Turkey, Russia agree on joint understanding in resolving regional issues in key military meet

Turkey, Russia agree on joint understanding in resolving regional issues in key military meet

Turkey, Russia agree on joint understanding in resolving regional issues in key military meet

General Staff of Turkey, Hulusi Akar (L) and his Russian counterpart Valeriy Gerasimov (R) salute escort of honour during an official welcoming ceremony at Turkish General Staff Headquarters in Ankara, Turkey on September 15. AA photo

The Turkish and Russian chiefs of general staff held extensive discussions in Ankara on a wide range of issues, including the ongoing turmoil in Syria, on Sept. 15, in the first top level military-to-military meeting since the two countries resolved a long-standing crisis after Turkey downed a Russian warplane last year.

One of the most important outcomes of the talks is that both top soldiers agree that regional problems can only be resolved through joint initiatives of regional countries as Turkish military sources described the meeting as “fruitful.” 

Russian Chief of General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov arrived in Ankara on Sept. 15 for a visit that was announced by Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov just hours before Gerasimov landed in the Turkish capital. He was welcomed by Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar through an official welcoming ceremony at the Turkish military headquarters.

The Russian chief of staff had planned to pay a visit to Ankara on Aug. 26, but the trip was postponed in the last minute. 

According to Turkish military sources, this visit of Russian chief of staff that comes after an 11-year gap was very fruitful as the common understanding in the military has been enhanced with expectation that it will bring about more positive results in the future.

Need for a common perspective for regional issues

“This positive development is believed to be important in regards that this will lead to a common perspective between the two countries for the solution of other problematic regions in the Middle East,” sources stressed. 

Turkish military sources evaluated the visit as the indication of the importance the Russian Federation attaches to Turkey’s capabilities in the region as a big power.

“Another important point with regards to this visit is the view that regional problems can only be resolved through joint initiatives of the regional countries among themselves has prevailed,” sources said.

Military leg of normalization completed

The meeting in Ankara is very significant from different perspectives. From the bilateral relations angle, Gerasimov’s visit could be considered as the “military leg” of the normalization process between Ankara and Moscow that was launched in late June after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sent a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin expressing his sorrow over the downing of the Russian jet on Nov. 24, 2015.

Erdoğan and Putin later met in St. Petersburg on Aug. 9 and then in China on Sept. 3 to put political, economy, trade and energy relations back on its track. In particular, Moscow’s lifting of trade sanctions and tourism restrictions provided a better climate between the two countries.

The two top soldiers are believed to have discussed the jet downing incident of last November, after Putin told reporters at a joint press conference with Erdoğan that Russia still awaited information about how it occurred. Turkey had earlier arrested a Turkish national suspected of killing the Russian pilot, who jumped out of his airplane with a parachute.

 A hotline has already been established between the two militaries in the last month to prevent the repetition of similar incidents along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Syria the main issue

Along with the ongoing normalization of bilateral relations, Gerasimov’s visit broadly covers the ongoing military activities of both armies inside Syria, coming as the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) entered the third week of its Shield of Euphrates Operation to clear its border of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

An area of 845 square meters between the Jarablus and Al-Rai provinces of Syria has been taken under the control of the Turkish army along with the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Russia has not openly criticized the Turkish offensive but it has indirectly urged Turkey not to go further south toward Aleppo, where Syrian regime and opposition forces have long been fighting. In addition, Russia also questions how long the Turkish army will stay in Syria and whether its presence will create a de facto safe zone.

Also making Gerasimov’s visit more important is the deal brokered between Russia and the United States that has succeeded in securing a temporary ceasefire in many of the conflict areas in Syria. If the truce continues, the Russian and American militaries are planning to launch a joint offensive against the ISIL and al-Nusra through the Joint Implementation Center.

Competition in Black Sea, Caucasus

As Turkey and Russia are neighbors in the Black Sea and Eurasia, Gen. Akar and Gen. Gerasimov were also scheduled to discuss military developments in these regions. A statement on the Black Sea made by the Russian chief of staff just a day before his visit to Ankara was seen as important as it reflects how Moscow views its competition with Ankara in that area.

“Several years ago the Russian fleet’s combat capabilities were in stark contrast with that of the Turkish Navy. Some even said Turkey was in full command of the Black Sea. Now it’s different,” Gerasimov said.

He also stated that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had been reinforced by submarines carrying the Kalibr missile system.

“There are three of them now. One more will join soon. Another two will arrive next year to increase the strength of the submarine group to six. This brigade of diesel submarines matches all modern requirements,” Gerasimov said, adding that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is now capable of destroying a potential enemy’s amphibious force in the ports of embarkation.

He added that this was important because an enemy landing force should not be allowed to reach the coast of Crimea, “wherever it may come from.”

Gerasimov’s statement came as a direct response to NATO’s plans to increase its military visibility in the Black Sea with the deployment of more vessels and strengthening the fleets of new NATO members, Bulgaria and Romania.

Before NATO’s recent Warsaw Summit, Turkish President Erdoğan urged the alliance that the Black Sea would turn into a “Russian lake” if counter-measures were not taken.

One of Russia’s main concerns is Turkey’s softening of the implementation of the Montreux Convention that limits the passage of military vessels on non-literal countries into the Black Sea through its straits.