his exporters whatever he likes. The Russian market will never be the same for them.”

Greek and Cypriot observers comment that Erdogan performed predictably and that nothing new has been gained or learned from his visit to Russia. “His real audience was in Washington, Berlin, and Brussels. Who can be fooled by this? ” An influential  Cypriot figure added: “Putin allowed Erdogan to make public Turkey’s support for the Crimean tatars. Why didn’t Putin mention that? Why didn’t Putin condemn the Turkish occupation of Cyprus?”

“I don’t believe in the emergence of new political triangles,” comments Irina Zvyagelskaya (right)

 of the Arab and Islamic Research Centre in Moscow.  “I don’t think any strategic changes will follow overnight to bring about changes to the configuration of alliances. A number of steps we’ve seen taken by our friends and partners,  and those we are not on very friendly terms with,  are tactical. They stem from the current situation."

The Russian assessment, openly reflected in Cyprus and Greece, and more discreetly in Washington, is that the Turkish coup isn't over yet. A Russian analyst asked quizzically.  “No member of the General Staff and no intelligence officer can have given President Putin  reason to expect any better of Erdogan, and the Tass interview proved it. What benefit Putin calculated he was gaining by playing along in the charade is not clear. Putin is playing for time, and if Erdogan runs out of it, the Russian side haven’t made up their minds to be sorry.” 

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