Opinion |

The Biggest Winner in Ukraine So Far: Turkey’s Erdogan

Erdogan’s gymnastic balancing act between Russia and Ukraine has won him plaudits from both Moscow and the West. Could Putin's war rehabilitate Turkey's foreign relations, and save Erdogan's political career?

Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman
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Ukrainian President Zelensky and Turkey's President Erdogan: A cynic might say Erdogan’s strong support for Ukraine’s freedom is ironic when, at home, he treats voices of dissent more like Putin than Zelenskyy
Ukraine's President Zelensky and Turkey's Erdogan: A cynic might say Erdogan’s strong support for Ukraine’s freedom is ironic when, at home, he treats voices of dissent more like Putin than ZelenskyyCredit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP
Louis Fishman
Louis Fishman

Against a backdrop of Russian bombs falling indiscriminately on civilians in Kharkhiv and Kyiv, Ukrainian and Russian delegations met for an initial round of ceasefire talks – and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reiterated that Turkey could not cut off ties with either Russia or Ukraine.

Since the war broke out, Erdogan has condemned the Russian aggression and voiced full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, falling in line with NATO allies. However, Turkey has opted out of sanctioning Russia.

That insistence on maintaining warm and equidistant ties with both Russia and Ukraine will soon come under perhaps impossible strain. But for now, if you thought this policy would outrage the defiant Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, think again.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv last week.Credit: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Up to this point, Turkey has managed to maintain good relations with both countries. Erdogan even visited Kyiv just a day after Russia declared the Donbas and Luhansk regions as so-called "people’s republics," a day before the Russian invasion, and he was welcomed by Zelenskyy with open arms. Turkey also has supplied Ukraine with Bayraktar surveillance and attack drones which are already in active use against the Russian army.

Erdogan’s quick visit to Kyiv was an exhibition of solidarity and also a reiteration that Turkey’s efforts to carve out a third way did not just consist of sitting on the fence: It strategically balanced a determined stand alongside the Ukrainian people, while sustaining a working relationship with Russia.

Turkey's Erdogan and Russia's Putin remotely inaugurate the construction of a nuclear reactor in Turkey's Mersin province last year. Erdogan called it a "symbol of Turkish-Russian cooperation"Credit: Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool

For now, that balancing act has the implicit OK from the U.S.-European coalition against Putin’s war. Turkey is important for the coalition as an interlocutor with Russia, and at the same time, Turkey’s engagement in the crisis is the best chance to fix what have been severely strained relations between Turkey, the U.S., and Europe.

Turkey cannot in any case quickly dash the relations it has cultivated with Russia, especially taking into consideration the poor state of its economy.

Even before Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 defense system in 2017, opting to challenge its relations with the United States, the scope of trade relations between Turkey and Russia had been a steadily increasing. Turkey has been a key tourist destination for Russians, crucial for revenues during the pandemic, although now with air routes and the Russian economy under pressure, that source of funds may well dry up.

More importantly, Turkey’s motivation for moving closer to Russia, was first and foremost related to Syria and the understandings between the two states’ militaries there, while for Putin, snatching a NATO member towards his orbit was too enticing to pass over.

The two countries have been through major crises over the last few years, such as the 2015 downing of a Russian jet, the 2016 assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara, and the less known 2020 killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in a Russian airstrike on a Turkish army convoy in Syria, but have weathered them. Despite these crises, Erdogan and Putin have met regularly, always in an apparently pleasant atmosphere, and exchange phone calls even more frequently.

However, Turkey knows that the real value of its relations with Russia is to serve as a pressure point for leverage with the United States. Simply put, Russia can never replace Turkey’s economic, social, and cultural ties with the United States and the Europe Union; to claim otherwise would be preposterous.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Abu Dhabi, UAE last monthCredit: AP Photo/Jon Gambrell

The current Russian-Ukrainian war comes at an important crossroads in Turkey’s foreign relations in which in the Middle East it finds itself more isolated than ever. With the country in deep economic despair, Turkey has had to swallow its pride and place its Islamist allies aside to make up with the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Egypt, all which were used until recently as punching bags by Erdogan and his AKP government.

