Live updates from Ukraine: UN meets on wheat deal as Russia holds naval exercises

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has distinguished himself from his NATO allies, maintaining intimate ties with President Vladimir V. Putin, making demands of his Western allies, and using wartime diplomacy to raise his own stature.

Now the Kremlin has defeated him, withdrawing from the grain deal that Erdogan helped broker, which had boosted the Turkish president’s international stature and helped stabilize global food prices. The Russian withdrawal came days after the Turkish leader met heatedly with President Biden and said Ukraine “undoubtedly deserved NATO membership,” a view that crosses the reddest of Putin’s red lines.

Russian officials said the decision to withdraw from the grain deal, which allowed for exports from Ukraine via the Black Sea, was about a failure to uphold the part of the deal that benefits Russia, easing sanctions on its own agricultural exports. They also warned that the Russian military would consider any ship bound for Ukraine as a potential carrier of military cargo.

But another consequence of the decision was to create another twist in the complex relationship between Erdogan and Putin. Analysts say the two have relied on each other throughout the war.

They have long had close ties, despite conflicts in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. After the invasion of Ukraine, Turkey maintained its economic and diplomatic ties with Russia, positioning itself as the main negotiator between Moscow, Kiev and the West.

The Turkish president has often described Putin as “a friend of mine” and insisted he can still make diplomacy with Russia work. On Friday, Mr Erdogan told reporters that Russia wanted the grain corridor to remain, “but it has some expectations from Western countries and they need to act.” And he said he would discuss the matter with Mr. Putin on the phone when they meet next month.

How did Erdogan frustrate Russia?

After months of deadlock and pleading with allies, Erdogan this month agreed to Sweden’s offer to join NATO, and in March dropped his objection to Finland joining the alliance. Mr. Putin has bitterly opposed any expansion of NATO, particularly so close to Russian soil.

“These have eroded Erdogan’s quality as a reliable and honest broker,” said a Turkish foreign policy analyst, Ilhan Uzgel. “Now Putin sees the wheat deal as a bargaining chip with the West, without involving Erdogan.”

Analysts have suggested that Erdogan’s recent rapprochement gestures with the West may have angered Putin. This month, Turkey hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and returned five Ukrainian Azov regiment commanders to Ukraine, prompting Russia to accuse Turkey of breaking an agreement to keep the men there until the end of the war.

Russia shelled Ukrainian port cities for three days this week, targeting grain shipping facilities in particular, and warned that attempts to break through the naval blockade in the Black Sea could be seen as an act of war.

According to Serhat Guvenc, professor of international relations at Kadir Has University, the Russian attacks could indicate that the Kremlin does not want to revive the wheat deal or that it is used as a basis for peace or ceasefire talks. He said the violence could also indicate that Erdogan has lost some of his diplomatic prestige.

“But that doesn’t mean Erdogan has become diplomatically irrelevant,” Guvenc added.

Mr. Erdogan has served as a line of communication between Mr. Putin and leaders in Europe and the United States, and Turkey and Russia have benefited from each other economically over the last 17 months of the war.

Turkey has refused to impose sanctions on Russia as the United States and the European Union have done, Guvenc said. Confronting its own economic woes, Turkey has expanded trade ties with Russia since the start of the war, stepping up Turkish exports and buying cheap Russian natural gas. And maintaining good relations with Moscow, analysts say, helps Erdogan maintain a balance of power in the Black Sea.

Can Turkey regain influence?

If he wants to play a mediation role for peace or ceasefire talks, or simply to regain some influence, Erdogan just needs to find another opportunity, Guvenc said.

And Turkey remains important to NATO allies and other Western institutions because of Erdogan’s ongoing relationship with Putin, said Evren Balta, a professor of international relations at Ozyegin University in Istanbul.

The grain deal could be revived, he said, and Mr Erdogan could find new bargaining opportunities soon.

Ms Balta added that Russia and Turkey have some fundamental similarities in how their governments operate, including decision-making based on the needs of the moment.

He said if Putin needed to talk to Erdogan, he would. If he needed to condemn him, so would he. And both sides understand the dual nature of that relationship, he added, meaning “Putin and Erdogan will continue to talk.”