Does a dead grain deal benefit Turkey?

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This handout picture was taken and released by the Turkish Defence ministry press office on August 3, 2022, and shows an inspection delegation member inspecting the Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni carrying 26,000 tonnes of corn from Ukraine. (File photo: Turkish Defence Ministry / AFP)
Expectations were high this week that a visit to Russia by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would end Moscow’s objections to a key food deal with Ukraine. But although Erdogan’s pleas to President Vladimir Putin failed to restart grain shipments from Black Sea ports, that doesn’t mean the Turkish leader returned home empty-handed.اضافة اعلان

On the contrary, Turkey is better positioned than ever to become a major regional player in everything from food to energy. What is unclear is the timeline.

Since July, when Russia refused to extend the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Erdogan has been pushing Putin to reconsider. In the run-up to the Sochi summit, Erdogan noted that “the world was waiting for news on the grain corridor issue.” This followed meetings between Russian and Turkish foreign ministers in Moscow last month, where the grain deal topped the agenda.

Convincing Russia to re-enter the grain deal is a top priority for Turkey’s leader. Ankara is one of the major beneficiaries of the deal, signed by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, and the UN in July 2022, as it positioned Turkey to become a regional grain transit hub. To Erdogan, grain has immediate financial appeal.

Putin, meanwhile, has a different medium-term interest. For him, energy is a better place to start negotiations with Turkey. “A gas hub in Turkey will make the energy situation in the region more stable and balanced,” Putin said after his meeting with Erdogan.

Like Erdogan’s attraction to grain, Putin’s focus on gas is also fueled by money. Before the war in Ukraine, Russia’s entry into the European gas market was through Germany. Now that the Nord Stream pipelines (running from Russia to Germany) are no longer operational – and are unlikely to be anytime soon – Moscow needs a new partner for its energy exports.

Although Turkey would benefit from Putin’s priorities, Erdogan, overseeing a Turkish economy in free fall – inflation hit 58.9 percent last month, the highest since last December – is desperately seeking quick wins. Becoming an energy hub for Russia will take years. Reaching a deal on grain could happen immediately.

How to navigate these opposing timelines may be the biggest sticking point between the two leaders.

Putin says he won’t renew the grain deal until Russia’s demands are met, including ending sanctions on its own agricultural exports and reconnecting the Agricultural Bank (Rosselkhozbank) to the SWIFT international payment system, a link that was severed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The West, meanwhile, insists Putin’s complaints are without merit.
A gas hub in Turkey will make the energy situation in the region more stable and balanced,
Paradoxically, Western intransigence plays to Putin’s hand. Following the summit with Erdogan, the Russian leader claimed he was “deceived” by the West, suggesting that promises to end sanctions in exchange for serving humanitarian needs never materialized. It was the seventh time this year that Putin accused the West of “deceiving” him.

Putin, the king of “publicity stunts,” likely wants to send a message to Russian voters ahead of presidential elections, scheduled for next year. Playing the victim card could help him improve his approval ratings, which have reportedly fallen 9-14 percent after the failed mutiny by Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin on June 24.

There’s no doubt the Kremlin will continue to portray Putin as the winner in negotiations with Erdogan. The fact that Erdogan traveled to Russia – not the other way around – will be billed as proof of the Russian leader’s leverage over his Turkish counterpart. (It’s also possible that Putin refused to fly to Turkey out of fear that he could be arrested and sent to The Hague).

Regardless of how the leaders position their relationship with domestic audiences, Turkey and Russia will almost certainly continue to develop economic ties – if on different schedules. Putin seems intent on helping Russia’s energy giants find an alternative to the European market, while for Erdogan, cooperation with Moscow could help Turkey out of its economic and financial crisis.

This week’s grain-deal failure may be the end of one chapter, but it isn’t the entire story. Moscow and Ankara could eventually sign a new grain deal that brings in other actors, such as Qatar.

Energy cooperation will also remain high on the bilateral agenda. Russia’s Rosatom is already involved in the construction of the Akkuyu nuclear plant in Turkey’s Mersin Province, and the fact that Erdogan and Putin discussed the construction of a new nuclear power plant in Sinop – on Turkey’s Black Sea coast – indicates that the two nations are committed to strengthening economic ties for years to come.

The special relationship between Putin and Erdogan is mutually beneficial. One needs friends, the other seeks grain and gas. Even amid disappointment in Sochi this week, each could eventually get what they desire.

Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, with special attention on energy and pipeline politics.

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