Ukraine, Syria expected to top Erdogan-Putin talks in Russia

MOSCOW (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Russia Friday for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin focusing on a grain deal brokered by Turkey and the U.N., prospects for talks on ending hostilities in Ukraine, the situation in Syria and growing economic ties between Moscow and Ankara.

Speaking at the start of the meeting at Putin’s Black Sea residence in Sochi, Erdogan said their negotiations would help “put forward the role that Turkey and Russia play in the region.” He cast the talks as pivotal, saying they were being watched closely by the rest of the world.

“Today, of, course, the world’s eye is on Sochi,” Erdogan said. “They are following it, wondering what is being discussed and done in Sochi.”

Last month, Turkey and the United Nations helped broker agreements between Russia and Ukraine to clear the way for Ukraine to export 22 million tons of agricultural products stuck in its Black Sea ports since Moscow sent troops into the country more than five months ago. The deals also allow Russia to export grain and fertilizer.

Three more ships carrying thousands of tons of corn left Ukrainian ports Friday. The first vessel to depart under the terms of the deal left Ukraine earlier in the week.

Putin thanked Erdogan for helping to negotiate the grain agreements, noting their importance for many countries around the world that depend on Russian and Ukrainian exports to feed their people and to grow their own crops.

“It’s an acute issue for many developing countries, which face major problems with food and fertilizers,” he said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the talks in Sochi would allow Putin and Erdogan to review the implementation of the grain deal, which is overseen from Istanbul by officials from Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the U.N. Cargo vessels are accompanied by Ukrainian pilot ships for safe passage because of explosive mines strewn in the Black Sea.

Erdogan and Putin also planned to discuss the military situations in Ukraine and in Syria, Peskov said.

In March, Turkey hosted a round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiators, who discussed a possible deal to end the hostilities. The talks fell apart after the meeting in Istanbul, with Russia and Ukraine blaming each other for the lack of progress.

When Putin and Erdogan met in Tehran last month on the sidelines of a trilateral summit with Iran, the Turkish leader made the Russian president wait for nearly a minute before entering the room. Some observers interpreted the action as a reflection of Erdogan’s newly assertive stand in relations with Moscow, which has faced increasing pressure from the West.

There was no sign of such posturing during Friday’s talks, which saw the two presidents hailing their ties and vowing to develop them further. Erdogan’s visit to Sochi underlined the importance of close ties with Russia for Turkey.

NATO-member Turkey and Russia have a complex relationship. While the two countries support opposing sides in Syria and Libya, they cooperate closely on defense, energy and trade deals. Their relationship has frustrated Turkey’s Western allies, who were particularly annoyed by Ankara’s purchase of a sophisticated Russian air defense system.

Turkey has provided Ukraine with drones, which played a significant role in deterring a Russian advance during the early stage of the conflict, but it hasn’t joined in imposing sanctions on Russia.

Putin hailed the energy cooperation between Russia and Turkey, noting the importance of the TurkStream pipeline that delivers Russian gas to Turkey and southern Europe via the Black Sea.

“European partners should be grateful to Turkey for ensuring uninterrupted transit of our gas to European markets,” Putin said.

The Russian president noted that Russian-Turkish trade doubled in the first five months of the year compared to the same period last year. The surge reflected Moscow’s growing focus on ties with Ankara as it faced bruising Western sanctions.

Amid a major economic crisis with official inflation hitting nearly 80%, Turkey also increasingly relies on Russia for trade and tourism. Russian gas covers 45% of Turkish energy needs, and Russia’s atomic agency is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu.

Speaking at the start of Friday’s talks in Sochi, Erdogan emphasized the importance of the nuclear plant project, expressing hope that it will face no delays. He noted that the nuclear power plant would supply 10% of the country’s energy needs.

Erdogan added that the talks would open a “very different page” on energy deals, tourism, transportation and regional issues.”

Russia-Turkey relations hit a low point in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border and Moscow responded by halting tourism to Turkey and banning imports of fruit and vegetables and other items from Turkey.

While Moscow and Ankara have backed the opposite sides in the Syrian conflict, with Russia shoring up President Bashar Assad’s government with Iranian assistance while Turkey supported the opposition, the two countries cooperated closely to negotiate a cease-fire deal in northwestern Syria.

Turkey now expects Moscow to green-light a Turkish operation into northern Syria against Kurdish militants whom Turkey considers terrorists.

Speaking to Putin Friday, Erdogan voiced hope that their discussion on Syria would “bring relief to the region.”

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Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul.

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