Erdogan’s recent trip to Abu Dhabi was received with much fanfare in the UAE, with its leader Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan gratified by Erdogan’s public recognition of the significance of bilateral relations after years of hostile interactions. Later this month, Israeli president Isaac Herzog is planning to visit Turkey, in an historic move to jumpstart relations between the two countries after a constant slew of crises during Netanyahu’s long tenure.

And, while reconciliation with Egypt is still in the works, Turkey’s rapprochement with the UAE and its attempts to renew ties with Israel is the clearest signal Erdogan now wants to return to the American sphere in the Middle East. Therefore, for U.S. politicians, Turkey’s attempt to maintain relations with Russia is no longer seen as a threat, even if Washington continues to pressure Turkey to forfeit the S-400s.

Parts of the Russian-made S-400 air defense systems are unloaded from a Russian transport aircraft at Murted military airport in Ankara, TurkeyCredit: Turkish Defense Ministry via AP

That’s why this week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken praised his Turkish opposite number and thanked Turkey for its "strong support in defense of Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” On the same day, Republican Marco Rubio, who serves as vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised the Turkish drones used by Ukraine.

Turkey won more plaudits from Republicans and Democrats when it invoked the 1936 Montreux Convention that allows Ankara, in time of war, to block all warships from crossing the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus straits. Zelenskyy had flagged this ask in a tweet several days ago, and it is likely to have been on the agenda of their Kyiv meeting.

It may be that invoking the convention will end up affecting Russian warships’ mobility between the Black Sea and its naval facility on the Syrian coast, a potential strategic headache more than impacting the Ukraine crisis, where Russian warships are already in battle positions.

Turkey can package this as a bold move which Russia is unlikely to challenge, as doing so would land not just Turkish-Russian relations in rough waters, but also that of the NATO alliance at large.

But the longer the Russian and Ukrainian conflict persists, the harder it will be for Turkey to continue on the third path it has chosen. If Erdogan is successful at maintaining this fragile strategic balance, the economic pains of his current crisis at home will at least be alleviated, while paving his way back to the US and EU, without playing too hard on his relations with Putin.

There are signs Erdogan is prepared to seriously test the elasticity of Putin’s patience: On Monday, his UN ambassador Feridun Sinirlioğlu declared Russia’s aggression on Ukraine as "baseless, unjust, and unprecedented in history," adding for good measure that it was "illegal, illicit and unacceptable." Balancing that, Erdogan’s spokesman stated the same day that Turkey would not be imposing sanctions on Russia in order to "keep a channel open" for dialogue.

A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone at a rehearsal of a military parade dedicated to Independence Day in Kyiv, Ukraine last year Credit: AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

But if Erdogan is gratified by the warmth already emanating out towards him from the halls of power in Washington and Brussels, he might find that the price for further rehabilitation is to roll back the measures he has pushed that threaten democracy and the rule of law.

A cynic might say Erdogan’s strong support for Ukraine’s freedom is somewhat ironic when, at home, he treats his opposition and voices of dissent more like Putin than Zelenskyy.

If a boost in Turkey’s global standing through its conduct on Ukraine could entice Erdogan into restoring relations more substantively with the West, it would necessarily have to include an end to his government’s widescale clampdowns on civil and political freedoms, and the jailing of those who dare voice dissent outside the narrow parameters his government deems acceptable. Without it, there is a glass ceiling on relations with the U.S. and the EU.

The question Erdogan is juggling is whether loosening his near-authoritarian grasp on power in Turkey could save his political career – or end it. If he does not make the choice to change, the Turkish electorate might just make that choice for him in next year’s elections.

Louis Fishman is an associate professor at Brooklyn College who divides his time between Turkey, the U.S. and Israel, and writes about Turkish and Israeli-Palestinian affairs. His latest book is "Jews and Palestinians in the Late Ottoman Era 1908-1914." Twitter: @Istanbultelaviv

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