Turkey and Russia face ‘clash of interests’ in upcoming talks

The Libya issue is expected to play a central role in discussions between Putin and Erdogan.
Sunday 05/01/2020
On collision course? Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) listens to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, last October.	 (Reuters)
On collision course? Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) listens to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in Sochi, last October. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Conflicting interests of Russia and Turkey in Libya are expected to take centre stage when Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Turkey, the first foreign trip by the Russian leader in the new year.

The official reason for the visit January 8 is the inauguration of the TurkStream project, an underwater pipeline through the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey that is to deliver Russian natural gas to Europe.

After the handshakes, smiles and speeches, Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will get down to business. Russia and Turkey have developed a close relationship despite diverging policies in Syria, a development that has seen NATO country Turkey buying a Russian missile defence system, much to the anger of its Western allies.

Now the Putin-Erdogan bromance faces new challenges. They are backing opposing forces in the Libyan conflict, with Russia supporting Field-Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army and Turkey helping Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

Russia and Turkey are involved in Libya not just politically but also militarily. Russia sent mercenaries in an undeclared mission to boost Haftar’s march on Tripoli. Just days before Putin’s visit, the Turkish parliament approved a possible Turkish troop deployment to Libya. Turkey has sent military equipment, including drones, to reinforce the GNA.

Gerhard Mangott, professor of international relations at the University of Innsbruck in Austria and an expert on Russia, said the Libya issue was expected to play a central role in discussions between Putin and Erdogan.

“Russia and Turkey have found an arrangement in Syria but there could be a clash of interests in Libya,” Mangott said by telephone. He added it was “not realistic” for Erdogan to expect Putin to change his mind about Russia’s support for Haftar.

Turkey’s decision to send troops to Libya to help the Tripoli government against Haftar could lead to a confrontation between Turkish soldiers and Russian mercenaries or special forces.

“It is hardly conceivable that Moscow would accept Turkish soldiers shooting at Russians” in Libya, Mangott said. However, the issue was unlikely to destroy the partnership between the two countries, he added. The relationship was “too important strategically” for both sides.

Both sides are trying to contain the fallout from their differences in Syria. Erdogan used the run-up to the summit with Putin to warn of a rising number of refugees moving towards the Turkish border from the Syrian province of Idlib.

With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations said some 284,000 people had fled their homes as of December 31. Up to 3 million people live in Idlib, the last rebel-held area in Syria’s nearly 9-year civil war.

“Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 migrants are moving towards our borders,” Erdogan said January 2 during a conference in Ankara. “We are trying to prevent them with some measures but it’s not easy. It’s difficult. They are humans, too.”

Towns have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian artillery since a renewed government assault in December, despite a deal agreed to in September by Putin and Erdogan to ease tensions.

Mangott said the Turkish leader’s comments on Idlib were primarily meant for domestic consumption and as assurance for Turkey-backed rebels in Idlib, not as a warning to Russia.

“I don’t think Erdogan is serious about that,” Mangott said. He said there were signs for a “strategic exchange of interests” between Ankara and Moscow that had Russia tolerating Turkey’s latest intervention in north-eastern Syria while Turkey was quietly accepting stronger military activities by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ally Russia in Idilb.

The TurkStream project is likely to further cement the Russian-Turkish partnership. It has two pipelines with a total capacity of 31.5 billion cubic metres. Turkey is to receive 15.75 billion cubic metres, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported. The second line will carry 15.75 billion cubic metres of gas from Turkey to Europe.

The pipeline contributes to growing problems in relations between Turkey and the United States. The US Congress moved to impose sanctions on Turkey over TurkStream and over Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400 defence system. Erdogan said Turkey would retaliate against any punitive US sanction.

Turkey is also embroiled in a row with Greece, Cyprus, Israel and Egypt about exploitation of natural gas fields under the seabed in the Eastern Mediterranean. Ankara accuses the other countries of excluding Turkey from the gas bonanza and of violating the rights of Turks on the divided island of Cyprus.

Mangott said Erdogan could not expect strong public support by Russia for Ankara’s actions in the region but, as Moscow regards the EastMed pipeline project as potential competition for TurkStream, “Russia is rather happy” about the confrontation between Turkey and its neighbours, he said.