Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Picture: REUTERS
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Picture: REUTERS

After the fanfare, the anticlimax. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan quietly skipped town after his summit meeting with Vladimir Putin last week. There was not even an official statement about their discussions in Sochi.

The discreet departure was doubly odd. Erdogan is not one to miss an opportunity to show off his international standing, and this had been heralded as the most consequential meeting between the two men in years.

The Sochi summit was meant to represent the next step in Turkey’s uncoupling from a fraying alliance with the US and towards a deepening relationship with Russia. Ahead of his trip to the Black Sea resort town, Erdogan had openly talked of his lack of rapport with President Joe Biden, and more generally about the tattering ties between their countries. “I cannot honestly say that there is a healthy process in Turkish-American relations,” he told reporters during a visit to New York for the UN General Assembly.

He simultaneously talked up the close bond between Ankara and Moscow. If he and Putin didn’t always see eye-to-eye on some things — such as Turkey’s encroachment into the Russian sphere of influence in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, and Russia’s interference with Turkish interests in Syria and Libya — the two men would sort their differences out in Sochi. “We will of course reach an important decision in Turkey-Russia relations,” Erdogan said.  

But judging by the postsummit spin from both parties, no important decisions were reached. Putin and Erdogan met with only their translators present. Their discussions lasted three hours, which is not very long considering the time taken up in translation. Putin described their conversation as “useful”, and Erdogan tweeted it has been “productive”.

Translated from diplomatese, that means that nothing of substance was achieved at the meeting.

Fresh sanctions

That is not a problem for Putin. The Russian has already got most of what he wants from the Turk. Under Erdogan, Turkey has drifted away from the US and Nato, Moscow’s main security threats, and become progressively more dependent on Russia. The Turkish economy runs on Russian natural gas; its tourism industry relies increasingly on Russian visitors.

On the flight back home, Erdogan told reporters he was keen to buy more Russian military hardware, including ships, warplanes and submarines, as well as two nuclear power plants. He also reiterated his commitment to acquiring a second S-400 missile defence system, which will only further alienate other Nato allies and invite fresh American sanctions.

This is all music to Putin’s ears. But Erdogan didn’t get anything out of the Russian president on Ankara’s two most pressing anxieties — one about Moscow’s manoeuvring in Syria, the other about the price of gas. Turkey has been alarmed by the recent escalation in a joint Russian-Syrian assault on Idlib, the last redoubt of rebels backed by the Turks.

The province, on the border with Turkey, is home to 4 million people, and the Erdogan government fears a new wave of refugees fleeing the fighting. Turkey is already home to the world’s largest concentration of refugees — more than 3.7-million, according to the UN High Commission on Refugees. Growing Turkish resentment about the presence of so many foreigners is a political liability for Erdogan, whose approval ratings are already sagging from widespread dissatisfaction with the state of the economy.

No promises

On the gas front, Turkey is negotiating the supply of 8-million cubic metres from Russia’s Gazprom while prices are rising sharply thanks to Chinese demand. With winter approaching, Ankara is keen to nail down new contracts, and has been hoping Erdogan’s outreach to Putin will yield favourable terms.

But at Sochi, Putin offered only vague platitudes about the “fairly successful” Turkish-Russian co-operation in Syria and Libya, while holding out no promises on Idlib. Likewise, he mused that Turkey could feel “absolutely confident and stable” about the supply of Russian gas, but provided no assurances about the pricing. 

As he burns his bridges with the US, Erdogan was hoping for more than mere blandishments from Putin. But their summit showed that the Russian president has his Turkish counterpart where he wants him. No wonder Erdogan skulked out of Sochi.   

Bloomberg Opinion. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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