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Turkey, Russia trying to ensure relations don't turn ugly.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the MAKS 2019 air show in Zhukovsky, outside Moscow.

Although Ankara and Moscow hold opposing stances regarding the Syria war, the two have managed to put their differences aside and cooperate on certain issues within the framework of the Astana peace process and the Sochi agreement. However, despite much common ground on various bilateral issues, developments in Idlib pose a serious challenge for both countries, whose leaders have taken Turkish-Russian relations to a more personalized mode in recent years. It seems the two countries are seeking to ride out the storm and avoid playing any Russian roulette in Syria.

Amid the Idlib tension, a significant visit by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Ukraine took place this week. The visit was not only important within the Syria context but, more importantly, for Turkish-Ukrainian bilateral relations. In a joint press conference, Erdogan and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky announced a proposed free trade agreement between the countries; an increase of military assistance to the latter's army; and reiterated Ankara's position regarding Crimea. Each of these decisions was crucial and should be evaluated on an individual basis.

Crimea was annexed by Russia in 2014 after a controversial referendum. Turkey, as well as the UN General Assembly, sees the Russian move as illegal and this view was once again reiterated during this visit. Erdogan stated that Turkey's support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity will continue, adding that Ankara is "closely" monitoring the situation of the Crimean Tatars, whom it gives considerable support.

Turkey considers itself to be a protector of the Crimean Tatars -- an ethnic Turkic minority. While some of them have left Crimea and moved to Ukraine, some have stayed on the peninsula. While Ankara has close relations with the Crimean Tatar diaspora in Turkey, it also keeps its channels open with those who remain on the peninsula. Turkish officials often come together with Crimean Tatar leaders, the most prominent being Mustafa Abdulcemil Kirimoglu, who was received by Erdogan in Kiev during the visit. Kirimoglu, which means "son of the Crimea" in Turkish, is the honorary president of the Crimean Tatars' representative body and a member of the Ukrainian Parliament.

I recall the support of the Turkish people to a Crimean Tatar jazz singer, Jamala, when she won the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest with a highly politicized song "1944," which refers to the mass deportation of Tatars from Crimea under the orders of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin during the Second World War. While her victory caused much joy in Kiev and Ankara, it led to anger in Moscow, whose politicians called for a boycott of the following year's contest in protest at the political content of her song.

Aside from the issues with Russia in Syria, Crimea is a separate matter for Turkey and its position is not new. Crimea is, therefore, another matter on which both Ankara and Moscow agree to disagree.

Another significant aspect of Erdogan's visit was that Turkish and Ukrainian officials agreed on financial support for the Ukrainian Armed Forces and enhancing strategic cooperation in the defense industry. "Today, an important agreement on military and financial cooperation has been reached, under which the Turkish partners will provide financial support to the Ukrainian army," Zelensky said. The steps to be taken to provide armaments and military equipment were discussed during negotiations between the two countries' delegations under the chairmanship of Zelensky and Erdogan.

The military-technical field is one of the most successful areas of cooperation between the two countries, as there are more than 50 joint projects in this area. The Ukrainian defense minister wrote on Facebook that Ukrainian-Turkish cooperation in the defense industry is to be in the following areas: "Joint production of anti-tank weapons; repairs and operation of helicopters; supply of aircraft engines; cooperation in the field of counteraction to unmanned aerial systems; transport aviation; and simulator systems."

From Kiev's point of view, close cooperation with Turkey means help for Ukraine's level of security on its southern border. It also means paving the way for improvements in its air defense capabilities and joint participation in NATO programs. In March, the Turkish defense minister is expected to pay an official visit to Kiev to discuss the first steps toward the practical implementation of the deal's provisions.

Crimea is another matter on which both Ankara and Moscow agree to disagree.

Sinem Cengiz

Finally, the signing of a memorandum of understanding regarding talks on a free trade area between the Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture Ministry of Ukraine and the Trade Ministry of Turkey was another significant aspect of the visit.

Some reports interpreted the timing of the Turkish president's visit to Ukraine as not being a coincidence, considering the tense Turkish-Russian relations due to the latest developments in Idlib. Indeed, leaders do sometimes pay symbolic visits to convey messages to certain actors. However, any diplomatic correspondent checking the content, meetings and the deals signed during the visit would understand that it was pre-planned, but that it was overshadowed by developments in Idlib.

Coming back to the beginning, Russian-Turkish relations are multifaceted. They can't be broken up by or started with Syria. By handling the matter of Idlib responsibly, Turkish-Russian relations can ride out the storm once again.

Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey's relations with the Middle East. Twitter: @SinemCngz

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Author:Sinem Cengiz
Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Feb 7, 2020
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