Analysis |

Russia-Ukraine Crisis: Will Erdogan Turn His Back on Putin?

The Russian threat to invade Ukraine, where Turkey is the largest foreign investor, could create more tensions between Moscow and Ankara – especially as the Turkish president has economic and personal interests in Ukraine

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2019.
Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2019.Credit: Maxim Shipenkov / POOL EPA / AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

The Turkish telenovela “Magnificent Century,” which debuted in 2011, quickly became one of the most-watched Turkish TV shows ever. It is set during the era of Suleiman the Magnificent – the longest-ruling sultan who reigned from 1520-1566.

The series reminded Turks of the age of the great conquests that expanded the Ottoman Empire up to the Russian border. Ukrainians, meanwhile, were reminded of the close relationship between the sultan and his Slavic maidservant, Roxelana, who became his wife and confidante. This chapter in Ukraine’s history was suppressed and erased from school curricula during the Soviet era, when the government strove to construct an alternate narrative in which Ukraine had always been under Russian rule.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, at the time Turkey’s prime minister and now its president, was not a fan of the series and criticized its portrayal of the sultan as a hedonistic womanizer rather than as the great architect of the empire. Even so, Erdogan apparently did not disavow his legacy.

Several centuries have passed since Suleiman’s reign, but the connection between Turkey and Ukraine received a tremendous boost after Vladimir Putin’s Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, prompting hundreds of thousands of Tatars there to flee to Turkey. This caused Erdogan to recognize that the Russian friend and neighbor could revert to being an enemy – or at least a threat – like during World War I.

A year later, Russia inflicted a severe blow on the Turkish economy when, in response to the downing of a Russian fighter jet over Turkey, Putin closed the border with Turkey, barred Russians from traveling to Turkish resorts for vacation, and shuttered Turkish companies and factories built in Russian territory.

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In all, these moves caused tens of billions of dollars-worth of damage to the Turkish economy. More than eight months would elapse before the two leaders, Erdogan and Putin, would shake hands and normalize relations between their countries – including military agreements in which Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system, placing it on a collision course with both Washington and NATO.

Conversely, Turkey was hesitant to take Russia’s side in the Libyan civil war, when Moscow supported the separatist commander Khalifa Haftar while Turkey sent forces and fighters to aid the recognized Libyan government.

The 2020 conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh also caught Turkey on the non-Russian side of the barricade. Turkey helped to arm Azerbaijan while Russia lent its assistance to Armenia. The two countries are cooperating in Syria, but Russia is demanding that Turkey clear Idlib Province of the armed militias in order to fulfill their signed agreement, while Turkey is making its cooperation with Russia contingent upon Moscow ceasing to support the Syrian Kurds – whom Turkey considers terrorist organizations and a threat to its national security.

Russian troops in Crimea during the 2014 war with Ukraine, when hundreds of thousands of Tatars fled to Turkey.Credit: AFP

Tricky crossroads

The Russian threat to invade Ukraine is now creating another possible front for a clash between Moscow and Ankara. The two countries have nearly completed construction of two natural gas pipelines from Russia to Turkey – TurkStream Line 1 and TurkStream Line 2 – which are already conveying Russian natural gas to Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Macedonia, and are slated to extend further to Hungary and Romania as well (as part of the Russian project to bypass Ukraine, where the old Russian pipelines to Europe pass).

The construction of these pipelines, at a cost of billions of dollars, has made Turkey the hub of sales of Russian natural gas to Europe, and at the same time has deprived Ukraine of a hefty portion of the royalties it received for having the natural gas pass through its territory.

At the same time, Russia built the Nord Stream 2 pipeline system that crosses the Baltic Sea to Germany and which, unlike Nord Stream 1, bypasses Ukraine. Both of these pipelines, in addition to TurkStream, are now threatened by U.S. sanctions, which were frozen by President Joe Biden last May, in light of Russia’s possible invasion of Ukraine.

If these sanctions are activated, they would impose heavy penalties on companies and investors who participate in the development of the pipelines, and the firms that provide services to these projects’ contractors. They would also ban American cooperation with them, similar to the sanctions imposed on Iran.

Once again, Erdogan finds himself at a tricky crossroads: sanctions on the pipeline that passes through Turkey to Europe would do massive economic harm to Turkey. However, if Turkey decides not to join those sanctions, it risks being the subject of direct sanctions – thus expanding the already deep rift between Ankara and Washington.

Vacationers in the Turkish resort of Antalya, a site popular with Russians in normal times. Credit: David Bachar

So far, Erdogan has positioned himself alongside Ukraine. At his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week, he pledged to continue aiding Ukraine, while also presenting himself as a potential mediator between Kyiv and Moscow.

To date, Erdogan’s aspirations to be a mediator have gotten nowhere. Putin prefers direct negotiations with Biden, while the U.S. president does not view Erdogan as an emissary capable of dissolving the tensions and ending the crisis.

Moreover, Russia is furious that Turkey sold Bayraktar TB2 combat drones to Ukraine (the same model it sold to Azerbaijan during the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020). Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov even filed an official complaint with Turkey, accusing it of encouraging the militarism in Ukraine. From Turkey’s standpoint, the drone sale is not merely a lucrative and important business deal. It’s also an inseparable part of Erdogan’s ambitions of making Turkey one of the world’s top 10 arms exporters.

It’s not exactly clear how many drones Ukraine purchased: reports from Ukrainian officials speak of a deal for 20 drone systems, the first six of which arrived in 2018 – for which Ukraine paid $60 million – with others due to arrive soon. The drones are manufactured by the Baykar Makina company, which was founded in 1984 as a plant for processing computer chips, and building engines and pumps for the auto industry; today it is active in a variety of military fields, including drone production. The company is owned by three brothers who are the sons of the late founder Özdemir Bayraktar; one of the siblings, Selçuk, is Erdogan’s son-in-law.

Another Turkish corporation with strong Ukrainian links is the telecom company Turkcell, whose Ukrainian branch, lifecell, is that country’s third-largest mobile network operator. The Turkish national investment fund holds more than 26 percent of the company’s shares and is headed by Erdogan himself.

The Turkish investment portfolio in Ukraine is that country’s largest – totaling more than $4 billion, with over 700 Turkish companies operating there. A free trade agreement between the countries was signed last week, and Ukraine plans to purchase Turkish battleships and build a plant for the joint manufacture of Ukrainian Antonov aircraft.

Given Erdogan’s web of economic and personal interests with Ukraine and Russia’s strategic interests, he may soon have to make a fateful decision. If Russia decides to invade its neighbor, will Turkey stand with the West? Or will it maintain a neutrality that will, financially, cost it dearly?

Men working at the construction site of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline in Russia three years ago.Credit: Anton Vaganov/REUTERS

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