Turkey wants to deepen ties with Russia, from submarines to space

ISTANBUL – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he discussed cooperation with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on military and civilian projects – including new nuclear power plants, submarines and the space program – and pledged to pursue an anti-aircraft missile deal that resulted in US sanctions.

There will be “no setback” in the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missiles, Erdogan told Turkish reporters Wednesday on a flight home from the Russian city of Sochi, where he met Putin.

Talks with Putin came after Erdogan said he tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with US President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week.

“I can’t say we’ve got off to a good start with Mr. Biden,” Erdogan told reporters in New York.

As for Putin, “we both assessed the current situation in the region, while [the] The main agenda was the aspects that we can further develop Turkey-Russia relations, ”Erdogan said on board the plane.

Erdogan told reporters on Wednesday that he would meet Biden at the Group of 20 summit in late October.

But such meetings on the sidelines of international conferences only provide an “opportunity to take pictures,” Wolfango Piccoli, co-chairman of political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, told Nikkei Asia.

“Obviously, Turkey is not a priority for Biden,” Piccoli said. “He has domestic imperatives at home: to manage the consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the negotiations on the debt ceiling, the financial packages to be adopted. And on the foreign policy front, he has China more than anything else. something else.”

President Erdogan answered questions from journalists on his way back from Sochi to Turkey, after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin. The jet he was flying on was a gift from the Emir of Qatar. © Anadolu Agency

NATO allies Turkey and the United States disagree on a number of issues. The Erdogan administration suspects US involvement in a bloody 2016 coup attempt against his government and resents Washington’s decision to support Kurdish armed groups in Syria against the Islamic State. Turkey considers these groups to be an offshoot of the Kurdish separatist guerrilla organization PKK.

The “trajectory of events between the two NATO countries does not bode well,” Erdogan told reporters in New York.

At the end of 2017, Turkey signed an agreement to acquire the advanced Russian S-400 missile system, claiming that the United States had not supplied any alternative Patriot missiles to Ankara. The move angered Washington and triggered US sanctions against the Turkish defense purchasing body and its leaders. Turkey was also launched from the multinational F-35 stealth fighter program.

During his visit to New York, Erdogan told US broadcaster CBS that Turkey would buy a second batch of S-400s, which US officials immediately warned would trigger new sanctions against Ankara. In 2018, Turkey suffered a brief recession due in part to US sanctions and deteriorating relations with Washington, which contributed to a fall in the Turkish lira.

Erdogan, on the plane with Turkish journalists, discussed the possibility of acquiring Russian Sukhoi fighter jets.

“We have discussed in detail what kind of measures we can take on fighter jets, aircraft engines,” he said. “God willing, we will take action on aircraft engines. Also, from shipbuilding to submarines, God willing, we will have joint action with Russia. ‘stop.”

Turkey is working on a local fighter plane and looking for foreign collaboration on engine development, as Ankara lacks know-how in this area. Erdogan also alluded to suspicions about an ongoing submarine program with Germany.

“Germany is taking things slowly,” he said. “If Germany does not keep its promise, what we will do is find alternatives, which will never end.”

Erdogan also said he had received a “promise” from Russia that a “first nuclear power plant will be completed in May 2023”, a month before the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled in Turkey. He added that Putin had also expressed his willingness to consider two more power plants.

Putin met Erdogan on September 29 in Sochi. © Reuters

Turkey initially agreed to build the second nuclear power plant with a consortium of Japan and France, but was subsequently unable to agree on its terms of commercial feasibility. Turkey has also previously said it is in talks with China for the third plant.

“President Erdogan’s balance between the United States and Russia is costing Turkey dearly – politically, militarily and financially,” Piccoli said.

Putin is leveraging Erdogan as Russian and Syrian air forces recently shelled Syria’s Idlib province, which borders Turkey, Piccoli said. Millions of people are stranded in the region and Turkey fears a new influx of refugees in addition to the 4 million hosted by the country.

Ankara is also frightened because “gas prices are rising and winter is coming” as Turkey renegotiates a contract with Russia for 8 billion cubic meters of natural gas, Piccoli said. Solving the problems with the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Europe weakens the strategic importance of the TurkStream Russia-Turkey gas pipeline.

Yet the Russian plans cited by the Turkish president are “unrealistic”, Piccoli said, because “the Turkish economy cannot afford another confrontation with [the] The United States and Erdogan know it. “

Erdogan plays primarily for his domestic audience, as his Greek rival has signed multibillion-dollar naval defense and air force contracts with France, though the president hopes to make a marginal profit by pleasing Putin, Piccoli said.

But if Putin’s potential gifts to Erdogan bolster the Turkish public’s sense of pride, they won’t turn the tide at the polls, Piccoli said.

“Turkish voters are very pragmatic and watch their wallets, and it is draining due to inflation, high food and energy prices,” Piccoli said. “Pride doesn’t pay the bills. Erdogan has to turn the economy around to win, and Putin doesn’t have the capacity to help Erdogan.”

Emre Peker, director of Europe at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said there was another potential motive for the Turkish leader.

“Erdogan’s main objective in expressing a new defense cooperation with Russia is to obtain Putin’s cooperation in maintaining a precarious truce in Syria, especially as Moscow targets rebels backed by Ankara in northern Syria, which is fueling the risk of another refugee crisis, ”Peker said. “Another goal for Erdogan is to show Biden that Turkey has other partners. But that gamble may backfire on us, resulting in further US sanctions that would devastate Turkey’s fragile economy. Play the US and Russia against each other to advance Turkey’s interests presents an increasingly difficult balance for Erdogan to act. “

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