Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are set to meet in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Monday for their first face-to-face talks in 18 months. The meeting comes amid international efforts to patch up the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which was suspended by Russia in July over a trade dispute with the West. The two leaders are also expected to address the conflicts in Syria and Libya, where they have competing interests, as well as the possible purchase of a second batch of Russia’s S-400 missile system by Turkey, which has strained its relations with the US and NATO.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative was a UN-backed deal that allowed millions of tons of grain and other commodities to be exported from three Ukrainian ports safely, despite the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia. The deal was brokered by Turkey, which controls the access to the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits. Turkey also benefited from the deal as a major importer of Ukrainian wheat and sunflower oil.
However, Russia withdrew from the deal in July, accusing the West of not honoring a parallel agreement that promised to remove obstacles to Russian exports of food and fertilizer. Russia claimed that it faced restrictions on shipping and insurance that hampered its agricultural trade, even though it had shipped record amounts of wheat since last year.
Erdogan has repeatedly pledged to renew the deal and has taken on a role as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia. He has maintained close ties with Putin during the 18-month war, despite being a NATO member and a traditional rival of Russia. Turkey has not joined the Western sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine, but has also supported Kyiv by sending arms, meeting with Ukrainian President Zelenskyy and backing its bid to join NATO.
Erdogan’s dual role has angered both sides at times. He provoked Moscow in July when he allowed five Ukrainian commanders to return home, who had been captured by Russia and handed over to Turkey on condition they remain there for the duration of the war. He also irked Washington in August when he hosted Taliban leaders in Ankara, just days after the US withdrew from Afghanistan.
Erdogan’s meeting with Putin in Sochi is seen as a crucial opportunity to restore the Black Sea grain deal and ease the tensions in the region. However, it is also fraught with risks and challenges. Putin may demand concessions from Erdogan on other issues, such as Syria, Libya and Cyprus, where Turkey and Russia have conflicting interests. Erdogan may also face criticism from his NATO allies for engaging with Putin without consulting them. Moreover, the situation in Ukraine remains volatile and unpredictable, as Russia continues to launch attacks on Ukrainian ports and infrastructure near the NATO border.
Erdogan is also expected to discuss with Putin the possibility of buying a second batch of S-400 missile systems from Russia, despite US opposition. Turkey bought its first batch in 2019, triggering US sanctions and suspension from the F-35 fighter jet program. The US argues that the S-400s are incompatible with NATO’s defense systems and pose a security threat. Turkey insists that it has the right to choose its own defense equipment and that it will not integrate the S-400s with NATO’s systems.
The S-400 issue has been one of the main sources of friction between Turkey and the US, which have also clashed over Syria, Libya, Iraq, Iran, human rights and democracy. Erdogan has expressed his disappointment with the Biden administration, which he accused of not fulfilling its promises on various issues. He has also complained about not having a direct phone call with Biden since he took office in January.
Erdogan’s meeting with Putin may be seen as a signal to Washington that Ankara is not dependent on its alliance with the US and that it can pursue its own interests with other partners. However, it may also backfire if it further alienates Turkey from its Western allies and isolates it in an increasingly unstable region.