Turkey-Russia tensions over NATO, Azovstal fighters, Ukraine grain deal

Turkey-Russia tensions over NATO, Azovstal fighters, Ukraine grain deal
Analysts suggest Turkey may be pivoting towards more alignment with the West after Erdogan's re-election and signs of chaos in Moscow. Others say Turkey is playing its cards with all sides to secure maximum gains for its national interest
4 min read
10 July, 2023
Turkey and Russia have faced strained relations over Syria and Libya in the recent past [Getty]

A spectre of tensions is returning to relations between NATO member Turkey and Russia in the wake of the Wagner Group's botched mutiny against Vladimir Putin, threatening to block efforts to renew a vital deal that allows grain exports from Ukraine through the Black Sea.

Although the two sides have always been at odds over a number of issues, from Syria to Libya, they have successfully compartmentalized their 'working relations' in the past few years, allowing Turkey's President Erdogan to chart a more neutral position on Ukraine and broker prisoner swap deals between Moscow and Kyiv as well as the grain deal crucial to global food prices. Turkey has also acted as a haven for Russian talent and capital fleeing Western sanctions.

Strains however have begun to appear in this pragmatic arrangement, ahead of a crucial NATO summit in Lithuania this week set to discuss more support for Ukraine and Sweden's accession to the alliance, currently blocked by Turkey.

Analysts suggest Turkey may be pivoting towards more alignment with the West in the wake of Erdogan's re-election and signs of weakness in Moscow. Others say Turkey is playing its cards with all sides to secure maximum gains for its national interests. It remains to be seen whether Turkey's balancing act would cross a red line for Moscow.

The tensions were triggered by Turkey's highly symbolic decision to allow five former commanders of the Ukrainiane garrison in Mariupol to returnhome with President Zelensky, following his visit to Istanbul. Russia said this violated the prisoner exchange deal engineered last year. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Ankara had promised under the exchange agreement to keep the men in Turkey and complained Moscow had not been informed

The deal was meant to keep the Azov commanders, who were captured last year while defending steelworks in Mariupol against Russian invasion forces, on Turkish soil until the cessation of hostilities. However, on Saturday, Zelensky confirmed that the five commanders were coming home after his visit to Turkey ahead of a crunch NATO summit beginning tomorrow where Turkey could support Ukraine’s membership to the bloc.

This comes amid stalled talks to renew the Ukraine grain deal expiring next week. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan reportedly spoke about the Azov incident, as well as what Turkey and most of the world hopes is the renewal on July 17 of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

The deal, agreed in September 2022 and renewed every two months, lifted Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports, stopping the country from exporting grain around the world.

Without Ukrainian grain exports, the price of food across the world could be driven up significantly, worsening the global cost of living crisis and leading to potential famines for the most vulnerable populations.

Russia has threatened to leave the Turkish-brokered initiative many times before, but a deal has so far always been struck between Ankara and Moscow. 

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A Turkish shift?

The current stance from the Kremlin is that the grain deal is already dead, with only direct negotiations between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin enough to save it, according to Russia's state-owned news agency RIA

Erdogan and Putin are scheduled to meet in August in Turkey.

The Russians have claimed almost since the beginning of the deal that the demands in the initiative regarding the facilitation of the exporting of Russian grain have not been met. Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO is one of the reasons cited by the Russians for their invasion.

It is possible that following the aborted coup against Putin by the Wagner Group, as well as Russia’s catastrophic war losses, Turkey senses weakness in Russia and is now looking to realign its policy towards Moscow more closely with that of most of its Western NATO partners without fearing recriminations from  a wounded Kremlin.

Turkey, which is facing its own severe economic woes, might figure that a more integrated policy with the West is safer than forging its own at times confusing policy of so-called “positive neutrality”. On Monday, Erdogan suggested Ankara would support Swedish membership of NATO in return for resumption of talks to allow Turkey into the European Union.

As was the case in September 2022, there have even been reports that if Russia decides to pull out of the Black Sea Initiative, Turkey and Ukraine will go ahead with the grain agreement without Russia, with Turkey using its vast naval presence in the Black Sea to guarantee the safe travel of Ukrainian export vessels. 

Most analysts however believe this is an unlikely scenario given the implications for NATO Article 5 in the event of direct confrontation between Turkey and Russia.

The New Arab reached out to the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to clarify Turkey's stance on this point but received no reply at the time of publication.