Jun 8, 2022
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What Russia and Turkey can agree on Ukraine and Syria

Sergey Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu meet in Turkey. The key topics of the talks are Turkey’s participation in the creation of a “grain corridor” in the Black Sea, mediation in resolving the conflict in Ukraine, as well as Ankara’s plans to conduct a military operation in northern Syria. Will Russia and Turkey be able to find a compromise on these issues?

On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Ankara for talks with his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu. As stated in Moscow, the ministers plan to discuss the state and prospects for the development of Russian-Turkish relations, the situation in the Transcaucasus, the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, as well as the current state of affairs in the Ukrainian crisis and the prospects for the resumption of Russian-Ukrainian peace talks.

However, according to experts, only two of the entire list of topics are considered really key. The first is a possible solution to the problem of Ukrainian grain exports. The second is Turkey’s preparations for a special operation in northern Syria, which President Erdogan, despite Washington’s protests, officially announced in early June.

According to the Turkish press, “during negotiations with Russia, preparations for an operation in the Ain Issa region on the northern outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa, where the highway (M4) passes, connecting the cities of Hasaka, Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor in the east and Aleppo in the north”.

The Hurriyet publication clarifies that the Turkish Air Force launched targeted strikes on the objects of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Tel Rifat and Manbij in order to prevent mounting attacks. According to the newspaper, the goal is to clear the two districts of militants and “return 500,000 people back to their homes.”

And if the United States reacted negatively to Turkey’s plans (which caused quite a few scandals within NATO), then Russia, which usually criticizes Ankara for such actions, on the contrary, reacted to these plans with restraint. In addition, Moscow has repeatedly made it clear: if the Kurds enter into a direct dialogue with official Damascus and refuse patronage from the United States, then Moscow will help the Kurdish formations to resolve their differences with Turkey.

At the same time, against the backdrop of Turkey’s neutrality on the issue of Western sanctions against Russia, Ankara has long been trying to become the main mediator in resolving the crisis between Moscow and Kyiv. But after talks in Istanbul collapsed at the end of March due to Western pressure on Ukrainians, the Kremlin later called not Turkey, but Belarus “an excellent platform for negotiations with Ukraine.”

Nevertheless, according to experts, since Erdogan still counts on the success of Turkish diplomacy in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow also played along with Ankara at the Foreign Ministry level, declaring its readiness to discuss “the prospects for the resumption of Russian-Ukrainian peace talks.”

Later Wednesday, Sergey Lavrov said Russia was ready to hold a UN-brokered meeting with Ukraine in Istanbul, but such a meeting would be symbolic. Following him, the Turkish minister noted that Ankara would like to organize a meeting between the leaders of Russia and Ukraine. In response, Lavrov named the main condition for holding the summit – a full-fledged resumption of the negotiation process, from which Ukraine essentially withdrew.

“Several days ago, Cavusoglu said that Russia and Turkey are moving towards each other and are ready for dialogue. Turkey has a burning desire to be part of the negotiation process on the Ukrainian issue. For Ankara, this is a matter of reputation, especially given that the West opposes Turkish mediation. Russia, in turn, is not opposed to Turkey playing the role of a mediator. This is an important signal that characterizes the negotiations,” said political scientist and orientalist Yashar Niyazbaev.

“Another issue that is important for both Turkey and Russia is Syria. Russia still continues to maintain stability in this region, so Turkey, although it plans to conduct a military operation, cannot do this without coordination with Moscow. Probably, within the framework of the negotiations, bargaining will be carried out on this topic,” Niyazbaev believes.

“Turkey has announced that it will conduct an operation in the areas of Tell Rifat and Manbij. But in these areas are also the Russian military. Therefore, it is now extremely important for Turkey to achieve the withdrawal of its military from Russia. But what Turkey is ready to offer in response – no one can say for sure yet, ”the expert noted.

“Russia has its obligations to Damascus, so discussions are inevitable anyway. It will be about agreements on some lines, borders, up to which Russia will allow Turkey to carry out the operation,” he continued.

