Although Moscow and Ankara still have different positions on a range of issues, the presidents of Russia and Turkey came closer to normalizing relations following a meeting in Istanbul
Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Oct. 10 within the framework of the World Energy Congress in Istanbul.
It was the third personal meeting between the leaders following Erdogan’s apology in June for Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 bomber along the Turkish-Syrian border last November. At the meeting, the leaders approved agreements on three important topics: the fate of the Turkish Stream pipeline, bilateral trade relations and the situation in Syria.
A lifeline for Turkish Stream
During their meeting, Putin and Erdogan signed an intergovernmental agreement to move forward on the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, which had been in limbo practically since the first agreement on its construction was signed in December 2014.
Turkish Stream was concieved as another way to move Russian gas to Europe without going through Ukraine after the South Stream gas pipeline project through the Balkans collapsed. The project was bogged down from the beginning, however, over such questions as the number of pipeline strings and speculation on the possible resurrection of South Stream. The sharp deterioration in bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey last fall only delayed the project further.
During the meeting in Istanbul, however, the parties managed to finish what they started, signing an inter-governmental agreement on the project. Additionally, Russia and Turkey agreed on a gas discount within the framework of the project.
After the meeting, Putin said: "we are moving towards the realization of the Turkish president's plans to establish a major energy hub in the country."
Turkish fruit will return to Russian stores
After the meeting with Erdogan, Putin announced that Moscow would once again allow agricultural products from Turkey into the Russian market. Putin noted that the decision was a mutually beneficial one, and mentioned in particular the importance of Turkish citrus and stone fruits to Russian consumers.
"Russian agriculture does not produce such products, and the supply of Turkish ones to the market may lead – and we are looking forward to it – to declines in prices of these products," Putin said. He added that the move was also good for Turkish producers, noting "sales of these Turkish goods in the Russian market last year amounted to $500 million."
Working around each other in Syria
In addition to agreeing on issues of economic cooperation, the two leaders found ways to agree to disagree about Syria.
Both countries are physically involved in the Syrian conflict: Russia is conducting air strikes in the country in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad and against ISIS militants while Turkey is carrying out Operation Euphrates Shield in northern Syria against ISIS operatives along the Turkish border.
Turkey is also fighting the Syrian Kurd militia, which Ankara alleges has ties to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (the PKK), the Kurdish separatist organization that the Turkish authorities have been fighting against since 1984. The PKK is recognized as a terrorist organization in Turkey, the U.S. and the E.U. countries. Turkey also supports the anti-government forces and describes the Assad regime as nothing short of terrorist.
According to Yury Mavashev, head of the political section of the Center for Modern Turkish Studies in Moscow, Russia and Turkey have made a tacit agreement not to interfere with each other’s operations in Syria.
"Russia and Turkey agreed on the Operation Euphrates Shield during President Erdogan's visit to St. Petersburg back in August," Mavashev said. "Moscow expressed almost no emotion during the start of the Turkish operation in Syria."
Mavashev added that the discussions during Putin's visit to Istanbul just reaffirmed the status quo. "Turkish officials and the media are silent about the Russian involvement in the affairs of Aleppo," Mavashev said. "They were given the command – 'we do not care about Aleppo since Russia gave us the north of Syria.'"
Kerim Khas, an expert on Eurasian politics at the International Strategic Research Organization, an independent think-tank in Ankara, said that the leaders did find common ground on non-military matters regarding Syria. ''Actually, the main concrete issue that President Erdogan and President Putin agreed about on the Syrian crisis is the continuation of the positive agenda and negotiations through the direct official high-level tripartite mechanism which was established between the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, General Staffs and the Intelligence Agencies. The situation in Aleppo, humanitarian crisis in Syria and the differentiation of opposition groups from terrorists will be discussed through this mechanism.