MOSCOW – Relations between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Biden administration may crumble, but on Wednesday the Turkish leader made clear his access to an alternative partner for trade and military deals: Russian President Vladimir V. Putin.
At a three-hour meeting in Sochi, a seaside town on the Black Sea, Russia – the first for the two presidents in more than a year – Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan discussed the arms deals, the trade and a nuclear reactor that Russia is building in Turkey. .
Turkey and Russia have been both friends in the energy and arms markets and enemies in multiple wars in the Middle East. Through mercenaries and proxies, countries are on opposing sides in the wars in Syria and Libya, while Turkish and Russian troops serve as peacekeepers in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Much of Mr. Erdogan’s diplomacy with Russia is interpreted as a negotiating stance, threatening the United States by closing in on Mr. Putin but creating distance when he seeks something from Washington.
In an interview with editors of The New York Times last week on the sidelines of the annual United Nations meeting, Erdogan rejected suggestions that he had undermined NATO, the main Western military alliance, by buying a system of sophisticated Russian missile. These S-400 missiles, say weapons experts, are designed to shoot down NATO planes.
“We buy our own weapons,” Erdogan said, saying NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and then President Donald Trump reaffirmed Turkey’s right to choose its suppliers of weapons. ‘weapons. If the Americans had sold Turkey a Patriot missile defense system, Erdogan said, he “wouldn’t have had to buy S-400s.”
When asked whether Turkey’s actions had earned the friction caused with the United States, Erdogan seemed unabashed. “I think it was worth it,” he said. “We can strengthen our defense as we please. “
Mr. Erdogan also said that the US-Turkey relationship remains fundamentally important. “Turkey has long ties with the United States,” he said. “It will be reinforced and must be protected. “
On Wednesday, the Turkish leader used the meeting with Mr. Putin as a platform to praise the military deals with Russia. The cooperation had gone far enough, he said with Mr. Putin at his side, that “there is no way back in this area”.
The deal for the S-400 raised alarms in Washington, which subsequently rolled back Turkey’s purchase of next-generation F-35 warplanes in 2019 and the following year imposed sanctions economic and travel. Nonetheless, Erdogan reinforced at Wednesday’s meeting his intention to purchase a second batch of S-400.
Highlighting the fallout with the United States, not the geopolitical dead ends, appeared to prevail on Wednesday for both leaders. In the public part of their meeting, Mr. Putin, whose overarching foreign policy goal is to undermine NATO and the EU, only briefly mentioned “cooperation” in the three conflicts where Turkey and Turkey Russia are on the side of the opposition.
Erdogan often explains that the relationship with Russia is necessary for a regional power like Turkey and wondered why the United States should dictate Turkey’s bilateral relations. Russia is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant and has opened a gas pipeline to Turkey under the Black Sea.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Putin praised the two energy deals and said alignment with Russia protects Turkey from high gas prices in Europe. “Now when we see somewhat difficult and turbulent processes in the European gas market, Turkey feels absolutely confident and stable,” Putin said.
Despite Mr Putin’s remarks, natural gas prices have skyrocketed in world markets, not just in Europe, and it is not certain that deals with Russia will give Mr Erdogan the relief he was looking for and badly needed.
The meeting took place as Syria and Russia prepare a new offensive against Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib, the last rebel-held region of Syria, after an 18-month truce. And in Libya, Turkey deployed hundreds of Syrian soldiers and militants to support the government of national accord while a group of Russian mercenaries, Wagner, supported the opposing side led by General Khalifa Haftar.
Ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, Erdogan stressed that peace in Syria was of the utmost importance among the issues between them, stressing that he wanted to discuss not only the immediate situation in Idlib, but also to find a way to end the war as a whole.
Nearly four million people live in the rebel-held part of Idlib, and Erdogan is particularly keen to prevent an offensive that would send a wave of displaced Syrians towards the border. Turkey is already hosting four million refugees, the majority of whom are Syrians, and the popular mood, amid an economic downturn, with high unemployment and inflation, has turned against them.
But Mr Putin, at least in his public comments, has moved quickly on these issues. “Internationally, we are cooperating quite effectively, and I mean in Syria and our coordinated position on Libya,” he said.
Since a dangerous clash in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian plane on its southern border with Syria, Mr. Erdogan has carefully cultivated a relationship with Mr. Putin, meeting him in person often several times a year, despite the expense of its long-standing alliance. with NATO and the United States.
Aykan Erdemir, director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington and a former opposition member in the Turkish parliament, said Erdogan’s plans to buy more S-400 missiles should be a ” alarm clock “for the Biden. administration.
“The Turkish president will continue to play a spoiler role within NATO and will offer Putin new opportunities to undermine the transatlantic alliance and its values,” he said in comments sent by email. He added that Turkey’s offer to play a role in Afghanistan after the US withdrawal was also aimed at creating dependency that would reduce any retreat from Washington.
But Mr Erdogan was heading to Sochi with his “weakest hand” to date in the couple’s 19-year relationship, Kerim Has, professor of Turkish-Russian relations at Moscow University, wrote in a personal blog .
He is not only desperate to prevent the offensive in Idlib, but is also badly in need of a favorable deal to buy natural gas from Russia as world prices skyrocket, Has wrote.
“Erdogan may have to buy the second part of the S-400 for his ‘personal survival’,” he added.
When the meeting ended without a briefing for reporters, Mr Has concluded that Mr Erdogan was leaving empty-handed. “In my opinion, Erdogan did not get what he expected,” he wrote on Twitter.
As Mr. Erdogan sought to restore relations with the United States and the European Union, he recently acknowledged President Biden’s composure.
“In my 19-year life as a leader as Prime Minister and President, the point at which we have come in our relationship with the United States is not good,” he told media Turks during a briefing. “I’ve worked well with Bush junior, with Mr. Obama, with Mr. Trump, but I can’t say we have a good start with Mr. Biden.”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Moscow and Carlotta Gall from Istanbul. Rick Gladstone contributed reporting.