Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan both look at three topics from a common viewpoint: Syria, Libya, and the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. However, both of them aspire to dominate in order to pursue the interests of their own nation. For now, Erdogan seems to have the upper hand over his Russian counterpart.

The two presidents met in Russia’s Sochi on August 5, at which they discussed the export of Ukrainian grain and the possibility of Russian support for the Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurds. Razman Kadyrov, head of the Chechen Republic in Russia, was also present, probably because of Erdogan’s interests in the Caucasus.

In the context of the agreement on the unblocking of Ukrainian ports, the export of raw materials to Russia, which are needed for production of fertilizers and grain, was discussed. Also, Turkey and Russia “underlined the importance of the political process to achieve strong stability in Syria and reaffirmed their determination to act in solidarity to fight terrorist groups.”

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Russia controls Syria’s airspace, and Turkey needs Moscow’s cooperation for a successful military operation. Professor Zaur Gasimov believes that Putin is wary of the growing Turkish military presence in Syria, but both leaders have experience of resolving differences.

According to the Kremlin’s website, the two leaders discussed the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear JSC nuclear power plant and cooperation within the framework of Turkish Stream, a gas pipeline running from Russia to Turkey. According to Bloomberg, on the morning of August 5, Rosatom transferred about $15 billion to Akkuyu Nuclear JSC, a Turkish builder of a $20 billion nuclear power plant. The financing was provided by the largest Russian lender, Sberbank, and Sovcombank, which were sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. However, Rosatom and its subsidiary were not sanctioned. They are building the plant and are the sole owners of the Turkish project.

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In addition, next year Russia wants to buy a share of oil and gas plants in Turkey to sell oil through them in order to bypass sanctions. The leaders also agreed that Turkey will open enterprises in economic zones, thus it will be able to purchase prohibited goods for Russia. At the moment, Erdogan owns a “golden share”, because Ukraine withstood Russia’s full-scale invasion and Russia began to be pressured in the West. As it continues to search for ways to circumvent sanctions, Turkey will benefit economically from this.

Furthermore, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksander Novak said that the countries agreed to transfer part of the payments for Russian gas in rubles. In addition, Russia remains an important source of energy supplies for Turkey. On August 4, the Turkish Central Bank said a mechanism was being developed that would enable Turkey to pay for energy purchases from Russia in liras.

Though Turkey has not joined sanctions against Russia and has increased its purchases of Russian oil, it has also sold drones to Ukraine to help fight the Russian army and blocked Russian warships from entering the Black Sea via the Bosporus and the Dardanelle.

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But a recent flare-up in Nagorno-Karabakh has thrust Turkish-Russian relations back into the spotlight – pointing to Erdogan as a possible victor as he and Putin battle for influence in the alpha-male stakes.

Erdogan’s no fool

Putin clearly sees Erdogan as a vital conduit in Russia’s engagement with the international community. Yet Erdogan, who on July 19 kept Putin waiting awkwardly alone in front of cameras for 55 seconds during their joint visit to Tehran, possibly in retribution for a similar act by Putin in 2020, is no pushover.

Erdogan clearly feels he can stand up to Putin and opposes Russia’s actions in Libya, Syria, and Karabakh, strengthening his position on the international political arena. He is seeking to “wring” terms from Putin that benefit Turkey. Erdogan is showing the whole world how a country that does not have nuclear weapons can confront one that does.

Other countries that currently have strained relations with Russia are also beginning to assert themselves – notably Kazakhstan.

Could this spell trouble for Putin?

Standing up to Russia

Russia’s weakness is Putin’s weakness. And Russia’s erroneous course in Ukraine is becoming more problematic for him. Influential figures both inside and outside the Kremlin may sooner or later wonder whether it’s time to change the person at the top.

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Turkey does not have Russian leanings and does what is right for its own nation. Back in 2015 it shot down a Russian Su-24 plane near the Syrian-Turkish border; and this year it closed its airspace to Russian planes and banned its warships from entering the Black Sea.

July’s tripartite summit in Tehran between the presidents of Iran, Turkey, and Russia was focused in the main on the issue of Syria, where Ankara supports the armed opposition and Moscow and Tehran stand by the Syrian government. It became clear that Erdogan would not make concessions to Russia by halting its own special military operation in Syria.

Russia made another attempt to put pressure on Erdogan through his Azerbaijani partners, and Iran has been transferring massive amounts of military equipment to its borders with Azerbaijan, although this is nothing especially new.

This brings us to another geopolitical stage, which highlight the competing interests of Turkey and Russia.

Nagorno-Karabakh

In a conflict dating back to the 1990s, Azerbaijan and Armenia remain locked in a fight for Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2020 alone, a six-week war between the two cost the lives of 6,500 people, and tensions are now once again on the rise.

Russia sent “peace-keeping” forces there in 2020, supposedly to protect ethnic Armenians and presumably to maintain the pro-Moscow balance in the region. However, Nagorno-Karabakh is internationally recognized as Azerbaijani territory and Turkey supports its Azerbaijan as a brotherly nation, with whom it has close ties.

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Just days ago, on August 3, Azerbaijan announced the capture of several ruling heights in Karabakh as a result of the declared “special military operation” titled “Retribution”. A statement by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry refers to the complete demilitarization of Nagorno-Karabakh. Step by step, Azerbaijanis are reclaiming the region.

According to political scientist and publicist Andrii Piontkovsky on July 27, “Erdogan is holding the Kremlin dictator in three places all at once: Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya and Syria. In these places, Putin is quite dependent on the Turkish leader.”

He added: “Putin was afraid to go to war with [Erdogan] in the South Caucasus, when Erdogan gave large-scale support to the Azerbaijani army. Azerbaijan won the war against Putin’s ally, Armenia, to which it was afraid to come to its aid. Now we see why he was afraid.”

The example of Armenia, which swapped its interests for the trust of Russia and signed treaties with it, serves as a telling example of the fact that Russia cannot be trusted. After all, Russia has its own interests and Armenia stands all alone.

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Russia has withdrawn its troops from Karabakh to fight its war in Ukraine, leaving Armenians to understand that Russia will not be there to help its partner from the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CTSO) of select post-soviet states. In addition, Russia does not recognize Karabakh, but considers it a disputed territory.

Russia’s peacekeepers are not regarded as a threat for the Azerbaijani army. Furthermore, and taking into consideration the fact that the Armenian base of Gyurmi is empty, the Azerbaijanis can cope with Russia’s forces and Armenia without support from Turkey.

Russia is a country with dependencies. It needs Turkey as a NATO ally, and both countries share a similar view of the world as one which should not be dominated by Western politics. But Turkey, through President Erdogan’s actions, which focus on his own country’s interests – show that perhaps Russia is not such a formidable  force as it makes out.

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