Vladimir Putin’s decision last weekend to abruptly back out of a deal to ease Ukraine’s grain exports through the Black Sea risked re-igniting a global food crisis as the Russian military threatened to block further shipments.
Days later, however, Putin rejoined the deal after receiving only nominal concessions, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan boasting that his personal relationship with the Russian leader was key in restoring a deal that made it possible for more than 9 million tons of agricultural products reach international markets.
“He [Putin] does not agree to open this grain corridor over others. But with me when I call . . . He immediately opened the grain corridor,” Erdoğan said in an interview broadcast by Turkish broadcaster ATV on Wednesday.
Putin this week hailed Erdoğan’s neutrality and commitment to helping poorer countries as he returned to the deal. But analysts say Western sanctions and international isolation have left Russia increasingly dependent on Turkey. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Ankara has become an important economic lifeline for Moscow, just as Erdoğan has played his role as a peacemaker in the conflict.
“One hand washes the other. Both leaders need each other,” said Hüseyin Bağcı, who heads the Foreign Policy Institute in Ankara.
Turkey helped negotiate the Grains Pact in July and set up a joint coordination center in Istanbul with Russian, Ukrainian, UN and Turkish inspectors controlling ships passing through Turkish waters to and from the Black Sea. Russia canceled the pact on Saturday, accusing Kyiv of targeting its naval fleet in the Black Sea after claims of a Ukrainian drone attack on its warships.
After Putin spoke to Erdoğan on Tuesday, the Russian leader agreed to a UN-backed compromise to allow more inspections of Ukraine’s ports and shipping lanes, which Moscow claims Ukraine is using for “terrorist attacks” on the annexed peninsula Crimea. Russia has interpreted the agreement as a “guarantee” that Ukraine will not use the sea routes for combat operations. Ukraine has refused to give new guarantees beyond the original agreement.
“Erdoğan must have said: ‘You have no tickets, Vladimir.’ Either you turn it on or we’ll have to do more awkward things. And Erdoğan has so many cards,” said a person close to the business.
Turkey’s booming trade ties with Russia may have forced Putin to listen, analysts said. Turkey has deepened its already robust trade with Russia as its companies stepped into the breach left by the withdrawal of Western companies and the impact of sanctions. Turkey’s exports to Russia rose 86 percent to $1.15 billion in October, and imports from Russia more than doubled to $5.03 billion, figures from Turkey’s Commerce Ministry show.
Turkey, for its part, has received billions of dollars in Russian cash this year – including an estimated $10 billion
It imports about half of the natural gas it uses from Russia, according to shipbroker Poten & Partners, and purchases of Russian crude have risen to about 60 percent of total imports this year, from a low of 20 percent in previous years.
Last month, Putin backed the creation of a hub for Russian gas in Turkey to offset a sharp drop in exports to Europe, which is trying to shake its reliance on Russian energy.
Putin’s close ties to Erdoğan also give him a diplomatic lifeline – proof that he is not as isolated as the West might hope by holding regular summits with a NATO leader. The two men have built a complex relationship to work together in a range of conflicts, from Syria to the Caucasus to Libya, although they support opposite sides.
While Erdoğan’s approach could damage the West’s united front against the war in Ukraine, Bağcı said the Turkish president’s influence over Putin could serve the interests of Turkey’s Western allies.
“The dialogue is not only important for Turkey and Russia, but also for NATO. Someone has to be able to talk to Russia,” he said.
But while both countries benefit from working together, Russia’s lack of other options has given Turkey considerable encouragement, according to Alexandra Prokopenko, a former Russian central bank official.
“Putin has always viewed the deal as a political tool. But Erdogan’s influence on Putin was more powerful,” Prokopenko wrote on Twitter. “Turkey is now Russia’s main window into Europe,” she added. “The greater the trade dependency on Turkey, the less economic sovereignty that Putin is so proud of.”
Russia’s faltering invasion, which has fallen so far short of expectations as to provoke domestic outcry, also appears to have emboldened Ukraine to continue shipping grain despite Moscow’s threats.
Although Putin threatened to pull out of the deal again if Ukraine violated the “guarantees,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told FT that “the mere idea of Ukraine being part of the Black Sea Fleet of the occupying country – ‘Thunderstorms of the seas and oceans’ – seems pretty ridiculous to me.”
Instead, Kyiv, the UN and Turkey showed “that the grain corridor can continue to function even without the Kremlin’s involvement,” Podolyak said, referring to continued deliveries this week.
“The Kremlin just fell into a trap and didn’t know how to get out,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of the political consultancy R. Politik, on the social media app Telegram. “They put the deal on hold, but it wasn’t clear how they could stop grain exports. And they couldn’t, except by force, which wasn’t part of the plan.”
https://www.ft.com/content/45620571-23fc-4cef-a7b1-a6f9131d0539 “One hand washes the other”: Grain deal sheds light on Erdoğan’s connections to Putin