Blinken talks Russia with Turkey ahead of Erdoğan-Putin meeting

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the threat posed by Russia and renewed clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces over Nagorno-Karabakh in a phone call with his counterpart in Turkey on Thursday.

Blinken talked with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu about ways to advance NATO unity considering the threat of further Russian escalation and aggression against Ukraine, State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a readout of the telephone call.

The conversation came the day before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was due to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, Russia. Turkey, a NATO member, has developed close ties with Moscow over the past five years as it sought to develop a foreign policy independent of Western tutelage. A decision in 2019 to take delivery of Russian S-400 air defence missiles prompted the United States to exclude it from purchasing the F-35 stealth fighter jet.

Blinken said he also discussed with Çavuşoğlu a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to export grain from Ukraine to world markets. He said that it was important to work together to ensure more ships were able to depart and that Moscow was held accountable for the commitments it made.

Three cargo ships carrying grain and foodstuffs left Ukrainian ports on Friday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency reported, taking the total to four since the deal was finalised two weeks ago. The ships would head for Great Britain, Ireland and Turkey once they passed inspections in Istanbul, it said.

Despite the war in Ukraine, Turkey has refused to impose sanctions on Russia or its oligarchs and continues to cooperate with Moscow on regional issues such as Syria. Erdoğan is meeting with Putin after holding talks with him last month in Tehran, Iran.

Erdoğan has caused a mini crisis in NATO by seeking to block the accession of Sweden and Finland, saying they were harbouring terrorists threatening Turkey’s security. He dropped his objections at a NATO summit in late June, but insists that the Turkish parliament will not ratify their membership unless they deport terrorist suspects for trial in Turkey.

Blinken told Çavuşoğlu that the United States was ready to help facilitate dialogue between Azerbaijan and Armenia to help bring about a long-term political settlement to the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh. Washington was prepared to engage bilaterally with like-minded partners and through the OSCE Minsk Group, he said.

Turkey supported Azerbaijan militarily in a fresh bout of clashes in 2020 which resulted in Azerbaijan wresting control of disputed territory from Armenia. A ceasefire was signed to end the conflict and the Turkish and Armenian governments have since entered talks to normalise their relations, but negotiations have made little headway. There is a strong Armenian lobby in the U.S. Congress that is urging President Joe Biden to do more to help Armenia deal with Azerbaijan and Turkey.

Renewed fighting broke out between Azerbaijani forces and the Armenian-controlled Karabakh army on Wednesday, leaving at least three people dead. European leaders urged restraint as the two sides blamed each other for the violence.

Russia's Defence Ministry, which has deployed peacekeepers to the region, blamed Azerbaijan for breaking the cease-fire, which Moscow brokered in 2020. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for an immediate end to the hostilities.

"It is essential to de-escalate, fully respect the cease-fire and return to the negotiating table to seek negotiated solutions," Borrell's spokesperson said.

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