A pivot West? Turkey’s realignment amid Russian strains

Moscow (Caasimada Online) – In the shadow of the Wagner Group’s failed uprising against Vladimir Putin, a tension-filled specter looms over Turkey and Russia.

This rising discord threatens the renewal of a vital agreement critical for allowing grain exports from Ukraine through the Black Sea.

Turkey and Russia have persistently been at odds over a plethora of concerns ranging from Syria to Libya.

However, they have compartmentalized these differences in recent years, enabling President Erdogan of Turkey to navigate a more balanced position on Ukraine.

His mediation has led to crucial prisoner swap deals between Moscow and Kyiv and, importantly, a grain agreement that underpins global food prices.

Furthermore, Turkey has become a refuge for Russian talent and capital fleeing from Western sanctions.

As a testament to the complex nature of their relationship, strains are now emerging in this pragmatic arrangement right on the eve of a key NATO summit in Lithuania.

The summit, scheduled to discuss increased support for Ukraine and Sweden’s alliance entry, is currently being impeded by Turkey.

Turkey’s possible pivot

With Erdogan’s re-election and signs of vulnerability in Moscow, some analysts perceive a possible pivot from Turkey towards increased alignment with the West.

Others argue that Turkey strategically places its bets on all sides to ensure maximum gains for its national interests. The litmus test will be whether Turkey’s diplomatic balancing act breaches any of Moscow’s red lines.

The resurgence of tensions was instigated by Turkey’s significant decision to let five ex-commanders of the Ukrainian garrison in Mariupol return home with President Zelensky post his Istanbul visit.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said this action contravened the prisoner exchange deal brokered last year and protested that Moscow hadn’t been informed.

The grain deal 

In the backdrop of this escalation, talks to extend the soon-to-expire Ukraine grain deal are at a standstill.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, a Turkish-mediated agreement struck in September 2022 and renewed bi-monthly, ended Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports, allowing the country to export grain globally.

Without Ukraine’s grain exports, global food prices could surge drastically, exacerbating the global cost-of-living crisis and potentially leading to famines in the most vulnerable regions.

Russia has mulled over exiting this Turkish-brokered initiative several times. However, a deal has always been forged between Ankara and Moscow thus far.

The Kremlin asserts that the grain deal is beyond resuscitation, with only direct talks between President Erdogan and Putin being capable of reviving it, as reported by Russia’s state-owned news agency, RIA. Erdogan and Putin are set to meet in Turkey this August.

Signs of a Turkish shift?

In the aftermath of the foiled Wagner Group’s coup against Putin and Russia’s catastrophic war losses, it’s speculated that Turkey may perceive a Russian weakness.

If so, Ankara could be looking to realign its Moscow policy more congruently with its Western NATO partners, despite the risk of backlash from the beleaguered Kremlin.

In the face of severe economic struggles, Turkey might find that synchronizing its policy more closely with the West is safer than pursuing its erratic doctrine of “positive neutrality.”

Recently, Erdogan hinted that Ankara would endorse Sweden’s NATO membership in exchange for restarting negotiations on Turkey’s EU accession.

An echo from September 2022 reports suggests that if Russia withdraws from the Black Sea Initiative, Turkey and Ukraine may proceed with the grain agreement without Russia’s participation, using Turkey’s significant naval presence in the Black Sea to guarantee the safe passage of Ukrainian export vessels.

However, most analysts deem this scenario unlikely due to the implications for NATO’s Article 5 in the event of a direct clash between Turkey and Russia.

Despite multiple attempts by The New Arab to obtain clarification on Turkey’s stance from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no response was received at the time of publication.