Although the meeting in Istanbul had an economic aspect to it, its main impetus was political. The two main issues discussed included the construction of the Turkish Stream pipeline and the Syrian civil war.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at press-conference after their talks in Istambul, Oct. 10, 2016. Photo: Kremlin
The recent meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on the sidelines of the World Energy Congress, so quickly on the heels of their recent meeting in St. Petersburg, was meant to signal that the relationship between the two countries is undergoing one of those seismic changes that take place, at most, once in a generation.
Erdogan, together with large swathes of the Turkish elite, have had enough with business as usual with Western capitals. They are more profoundly attuned to the noise coming out of Berlin, Brussels and Washington than anyone else and what they hear is the splintering sound of a broken foreign policy and the diminished allure of Western soft power. To the East there is much to lose but also much to gain, while Turkey fears that there is only a downside to its relations with the West.
In particular, it fears it will be called upon to step in to do the dirty work its NATO partners no longer have the nerve to do. Erdogan, like most of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) cadres, feels that he was pushed by the Americans and the Europeans to take a number of risky positions on Assad and Iran for which it received neither support nor reward.
The meeting in Istanbul had an economic aspect – eliminating the Russian embargo on the imports of Turkish produce and fruit, but its main impetus was political. The two main issues being discussed were both significant and extraordinarily complex: the construction of the Turkish Stream pipeline and the course of the Syrian civil war.
Turkish Stream pipeline project
The Turkish Stream project had been first considered after the EU blocked progress on the development of the South Stream project, a pipeline designed to transport Russian natural gas from the Krasnodar region through the Black Sea to Bulgaria and on to Central and Western Europe. At the time, Turkish diplomacy showed all its subtlety and common sense: it managed to negotiate an understanding with Russia while gently prodding it to abandon the South Stream, thus gaining plaudits from the European Union as well. Afterwards, the project ran into difficulties and was naturally abandoned after the shooting down of a Russian bomber near the Syrian-Turkish border by the Turkish Air Force.
That an agreement to build the Turkish Stream has been signed during the Istanbul meeting is enormously significant. No doubt, technical and financial challenges persist. For example, the sort of compressors needed to pump gas on the Black Sea bedding can no longer be procured in Europe or the U.S., since they fall under the existing sanctions regime, leaving only Japan as a possible – but likely reluctant – supplier.
The investment is considerable and could be prohibitive if there is no firm guarantee that the gas can be sold in Europe as well as in Turkey. Since the same competition rules that doomed the South Stream are still in place, that guarantee is hard to obtain. If these obstacles can somehow be overcome or reduced, the project would likely change the rules of the energy game in a permanent way.
One should not forget that the South Stream was designed to transport gas from the Russian Black Sea terminal in Novorossiysk near Krasnodar to the Thracian coast near the Greek border. For years, Europe has been trying to reduce its dependency on Russian gas. It was said that the Nord Stream as such was not a problem, provided there was no double pincer, meaning that infamous pipeline linking Russia and Germany had to be accompanied by a solution, quickly dubbed the Southern Gas Corridor, designed to bring natural gas from Central Asia and the Caucasus to Europe on a direct route, which meant bypassing Russia and Iran.
This set of interconnecting projects is very far from being concluded or even firmly secured and the Turkish Stream could deal it a mortal blow. The double pincer is certainly nearer now than just one week ago.
Russian and Turkish plans for Syria
On Syria, the global community is now approaching a critical moment and the meeting in Istanbul was primarily meant to test which solutions could form the basis for a mutually acceptable denouement. After their four-hour meeting, Putin and Erdogan emerged to announce to the press that they both supported the plan to evacuate all military units from Aleppo, leaving the city exposed to immediate regime control. For those groups inside Aleppo counting on support from Ankara, this was a terrible blow.
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During the crucible unleashed upon Aleppo in recent weeks, Turkey has remained uncharacteristically silent, whilst before it would no doubt have not missed any occasion to denounce imperial adventures in Syria and to curry the favor of Syrian public opinion.
But this is now a different Turkey, tired of being the voice of the West in the region and increasingly aligned with Russia and Iran in a triple entente, which sooner or later, will take upon itself the task of forging a new Middle East.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.