Alexey Yerkhov, the new Russian ambassador to Ankara who replaced his murdered predecessor Andrey Karlov, has said he feels no security concerns in the country.
“Additional measures have been taken. You may be sure that very serious measures are already in place. Using this opportunity, I want to express our gratitude to the relevant Turkish authorities. I have no concerns at all,” Yerkhov told a group of journalists in Ankara on Aug. 8, in his first meeting with the Turkish media.
“On the other hand, becoming a person who is constantly guarded from ordinary citizens gives me different feelings. I am almost surrounded,” he said.
Yerkhov was appointed to Ankara after Karlov was shot dead by a gunman late in 2016.
Erkhov did not comment on the details of the ongoing probe into the killing of his predecessor and refrained from replying to questions on whether Moscow shares Ankara’s belief that the Fethullahist Terror Organization (FETÖ) was responsible for the murder.
“We know that the investigation launched by the Turkish side is continuing. We also know that the institutions conducting the probe in Russia are in intense contact with their Turkish counterparts. We are sure that the results of this probe will be shared with the public when it is concluded,” he said.
‘Karlov’s name will be immortalized’
Yerkhov also said that together with the Turkish side they were considering steps to “immortalize the memory” of Karlov.
“We are grateful for the decisions and steps taken by the relevant Turkish authorities to immortalize the memory of our late ambassador. We are carrying out serious work on it,” he said.
“As you know, there is a very sad side to my appointment here as ambassador. This happened after the murder of one of our very valuable colleagues and diplomats, Andrey Karlov, in an assassination. This created deep sorrow in the entire country and in our foreign ministry. We are grateful for the great number of condolence messages, both from the Republic of Turkey and the Turkish people,” Yerkhov added.
‘Need for cooperation’
Developments in the northern part of Syria are “very sensitive,” and this obliges Turkey and Russia to continue to work in “tight coordination,” the new ambassador also said.
“We are well aware that the situation in northern Syria has become very sensitive in light of recent developments. This sensitive situation indicates that we have to further increase the cooperation between our two countries. You can be perfectly sure that the dialogue process is continuing,” he said.
Yerkhov’s mandate in Ankara begins at a time when Turkey and Russia have intensified their cooperation to declare de-confliction zones inside Syria through the Astana process, in a bid to provide a lasting ceasefire between the regime and moderate opposition groups.
“We have established very tight coordination on Syria. This coordination is bringing about very good relations, especially through the Astana process,” he told reporters.
The Astana process was put in place with the initiative of Turkey, Syria and Iran in January as a complementary track to the ongoing U.N.-led Geneva process, aiming to reach a political solution to the long-running Syrian war.
“The Astana process has never been in conflict with Geneva. That’s why we believe that all institutions that can positively contribute to the processes should take part in these initiatives. If you ask me why a 180-degree change has not yet occurred in Syria, I would simply say that this is a very difficult situation and we should take small steps,” Yerkhov said.
Who will control Idlib?
Among the developments that have caused further sensitivity in northern Syria are the situation in Idlib, where extremist groups linked with al-Nusra have gained control, and the increasing influence of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the region. Turkey considers the YPG as the offshoot of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and therefore a terrorist group.
On Idlib, Ambassador Erkhov said he had “even more questions than journalists have” on the future of the city and which groups it will be controlled by.
“If you read the Arab media, you see that there are tens of different armed extremist groups around the Idlib region. They also mention some warlords with controversial reputations. Making a forecast or probability assessments is very difficult under these conditions. The situation is very complicated,” he added.
“Things are evolving so fast in Idlib, in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa that I need to use a quote from a Russian movie: ‘I may not have the capacity to work a miracle, but I’m still learning.’ That’s why we should all together watch developments to see what happens,” he said.
YPG not on Russia’s terror list
Turkey is increasingly concerned that the YPG has been gaining legitimacy in the international community, thanks to its part in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Questioned about Russia’s stance on the YPG, Ambassador Erkhov noted that the YPG is not on the Moscow’s official list of terror organizations.
“We have a set of procedures on how to designate an organization as a terrorist group. This is a multi-staged and not so simple process. All I can say is that the YPG is not on this list. We are well aware of Turkey’s sensitivities and we are carefully noting them. We are informing the government of the Russian Federation on this,” he said.
On another question of why Russia had deployed troops to the Manbij region to protect the YPG against Turkish plans to push the group’s withdrawal toward the east of the Euphrates River, Erkhov underlined once again the need to carry out a “sincere dialogue” to overcome such issues.
‘Murmurs in Washington and Brussels on S-400’
Turkey and Russia have recently been negotiating about the former’s purchase of S-400 anti-ballistic missile systems, despite opposition from the United States and NATO. Erkhov declined to comment on the current stage of negotiations between the two parties because of the sensitivity of the issue, saying that “any word I use could be either misunderstood or distorted because of my current position.”
However, he also said “there is a very big murmur both in Washington and in Brussels on this issue,” referring to reactions from the U.S. and NATO.
Bilateral ties ‘promising’
Apart from negotiations for such sophisticated multibillion dollar defense systems, Ankara and Moscow ae prepared to expand the scope of economic activities, especially after the normalization of bilateral ties, Erkhov said.
“The current level of our bilateral relations is encouraging, but it’s also an indicator of serious efforts to further upgrade them. Among major projects are the Turkish Stream and the under-construction Akkuyu nuclear plant. But one should recognize that the bilateral trade volume has declined over the last few years for various reasons. But we are of the opinion that there are still some undiscovered fields for our trade relations,” he added.
Who is Ambassador Aleksey Yerkhov ?
A career diplomat, Aleksey V. Yerkhov is not unfamiliar with Turkey, having served as Russia’s consul-general in Istanbul from 2009 to 2015.
“I am very proud and honored to have been appointed as Russia’s ambassador to Ankara, considering Turkey’s foreign policy with regard to the Russian Federation,” Yerkhov said.
On his service in Istanbul, Yerkhov said he was able to get his level of Turkish to a level where he could handle his daily needs.
“There were some difficult and some good times, but I can say that this period was one of the happiest times for me,” he added.
Yerkhov’s long career at the Russian Foreign Ministry underlines his expertise on the Middle East. He previously served in Morocco, Egypt, Israel and Syria, and he speaks fluent Arabic.