Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on September 28 struck different tones on the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum after face-to-face talks in Ankara.
Erdogan doubled down on his line that the vote was illegitimate and said both Russia and Turkey agreed that in the wake of the plebiscite - which produced a 93% ‘Yes’ vote - the territorial integrity of Iraq and neighbouring Syria must be preserved. However, the Russian leader offered no opinion of the vote, stating that Moscow’s position had been previously outlined by the foreign ministry. The ministry has said that Russia respected the Kurds’ “national striving” but nevertheless backed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq. Of the countries with a major say in the Middle East, only Russia and Israel did not oppose the holding of the referendum by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which took place despite not being agreed by Baghdad.
Turkey is weighing further economic sanctions against the KRG, even though it says it will not immediately use its referendum victory to push for independence. On September 28, Ankara agreed to only deal directly with the central government in Baghdad when it comes to all oil exports from Iraq. Turkey has threatened to cut off the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline that carries oil from the Kurdish territory in northern Iraq to world markets, while it has also warned that it may stop consignments of Turkish food exports reaching KRG territory. Russian oil major Rosneft is, meanwhile, looking to invest $1bn or more in the construction of a gas pipeline in Iraq’s Kurdistan to export natural gas to Turkey and on to Europe.
No mention of missile defence deal
One notable omission from Erdogan and Putin’s description of their talks was a reference to the deal for Turkey to acquire Russia’s most advanced surface-to-air missile system, the S-400. The deal for the military hardware was signed and a deposit had already been paid, Erdogan announced on September 11. But during Erdogan’s visit to New York last week for the UN General Assembly it became clear that the transaction might mean Turkey breaching US sanctions against Moscow. That would pose a dilemma for Erdogan who, following a meeting with Donald Trump during his latest trip to the US, seems on far better terms with the US president.
Turning to the Syria conflict, Putin declared that “the de facto conditions for ending the fratricidal war in Syria, the final destruction of terrorists and Syrians’ return to a normal life have been created”. Erdogan and Putin have backed opposing sides in the struggle between President Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebels battling to depose him. However, with Assad moving towards victory thanks to Putin’s military support, the Russian and Turkish leaders said they would continue to work together to address the conflict.
Putin said he and Erdogan had in their discussions confirmed their commitment to four “de-escalation zones” across Syria. One would cover the northwestern province of Idlib, which borders southern Turkey. Under the de-escalation plan Turkish troops are to deploy there.
Fresh backing for TurkStream, Akkuyu
The presidents also restated their commitment to constructing the TurkStream natural gas pipeline running from Russia to Turkey via the Black Sea and Turkey’s Akkuyu nuclear power plant. Both investments had lately suffered disruptions which needed resolving quickly, Erdogan said.
Putin’s visit marked the fifth face-to-face meeting between the two leaders this year with the rapprochement between Turkey and Russia seemingly in full swing.
Ankara and Moscow are working to improve relations that hit an all-time low after the Turkish air force downed a Russian fighter-bomber near the Syrian border in November 2015. That prompted Russia to impose a raft of economic sanctions against Turkey.
Following a rapprochement process, initiated by Erdogan last year, Russia lifted most of the sanctions.
Bilateral trade between Russia and Turkey increased by 22% y/y in the first seven months of the year, Erdogan noted, reiterating that the countries want to increase trade volume up to $100bn.