Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in Ankara on Thursday for a two-day visit to discuss the Russian war on Ukraine, the Black Sea grain corridor, and Ankara’s ties with Damascus and Yerevan.
Lavrov’s arrival in Ankara to meet his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, takes place only days after talks between senior diplomats from Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iran in Moscow earlier this week. The Moscow gathering was organized as part of the Kremlin’s efforts to help broker a rapprochement between the Turkish and Syrian governments.
“I sincerely urge you to conduct discussions based on a clear and straightforward principle of mutual respect for the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Syria and Turkey, and be guided by the desire to overcome the existing issues quickly and to restore neighborly relations,” the top Russian diplomat said, calling on the two sides to leave behind “confrontational rhetoric and memories of bygone grievances.”
As the meeting in Moscow concluded on Tuesday, Russia and Turkey made terse statements on the “transparency” and “frankness” of the talks with little reference to what they agreed upon. The expected next step — a meeting between the Syrian and Turkish foreign ministers — was also unmentioned. Russian sources say Cavusoglu and Lavrov may tentatively set a date for the foreign ministers’ meeting during this visit in Ankara. Defense ministers of Turkey, Syria and Russia met last December after over a decade to discuss terrorism intelligence, the return of Syrian refugees and the Syrian issue in general. However, Ankara’s ultimate goal of a presidential-level meeting between Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is under intense pressure before the country’s crucial polls on May 14 to send Syrian refugees back or at least provide a timeline on when he can do so, seems far off.
But so far, it appears that Assad is the one dragging his feet on moving forward in mending fences with Erdogan. During a visit to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month, Assad said there was no point in a meeting with Erdogan until Turkey’s “illegal occupation” of northern Syria ended. “This is linked to arriving at a stage Turkey would clearly be ready — and without any ambiguity — to exit completely from Syrian territory and end its support of terrorism and restore the situation that prevailed before the Syrian war,” Assad told Russia’s outlet Sputnik.
“Time is on Assad’s side,” Guney Yildiz, a doctoral researcher at Cambridge University and former special adviser on Turkey for the UK Parliament Foreign Affairs Select Committee, told Al-Monitor. “He has broken his diplomatic isolation, including talks with Saudi Arabia to restore ties and a return to the Arab League. So he is in no hurry to talk to the Turkish president without concrete gains.”
Yildiz expects little breakthrough from Lavrov’s visit aside from an exchange of views on critical issues or a series of “next steps” that range from the Black Sea grain corridor to Turkey’s ties with its historical foe, Armenia, after a diplomatic thaw as the Caucasian state rushed forth with humanitarian aid during Turkey’s killer quakes. The Russian Foreign Ministry said ahead of the visit that it planned to “discuss in detail” issues of strengthening cooperation in the South Caucasus, including the resumption of relations between Armenia and Turkey.
On Ukraine, Turkey’s past efforts to negotiate a peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine have been mainly shelved. Still, Ankara can, as it has done in the past, get Moscow to commit to a 120-day rollover for the Black Sea Grain Deal, which facilitates exports of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports despite a Russian blockade. Russia already agreed to an extension of 60 days last month but wants further removal of obstacles to exports of Russian grain and fertilizers. Erdogan has suggested that Russian grain can be processed into flour in Turkey to be further exported to the least developed countries.
Yildiz points out the “domestic politics” value of this visit — particularly if it can lead to a visit by Putin later in the month for the opening of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, which is built and financed by a subsidy of Russia’s state-owned nuclear energy company Rosatom. “Posing side by side with Putin enforces Erdogan’s image of a global leader,” he told Al-Monitor.
The plant, based in southern Turkey, was described by Erdogan as one of Turkey’s “indispensable investments” as its first nuclear power plant.
“Putin may be present on April 27, or we will connect online together, and hopefully, we will take the first step,” Erdogan said in an interview broadcast live on Turkish broadcasters A Haber and ATV on March 29. Kremlin noted that no decision on this matter had been made yet but promised that “the Russian side will be duly represented.” Sides say a clarification may come during the visit, particularly after Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told journalists ahead of Lavrov’s visit that the two foreign ministers would agree on “a schedule of bilateral contacts at various levels.”
The two sides will also discuss tourism and the security of Russian tourists in Turkey before the tourism season, the Russian news agency TASS said. Turkey, one of the top destinations for Russian tourists, hosted 5.3 million tourists in 2022 and expects to host 6 million in 2023.