Opinion | Grain deal highlights the peculiar Erdogan-Putin relationship


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On Friday, the United Nations secretary general announced that Russia and Ukraine agreed to restart shipments of blockaded grain, a move intended to ease a crisis that has exposed tens of millions of people, especially in Africa and the Middle East, to the threat of famine. The deal, signed in Istanbul, was a diplomatic victory for Turkey.

Earlier in the week in Iran, we saw Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin smile for the cameras in what was Putin’s first major overseas summit since the start of the Ukraine war. “I want to thank you for your mediation efforts,” Putin told Erdogan, according to the Kremlin.

The agreement will keep raising questions about the relationship between Erdogan and Putin. Is there a mutual admiration — do they have a type of reflexive strongman empathy for one another? Or are they adversaries looking after their own interests?

The deal created an export mechanism for Ukrainian grain — that is, what is not stolen by Russian forces in occupied territories — across the Black Sea, through safe corridors. Security would be provided by a Turkey-led naval mission, and Ukraine is willing to provide coordinates for narrow pathways off the port of Odessa, which has been mined to prevent a Russian assault, and two other ports currently cut off by a Russian naval blockade, U.N. officials said. A parallel agreement is supposed to facilitate Russian grain and fertilizer exports.

Ukraine desperately needs the grain income and also wants to empty its silos and storage facilities to make room for this year’s harvest. But Kyiv also needs to be certain that the corridors for export vessels are not going to be used later for an attack on Odessa. It will be up to the United Nations and Turkey to make sure Ukraine’s goodwill is not abused.

Let’s hope this works. Food shortages have been driving up prices across the Middle East and Africa, and this is a way to prevent the “hunger catastrophe” that the U.N. World Food Program has been warning about.

But the deal also highlights Erdogan’s unique way of dealing with Putin — he avoids the moral “trappings” of Western leaders, but with results that affect millions. Both men are transactional and cynical and have disdain for liberal norms. They fight on opposite ends, as in Syria and Libya, but manage to sit and negotiate for quick results – as cease-fires in those countries have shown.

This fascinating relationship calls for both competition and camaraderie — and often comes at the expense of Western influence.

Ottomans and Russia fought different wars for several centuries, even over parts of modern Ukraine. Turkey and Russia ended up on different sides of the Cold War. But over the past decade, the two countries have grown closer, with Turkey commissioning Russia to build its first nuclear reactor and purchasing an advanced Russian S-400 missile defense system, even at the risk of facing U.S. sanctions. Turkey has refused to go along with Western sanctions on Russia, and the daily Turkish Airlines flights to Russian cities provide an economic lifeline for the country. Not surprisingly,…



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