Erdogan hopes Russian invasion of Ukraine can strengthen Turkish regional power

As it continues its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Russia finds itself facing growing international isolation, including a growing list of sanctions.

Although not exactly a pariah nation, Russia now has few allies. Other nations remained mostly neutral, including China, the Persian Gulf monarchies and Turkey.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has condemned Russia for its aggression but has not joined the global campaign to sanction it.

Instead, Turkey tried to go a different route, presenting itself as a potential peacemaker, offering to mediate in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. At the same time, Ankara has also criticized unspecified members of NATO, the Western military alliance to which Turkey belongs, for, in its view, doing little to defuse tensions.

That message was formulated recently by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. “In order to weaken Russia, some NATO countries don’t want peace, while Ukraine doesn’t really care about them. I will quote a section/part of our roadmap regarding Ukraine: the gradual withdrawal of Russian troops should take place in parallel with the easing of sanctions,” Cavusoglu said.

Ankara’s economic interests

“Ankara has set itself a position of maximum advantage, trying to exploit the conflict as much as possible for its own good,” said political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky. told the Russian service of RFE/RL.

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“Previous ties between Russia and Ukraine have severely limited Turkey’s ability to play a bigger role in the politics of this part of Eurasia, which it really wanted to do. In the past, Turkey exerted an influence over the whole of southern Ukraine.The Turks remember this well and, moreover, under Erdogan, they are increasingly aware of this past role, because in domestic politics, the government is ideologically pushing for a rather interesting mix of Pan-Turkism and Islamism.”

Commercial interests are of course part of the equation. For Turkey, Russian tourists are a key contributor to the state coffers. Russia also provides a huge market for Turkish fruits and vegetables. The two countries have also recently signed several trade agreements.

Given these economic considerations, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ankara decided not to send Soviet-era weapons to Ukraine, despite NATO demands and the growing importance of Ukraine as a Turkish trading partner.

Last year, Turkey invested some $4.5 billion in Ukraine, making it the country’s largest foreign investor. On February 3, just weeks before Russia launched its invasion, Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed an agreement in Kyiv aimed at raising annual trade to $10 billion. And while Ankara has been reluctant to supply Soviet-era weaponry, it has long supplied kyiv with other weapons, including its much-vaunted Bayraktar drones. Erdogan and Zelenskiy also reached an agreement on the future delivery of ships, aircraft engines and other parts.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) greets Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a welcoming ceremony in kyiv on February 3.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (left) greets Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a welcoming ceremony in kyiv on February 3.

But despite NATO’s urging, Turkey has refused to deliver one of its stockpiled Russian air defense systems to Ukraine. “Ankara also has Russian S-400 air defense systems, the purchase of which a few years ago caused a major rift with NATO partners, primarily the United States,” Preobrazhensky said.

“Because of this, Turkey lost the opportunity to partially produce modern American combat aircraft on its territory – and relations with Washington deteriorated mainly for this reason. So, about two weeks after the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia, NATO urged Erdogan to send a Russian S-400 to kyiv in exchange for US Patriot-class air defense systems – as Slovakia did, but Erdogan did not. .. because I don’t think he fully trusts his NATO partners.”

Ivan Preobrazhensky

Ivan Preobrazhensky

While it may urge a de-escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine, Turkey may exploit the conflict to raise its regional profile, Preobrazhensky said.

“Turkey in general is becoming a real regional leader and trying to maintain the old principle of ‘divide and conquer’ in its relations with Russia and Ukraine. The more conflicts there are throughout the post-Soviet space , plus Turkish influence This applies not only to Russia and Ukraine, but to all of the South and North Caucasus and all of Central Asia, ”explained the Russian analyst.

Despite its reluctance to supply certain systems to Ukraine, Ankara is strengthening its defense cooperation with kyiv. On February 3, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov announced that Turkey and Ukraine had agreed to co-produce Bayraktar drones at a production site in Ukraine.

In 2019, Baykar Makina, a private Turkish drone manufacturer, won a contract to sell six Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to Ukraine. The $69 million contract also involved the sale of ammunition for the armed version of the aircraft. In September 2021, the Ukrainian government announced that it planned to purchase 24 additional Turkish combat drones in the coming months.

A Bayraktar drone is displayed during a rehearsal for a Ukrainian Independence Day parade in central Kyiv in August 2021.

A Bayraktar drone is displayed during a rehearsal for a Ukrainian Independence Day parade in central Kyiv in August 2021.

The use of TB2 drones by Ukrainian forces against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has angered Moscow. And in addition to Ukraine, Turkish drones have also played a key role for Azerbaijan in its short 2020 conflict with Armenia on Nagorno-Karabakh.

For Erdogan, trying to play peacemaker between Kyiv and Moscow can also help bridge the gap with the West. It’s something that Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka enjoyed some success until his bloody crackdown on the country’s democratic opponents after his re-election in August 2020, a vote widely seen as rigged by much of the world. “The Turkish president probably wants to help end this war in order to receive significant geopolitical and diplomatic bonuses,” Preobrazhensky said.

Economy hard hit

The longer the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues, the harder it will hit the global economy, including Turkey’s. Many Islamic states have already expressed concern that the Russian-Ukrainian war could lead to mass unrest and social upheaval as food prices rise in their wake after a cycle of uprisings that peaked in the spring. Arab of the region.

In recent years, Turkey has become heavily dependent on agricultural products from Russia and Ukraine. In 2021, Turkey received 65% of all imported wheat from Russia and more than 13% from Ukraine. The recent spike in wheat prices – largely due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – has forced Ankara to cut its overseas purchases by around 30%.

Russian energy carriers are no less important for the Turkish economy. Before the assault began, Russia supplied Turkey with more than 50% of imported gas, 17% of oil and about 40% of gasoline.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin smile during a ceremony for the TurkStream gas pipeline in Istanbul in January 2020.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (right) and Russian President Vladimir Putin smile during a ceremony for the TurkStream gas pipeline in Istanbul in January 2020.

Moscow and Ankara have signed a number of trade and economic agreements in recent years. The most important of these concerns Turkey’s Akkuyu nuclear power plant, which is being built with the help of the Russian state energy company Rosatom, which is supposed to cover 10% of Turkey’s energy needs. Erdogan has repeatedly stated that he wants to complete this project, valued at $20 billion, at all costs.

Russia is also a big market for Turkish fruits and vegetables. Last year, Turkey exported a record close to 1.5 million metric tons of fresh fruits and vegetables to Russia.

Turkey is also a top destination for Russian tourists. Some 4.5 million Russians visited Turkey in 2021. Last week, the Turkish government and a number of private companies even created a new special airline, Southwind, which will only fly Russians to Turkish resorts. . The new carrier will be based in Antalya, Turkey, with first flights scheduled for late May.

Turkish banks are also expanding the network of Russia’s Mir payment system to help attract tourists to the country, Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati said on April 27, predicting that the country break a tourist record returned this year.

This money is sorely needed as Turkey’s economy, already hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, faces even tougher times with the Russian invasion. For Erdogan, his government is on a shaky footing amid simmering socio-political tensions across the country.

Annual inflation in Turkey approached a 20-year high in early 2022, while the unemployment rate reached 15-20%. Prices of basic goods and services rose by 30-50% as the value of the Turkish lira saw two sharp declines in value.

Turkey is due to hold parliamentary elections in 2023. With the gloomy economic news, prospects look poor for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party, amid falling poll numbers.

Given his domestic woes, Erdogan would need good news. And, as analyst Preobrazhensky has argued, Ukraine could provide some by pushing its role as a potential mediator.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reports from RFE/RL’s Georgian and Russian services.

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