Putin and Erdogan meet to discuss grain deal amid ‘shifting power balance’

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin met on Monday in Russia’s southern coastal city of Sochi amid efforts to bring Moscow back into the critical Black Sea grain deal that was abandoned by Putin in July.

Television footage showed the two men smiling and shaking hands upon Erdogan’s arrival to Putin’s residence, where the Russian president suggested that he take a vacation in the Black Sea resort.

In remarks ahead of their talks, Putin told Erdogan that Russia is “open to negotiations” on the grain deal.

Their discussions were also expected to tackle a proposal from Moscow to supply one million tons of Russian grain to Turkey, which with financial assistance from Qatar would then be distributed to countries most in need, the official Russian news agency TASS said.

The supply of natural gas from Russia to Turkey was also expected be part of Monday’s talks, according to TASS.

After several hours of talks, Erdogan told a joint news conference that he and his Russian counterpart “will be able to reach a solution which fulfils the expectations soon.” Putin said that his country will be ready to consider reviving the grain deal “as soon as all the agreements on lifting restrictions on the export of Russian agricultural products are fully implemented.”

The first in-person meeting between the two leaders in nearly a year took place amid what experts say is a possible reconfiguration of the Erdogan-Putin “special relationship,” as the Turkish strongman feels more secure in his final term in office.

Shifting power balance

Erdogan and Putin last met face-to-face in October on the sidelines of an Asia summit in the Kazakh capital Astana. Today, they met as Russia’s war in Ukraine enters its 19th month, and as Erdogan voices clear support for Ukraine’s entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which Ankara is already a member.

The two men have long boasted a close friendship marked by shared interests and a keenness to challenge Western dominance, but Erdogan has in recent months taken steps that were not to Putin’s liking.

During Erdogan’s campaign, Putin agreed to defer gas payments as Ankara grappled with a pinching economic crisis. The Russian leader also inaugurated Turkey’s first nuclear plant in a virtual ceremony that only solidified Moscow’s support for Erdogan, while his election rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu was seen as too friendly with the West.

Ahead of his re-election, Erdogan hailed his “special” relationship with Putin as Western states pressured Ankara to join sanctions against Moscow. Turkey is the only NATO member that has not imposed sanctions on Russia.

But having secured his presidential seat, Erdogan now feels emboldened, said Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. While the Turkish president may not be entirely “pivoting” to the West, he has shown an interest in improving Western ties, which have soured in recent years, she said.

In July, Turkey allowed the transfer home of Ukrainian commanders captured by Russia last year. The prisoners were flown back from Turkey where they been held since September under an agreement reached with Russia. Moscow at the time denounced their release, saying their transfer violated that deal.

Erdogan has also strongly backed Ukraine’s prospects of joining NATO, having stalled the membership of Finland and Sweden, which had irked Western allies.

“Without a doubt, Ukraine deserves to be in NATO,” Erdogan said in July, following talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Russia said it was closely watching. Earlier in March, Turkey approved Finland’s NATO membership bid, and is continuing to negotiate Sweden’s application.

Putin’s ‘window’ to the West

Putin may have shown discontent with some of Erdogan’s recent actions, but he likely continues to value his ties with Turkey as his only “window” to the West, Ulgen said.

“The change in the power relationship, which is to the detriment of Putin and to the benefit of Erdogan,” Ulgen said, has allowed Erdogan to “capitalize on a wider space” when it comes to his ties with Russia.

The two men see eye-to-eye on several key policies, especially the need to rebalance perceived Western hegemony over global affairs.

For Erdogan, Turkey’s close ties with Russia have helped counter reliance on the West and have even bolstered Turkey’s international stature as a crucial buffer between East and West.

The reconfigured power balance between the two leaders could yet yield positive results with the efforts to revive the Black Sea grain deal, experts say.

The two leaders’ asymmetrical relationship has normally been defined with “Putin on top,” Aydintasbas said, adding that as Russia looks weaker, Erdogan is trying to increase Turkey’s influence in certain areas “without clashing with Putin.”

“Erdogan will make a case for the grain deal,” Aydintasbas said, “saying: this is good for you (Putin) and me (Erdogan). And me (Erdogan) looking good is important for you.”

“This is the delicate balancing act,” she said.

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