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.
“Hey [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 center 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 percent of total imports from a trough of 20 percent in previous years, according to the shipbroker Poten & Partners.
Last month, Putin backed creating a hub for Russian gas in Turkey to help compensate for the sharp decline in exports to Europe, which is seeking to wean itself off its dependence on Russian energy.
Putin’s close relations with Erdoğan also give him a diplomatic lifeline — proof that he is not as isolated as the west might hope, if he holds regular summits with a Nato leader. The two men have crafted a complex relationship to co-operate on a range of conflicts, from Syria to the Caucasus to Libya, despite supporting opposite sides.
While Erdoğan’s approach may dent the west’s united front against the war in Ukraine, Bağcı said the Turkish president’s influence with Putin could serve the interests of Turkey’s western allies.
“It is important not only for Turkey and Russia to maintain dialogue, but also for Nato. Someone has to be able to speak with Russia,” he said.
But although both countries benefit from the co-operation, Russia’s lack of other options has significantly emboldened Turkey, according to Alexandra Prokopenko, a former Russian central bank official.
“Putin has always viewed the deal as a political tool. But Erdogan’s leverage on Putin was more powerful,” Prokopenko wrote on Twitter. “Turkey is now Russia’s main window to Europe,” she added. “The higher the dependence on Turkey for trade, the lower the economic sovereignty that Putin is so proud of.”
Russia’s faltering invasion, which has fallen so far short of expectations as to provoke a domestic outcry, also appears to have emboldened Ukraine to continue shipping grain in spite of Moscow’s threats.
Although Putin threatened to withdraw from the deal again if Ukraine violated the “guarantees”, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration, told the FT that “the very idea that Ukraine can give security guarantees to the Black Sea fleet of the occupying country — ‘thunderstorms of the seas and oceans’ — seems to me quite ridiculous.”
Instead, Kyiv, the UN and Turkey showed “that the grain corridor can continue to work even without the Kremlin’s participation”, Podolyak said, referring to continued shipments this week.
“The Kremlin just fell into a trap and didn’t know how to get out,” Tatiana Stanovaya, founder of political consultancy R. Politik, wrote on social media app Telegram. “They suspended the deal, but it wasn’t clear how they could stop grain exports. And they couldn’t, except by force, which wasn’t part of the plan.”