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International relations

Turkey keen to deepen ties with Russia, from submarines to space

Amid tensions with Biden, Erdogan defends missile deal after talks with Putin

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, visits Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Sept. 29. (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

ISTANBUL -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he discussed cooperation with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on military and civilian projects -- including new nuclear plants, submarines and the space program -- and vows to press ahead with a missile defense system deal that has resulted in U.S. sanctions.

There will be "no step back" from the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missiles, Erdogan told Turkish reporters Wednesday on a flight back from the Russian city of Sochi, where he met with Putin.

The talks with Putin came after Erdogan said he had tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last week.

"I cannot say we made a good start with Mr. Biden," Erdogan told reporters in New York.

As for Putin, "we both evaluated the current situation in the region, while [the] main agenda was the aspects that we can further develop Turkey-Russia relations," Erdogan said aboard the plane.

Erdogan told reporters Wednesday that he will meet with Biden at the Group of 20 summit at the end of October.

But such meetings on the sidelines of international conferences give only an "opportunity for photos," Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of political risk consultancy Teneo Intelligence, told Nikkei Asia.

"Clearly, Turkey is not a priority for Biden," Piccoli said. "He has domestic imperatives back home: dealing with the aftermath of the Afghanistan pullout, debt ceiling talks, financial packages to pass. And on foreign policy front, he has China more than anything else."

NATO allies Turkey and the U.S. are at odds over a range of topics. The Erdogan administration suspects American involvement in a bloody 2016 coup attempt against his government and resents Washington's decision to back Kurdish armed groups in Syria against the Islamic State. Turkey considers the groups an offshoot of the separatist Kurdish guerilla organization PKK.

The "trajectory of events between the two NATO countries does not bode well," Erdogan told reporters in New York.

In late 2017, Turkey signed a deal to acquire the advanced Russian S-400 missile system, claiming the U.S. provided no alternative Patriot missiles to Ankara. The decision riled Washington and triggered American sanctions on the Turkish defense procurement body and its executives. Turkey also was booted from the multinational program for the F-35 stealth fighter.

During his New York visit, Erdogan told U.S. broadcaster CBS that Turkey will buy a second batch of S-400s, which U.S. officials immediately warned would trigger further sanctions against Ankara. In 2018, Turkey suffered a brief recession after American sanctions and worsening relations with Washington contributed to a plunge in the Turkish lira.

Erdogan, on the plane with Turkish journalists, discussed the possibility of acquiring Russian Sukhoi fighter jets.

"We talked in detail about what kind of steps we can take on fighter aircrafts, aircraft engines," he said. "God willing, we will take steps on aircraft engines. Also, from shipbuilding to submarines, God willing, we will have joint steps with Russia. There is no stopping."

Turkey is working on an indigenous fighter aircraft and looking for foreign collaboration on engine development, as Ankara lacks know-how in that area. Erdogan also hinted of suspicion toward an ongoing submarine program with Germany.

"Germany is taking things slow," he said. "If Germany does not deliver her promise, what we will do is to find alternatives, which will never end."

Erdogan also said he received a "promise" from Russia that a "first nuclear power plant unit will be completed in May 2023," a month before scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey. He said Putin also expressed willingness to consider two additional power plants.

Putin met with Erdogan on Sept. 29 in Sochi.   © Reuters

Turkey initially agreed to build the second nuclear plant with a consortium from Japan and France but later could not agree on its commercial feasibility terms. Turkey also previously said it is in talks with China for the third plant.

"President Erdogan's balancing act between U.S. and Russia is costing Turkey a lot -- politically, militarily and financially," Piccoli said.

Putin has leverage against Erdogan as the Russian and Syrian air forces recently have pounded Syria's Idlib province bordering Turkey, Piccoli said. Millions are stranded in the region, and Turkey fears another refugee influx on top of the 4 million being hosted by the country.

Ankara also is spooked as "gas prices are going up and winter is coming" while Turkey renegotiates a contract with Russia covering 8 billion cubic meters of natural gas, Piccoli said. The resolution of problems tied to the Nord Stream pipeline from Russia to Europe weakens the strategic importance of the Russia-to-Turkey TurkStream pipeline, according to Piccoli.

Yet the Russian projects cited by the Turkish president are "unrealistic," Piccoli said, as the "Turkish economy cannot afford another confrontation with [the] U.S. and Erdogan knows that."

Erdogan is primarily playing to his domestic audience, as rival Greece has signed multibillion-dollar naval defense and air force contracts with France, though the president does hope to benefit marginally by pleasing Putin, Piccoli said.

But while Putin's potential gifts to Erdogan boost the Turkish public's sense of pride, they will not turn the tide at the polls, Piccoli said.

"Turkish voters are very pragmatic and look at their wallet, and it is getting emptier due to inflation, high food and energy prices," Piccoli said. "Pride does not pay the bills. Erdogan needs to fix the economy in order to win, and Putin does not have such capability to help Erdogan."

Emre Peker, Europe director for political risk consultancy Eurasia Group, said there was another potential motive for the Turkish leader.

"Erdogan's primary objective for voicing further defense cooperation with Russia is to secure Putin's cooperation in maintaining a shaky truce in Syria, especially as Moscow targets Ankara-backed rebels in northern Syria, which stokes risk of another refugee crisis," Peker said. "Another objective for Erdogan is to show Biden that Turkey has other partners. But that gambit can backfire, yielding new U.S. sanctions that would devastate Turkey's fragile economy. Playing off the U.S. and Russia against each other to advance Turkey's interest presents an increasingly difficult balancing act for Erdogan."

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