“Information has also appeared that Russia is reinforcing some observation posts in northern Syria and introducing its armed forces there. Turkey perceives such actions as strengthening its position before the start of bargaining. And the bargaining will continue today,” the political scientist concluded. In turn, Andrei Kortunov, Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), notes that Turkey has much more contradictions with the United States than with Russia over Syria.

“Yes, our positions on this region diverge, but the differences are not critical. The most serious problems could arise in Idlib if the UN Security Council resolution on humanitarian corridors, which was extended last year, expires now. In order to avoid the consequences of a possible non-renewal of the agreement, the conversation between the ministers is very useful,” the expert believes.

The interlocutor also drew attention to Turkey’s position on the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO, as well as ten conditions that Ankara put forward to Stockholm and Helsinki. “The very fact of such demands by Erdogan plays into the hands of Moscow, as it slows down the process of NATO expansion. And if Turkey succeeded in actually blocking the entry of Sweden and Finland into NATO, then Russia would be among the beneficiaries of the decision. But in general, we cannot influence this situation, here we act more as observers,” Kortunov explained.

“As for Ukraine, Turkey could play some role in ensuring the uninterrupted supply of grain to world markets. And this would be a real confirmation that the parties can agree on something. Ankara could also facilitate the exchange of prisoners of war between Moscow and Kyiv. It’s hard to expect more now. Now Turkey’s strategic mediation is not yet possible,” Kortunov said.

Kirill Semyonov, an orientalist and RIAC expert, has a slightly different point of view. “I think Russia and Turkey will first of all look for new opportunities for cooperation in the context of anti-Russian sanctions, which Ankara did not join,” the source said.

“But the most important efforts will be directed, it seems to me, to a real unblocking of grain exports from Ukraine. As for the resumption of the negotiation process, here, oddly enough, not only the West, but also Ukraine itself is against the settlement. That is, Kyiv is in conflict with the Turkish position on this issue,” the expert added.

“And in the north of Syria, the agreements between Moscow and Ankara can be approximately as follows. It will not be painful for Russia if the Turkish operation takes place in areas that are not the direct area of ​​responsibility of Moscow. The same applies to the American zone of responsibility and the importance of maintaining communication between the east and west of the country along the M4 highway. If, as a result of the operation, the route is not cut anywhere, then this should not interfere with the negotiations, ”concluded Semenov.

Timofey Bordachev, program director of the Valdai Club, also believes that “the main topic of negotiations between Lavrov and Cavusoglu will remain the issue of Turkey’s participation in solving the so-called problem of Ukrainian grain.” “However, in fact, the problem does not actually exist, because all the grain has long been taken out,” Bordachev said. “We are talking more about fodder corn and meal – an additive from sunflower oil production waste. But since this has already become a political topic, Turkey and Russia are actively discussing the issue,” the expert explained.

This is largely confirmed by the words of Lavrov himself, who in Ankara announced the feasibility of creating a “grain corridor” in the Black Sea for the export of Ukrainian grain. “President Putin has publicly said that we guarantee the safety of such routes and guarantee that when and if Ukraine goes to clear mines and allow the withdrawal of ships from its ports, we will not use this situation in the interests of the ongoing special military operation. These are the guarantees of the President of Russia, we are ready to formalize them in one way or another,” the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry said.

Lavrov also pointed out that the export of Ukrainian grain has nothing to do with the global food crisis. According to the Russian minister, Kyiv and Western countries are trying to bring the situation “in the category of a universal catastrophe.” “The share of this Ukrainian grain in question is less than 1% of the global production of wheat and other cereals,” the minister said.

Thus, as the practice of many years shows, “Moscow and Ankara are able to negotiate,” Bordachev believes. “It is noteworthy that all agreements are reached in such a way that there are no acute conflict situations between the countries, because the interests of Moscow and Ankara are not unnecessarily contradictory. Some technical issues are also successfully resolved, which we should see in the near future,” the political scientist concluded.

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