Russian President Vladimir Putin has hosted his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, for what was considered the most consequential meeting between the two leaders in years.
The September 29 talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi follow two weeks of self-isolation for Putin -- a measure that came after dozens of members of his inner circle tested positive for COVID-19.
They also come 18 months after Putin and Erdogan held their last face-to-face meeting in Moscow, during which time issues between the two countries have only accumulated.
In addition to the conflicts in Syria and Libya, the two were expected to discuss the South Caucasus and Ukraine, expanding Russian gas exports, and the possible purchase by Turkey of a second batch of Russia's S-400 missile system despite objections from the United States.
As the two leaders sat down for about three hours of talks in Sochi, Putin said that relations between Moscow and Ankara were developing positively thanks to their ability to find "compromises."
"Negotiations are sometimes difficult, but with a positive final result," he said.
Erdogan said he believed that "there is great benefit in continuing our Turkish-Russian relations by strengthening them every day."
Neither leader made any detailed statements to the media after the talks, though Putin thanked Erdogan for the visit which he called "useful."
Erdogan tweeted that he left Sochi after holding a "productive" meeting with his Russian counterpart.
On Syria, where Ankara and Moscow are on opposing sides of the conflict even as they have coordinated and cooperated there in recent years, Erdogan told Putin that "the peace there depends on Turkey-Russia relations."
At the top of the agenda, Erdogan was expected to press Putin to abide by a cease-fire deal reached last year to halt a Russian and Syrian army assault on Turkish-backed rebel factions in northwestern Syria’s Idlib Province.
Turkey has thousands of troops deployed at bases in Idlib to deter a Syrian army offensive, which it fears would push many of the province’s estimated 3 million people across the border as refugees. Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees.
Ahead of the summit, Turkey reinforced troops in Idlib as Russia and Syria escalated air strikes on rebels.
There have also been reports of “harassment” air strikes near Turkish army observation posts.
In February 2020, an air strike killed at least 34 Turkish soldiers, prompting Turkey to pour in reinforcements into Idlib and conduct devastating strikes on Syrian army positions with armed drones and artillery.
The incident raised concerns of direct military conflict between Russia and Turkey, a NATO member.
"We hope that with the meeting our president will have with Mr. Putin, a return to peace will be possible as at the beginning of the agreement" on Idlib, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told journalists on September 28.
"We are abiding by the principles of the agreement reached with Russia," he added.
Russia considers most rebel factions in Idlib terrorist groups.
On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on September 25 that implementation of Turkey’s own commitments under the 2018 agreement were going “slow."
Erdogan was also expected to call on Putin to do more to clear Syrian Kurdish forces from areas near the Turkish border under control of Russian and Syrian army troops.
Under a 2019 agreement between Ankara and Moscow, Russian and Syrian troops were to remove YPG Syrian Kurdish militants from the border.
Turkey considers the YPG, which helped spearhead the U.S.-backed defeat of the Islamic State, as a terrorist group linked to its own PKK Kurdish separatist movement.
The two sides were also expected to discuss Nagorno-Karabakh, over which Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a war last fall, and efforts to revive diplomacy in the South Caucasus.
Turkey supported Azerbaijan's military assault that led to Baku’s forces recapturing parts of Nagorno-Karabakh and neighboring districts that had been under Armenian control for nearly three decades. Moscow has a defense pact with Armenia, but also close relations with Azerbaijan.
The war ended with a Moscow-brokered cease-fire in November 2020, which among other things established a joint Russian-Turkish military observation center in Azerbaijan to monitor the cease-fire.
In the intervening months since the end of the war, there has been a flurry of diplomacy and even hints at reviving efforts to normalize relations between Turkey and Armenia as part of a broader regional peace effort.
Turkey has kept its border with Armenia closed for nearly three decades, due to what it said was Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and surrounding regions, an issue that was resolved by the cease-fire deal.
One point of the tripartite agreement that ended the war includes the "unblocking of regional economic and transport links," including the possible creation of a rail or transport corridor that would connect Turkey to Azerbaijan through Armenia.
After Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian earlier this month said he was ready to improve relations with Turkey “without preconditions,” Erdogan suggested he may be ready to pursue diplomacy under multiparty regional talks including Russia.
Last week, Erdogan said that Pashinian was sending “positive signals” about multiparty talks and a possible transportation corridor connecting Turkey to Azerbaijan.
“Now with these positive signals, we will take some steps in this regard. I hope we will have the opportunity to move the region toward peace. In my meeting with Mr. Putin, these will of course be discussed. In this way, I hope we will enter a much stronger and new period in Turkey-Russia relations,” Erdogan said at an event in New York on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.
Turkey considers Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea illegal, although it has not participated in Western sanctions against Moscow.
However, Turkey regularly comments on the Crimean issue, especially the treatment of Crimean Tatars, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group whose cause is important to Erdogan’s Turkish nationalist base.
While Turkey’s statements on Crimea may anger Russia, Moscow is more concerned about Ankara’s increasing cooperation with Ukraine in the defense field in recent years.
Turkey has sold Ukraine Bayraktar armed drones and Kyiv plans to buy dozens more to deploy to eastern Ukraine, where government forces are battling Russia-backed separatists.
Turkey and Ukraine have also signed or are pursuing other military cooperation and production agreements.
Turkey bought Russian S-400 missile defense batteries in 2019, triggering U.S. sanctions and threats from Washington of further action if it bought more Russian equipment.
Washington says the S-400s pose a threat to its F-35 fighter jets and to NATO's defense systems. Turkey argues it was unable to procure air defense systems from any NATO ally on good terms.
Erdogan last week indicated Turkey still intended to procure a second batch of S-400s, a move that would sharpen divisions in NATO. Turkish officials said the S-400s would be discussed in Sochi.
In Libya, Turkey's military intervention helped repel an assault on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli by the eastern-based forces of strongman Khalifa Haftar.
United Nations experts and the United States say Russia has sent paramilitaries from the Kremlin-linked Vagner Group to support Haftar's forces, while Turkey has sent Syrian rebel fighters to back the Tripoli government.
Under a cease-fire reached last October, foreign fighters were supposed to have left by January, although both sides have ignored that deal.
Despite all the geopolitical issues between Russia and Turkey, one of Ankara’s most pressing concerns is securing natural-gas supplies.
Turkey is highly dependent on Russian natural gas, which it gets from the Turkish Stream and Blue Stream pipelines running under the Black Sea.
Turkey earlier refused a long-term gas contract to supply Turkish Stream despite Russian insistence because it didn't like the terms and price.
Now, that looks to have been a mistake as Turkey finds itself in a vulnerable position with the world facing gas shortages and skyrocketing prices impacting the global economy.