‘One hand washes the other’: grain deal shines light on Erdoğan’s ties to Putin

Vladimir Putin’s decision to abruptly pull out of a deal to facilitate Ukraine’s grain exports through the Black Sea last weekend risked restarting a global food crisis as Russia’s military threatened to block further shipments.

Days later, however, Putin rejoined the accord after receiving only nominal concessions, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey boasting that his personal relationship with the Russian leader had been key to restoring an agreement that has allowed more than 9mn tonnes of agricultural products to reach international markets.

“He [Putin] doesn’t agree to open this grain corridor via others. But with me, when I call . . . right away he opened the grain corridor,” Erdoğan said in an interview broadcast by the Turkish channel 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 that western sanctions and international isolation have left Russia increasingly reliant on Turkey. Since the Ukraine invasion, Ankara has become a crucial economic lifeline for Moscow, just as Erdoğan has played up his role as 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 broker the grain pact in July and established a joint co-ordination centre in Istanbul with Russian, Ukrainian, UN and Turkish inspectors who check the ships that sail to and from the Black Sea through Turkish waters. Russia quit the pact on Saturday, accusing Kyiv of targeting its naval fleet in the Black Sea following claims of a Ukrainian drone attack on its warships.

After Putin spoke with Erdoğan on Tuesday, the Russian leader agreed to a UN-backed compromise to allow more inspections of Ukraine’s ports and the shipping lanes, which Moscow claims Ukraine is using for “terrorist attacks” against the annexed Crimea peninsula. Russia has framed the deal as “guarantees” that Ukraine will not use the sea routes for combat operations. Ukraine has denied providing any fresh guarantees beyond the original agreement.

“Erdoğan must have said, ‘You have no cards, Vladimir.’ Either you turn it on or we have to do more unpleasant things. And Erdoğan has so many cards,” according to a person close to the deal.

Turkey’s booming trade ties with Russia may have forced Putin to listen, analysts said. Turkey has deepened already robust trade with Russia as its companies have stepped into the breach created by the withdrawal of western companies and the impact of sanctions. Turkish exports to Russia surged 86 per cent in October to $1.15bn, and imports from Russia more than doubled to $5.03bn, figures from the Turkish trade ministry showed.

For its part, Turkey has this year received billions of dollars of Russian cash — including an estimated $10bn invested in an atomic power plant — helping it to manage a ballooning current account deficit.

It imports about half of the natural gas it uses from Russia, and purchases of Russian crude oil have surged this year to about 60 per cent of total imports from a…

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