[ANALYSIS] Will the Ukraine-Russia crisis prolong Erdoğan’s political life?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

The war in Ukraine has disrupted the security environment of the Black Sea region and Europe as a whole. Still, relations between Russia and Turkey have so far survived this shock. Turkey has bilateral relations with Russia and Ukraine at a level that will not be abandoned. Turkey did not participate in the sanctions against Russia, but other NATO allies reacted to its decision with understanding rather than anger. By exploiting its geographic location, shipping munitions and drones, using its connections to NATO and capitalizing on its trade ties with Russia, Turkey has become the anchor of a possible peace process for the time being.

For centuries Russia and Turkey have been competitors in a vast geographic area, including the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Black Sea and Central Asia. Vulnerability to Russian military superiority in these regions led Turkish leaders to seek allies, such as Britain and France, during the Crimean War, Germany during World War I and NATO during the Cold War. But when the international environment was less threatening, Turkey turned to Russia (and the Soviet Union) for economic opportunities and as a partner for strengthening its strategic autonomy. However, the balance in terms of dependence has shifted in favor of Russia. First, Turkey is highly dependent on Russia for its energy needs. Russia supplied Turkey with more than 50 percent of its imported gas, 17 percent of its oil and 40 percent of its gasoline. Turkey is the second-largest importer of Russian natural gas after Germany. Russia is constructing a nuclear power plant that is expected to provide 20 percent of Turkey’s energy needs by 2030. In recent years Turkey has become heavily dependent on agricultural products from Russia. In 2021 Turkey received 65 percent of all imported wheat from Russia. The recent substantial increase in wheat prices, mainly due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, has forced Ankara to limit its wheat imports from abroad by about 30 percent.

Ukraine is an important economic and geopolitical partner for Turkey. Since the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity in 2013-2014, trade between the two countries has increased sharply and reached $7.4 billion in 2021. In addition Ankara and Kyiv negotiated a free trade agreement on the eve of the recent Russian invasion. Turkey has also provided military support to Ukraine since 2019, notably with Bayraktar TB2 armed drones. During Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Kyiv in early February the two countries agreed to build a drone manufacturing plant in Ukraine. Turkey also has become Ukraine’s biggest foreign investor.

Turkey has played the role of mediator since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Erdoğan sees the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to improve his political image and regain his international legitimacy in the eyes of EU countries and especially the United States. However, the increase in civilian casualties caused by the Russian-Ukrainian war and the deterioration of the world order and economic conditions worldwide due to rising commodity prices make Turkey’s balanced policy toward Russia fragile and unsustainable. Erdoğan has kept his head above water politically by making good use of the opportunities presented by a great power struggle between the West and Russia. So how will the course of the Ukraine war and the potential political and military developments that could occur afterward affect Erdoğan’s political future?

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has changed the geopolitical calculations of nations around the globe. NATO member Turkey has maintained a delicate balance between Kyiv and Moscow. After the outbreak of war in Ukraine on February 24, Turkey opposed the Russian invasion but remained neutral. A trilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Ukraine on the sidelines of the Antalya Diplomacy Forum on March 10 and the subsequent direct talks held in Istanbul in late March are evidence that Turkey’s relations with both countries remain intact. But the war is forcing Turkey to make difficult choices.

Erdoğan is either performing a diplomatic balancing act or playing a double game. On the one hand Turkey, like the rest of NATO, has condemned the attack on Ukraine and has already delivered combat drones to Ukrainian forces. On the other hand Ankara has not joined the EU’s airspace ban on Russian aircraft. Moreover, the Turkish government also rejects the other EU sanctions. However, Turkey has restricted the entry of warships from all belligerent countries into the Black Sea. This means the Russians cannot send any more warships from the Mediterranean to the Ukrainian coast. Turkey has imposed a three-month restriction on Russian military aircraft and personnel carriers heading to Syria. So far, Erdoğan’s policy has focused on supporting Ukraine without jeopardizing relations with Moscow.

With its invasion of Ukraine, Russia shook the Western-oriented world order established after World War II. Although the current war is being fought on Ukrainian soil between Russia and Ukraine, this war has evolved into a NATO-Russia or Western Alliance-Russia war.

A Putin victory in this war means the collapse of that world order. Therefore, Putin must be defeated in Ukraine at all costs. Under these circumstances, it is no longer possible for Erdoğan to openly support Putin. After this war, relations between the EU and the US will be re-established with a new agreement. NATO will continue its role as an umbrella organization that brings together both sides of the Atlantic even more. The US will have gotten the EU more firmly on its side in the great power struggle with China, the rhetoric of which will be “democracies versus autocracies.” Erdoğan’s political future will depend on his steps from now on.

Erdoğan has not yet taken a position that would force him into an open confrontation with Putin. So far, he has pursued a Ukraine policy that takes Putin’s concerns into account. However, the prolongation of the war and the inability of the Russian army to achieve its military objectives as well as the impact of economic sanctions on Russia have begun to weaken Putin. As Putin loses power, Erdoğan’s dependence on Putin decreases, and Putin’s dependence on Erdoğan increases. A concrete indication of this is that although Bayraktar TB2 armed unmanned aerial vehicles sank two Russian patrol ships with MAM -L laser-guided missiles made by Turkish company Roketsan off Snake Island, Russia has shown no reaction toward Turkey. Therefore, the freer Erdoğan feels from Putin, the more he will want to support Ukraine to get support from NATO and the US. In turn, he will demand financial support and economic aid from the West to alleviate the effects of the economic crisis in Turkey before the 2023 elections. Erdoğan’s election victory depends on mitigating the impact of the economic crisis. That is Erdoğan’s plan. However, for this plan to work the way Erdoğan wants it to, the political atmosphere in Turkey must be shaped according to this plan. To do this, Erdoğan must get rid of the pro-autocratic coalition partners he has been traveling with and restore the rule of law. If Erdoğan succeeds in convincing the United States on this issue, he may receive support. However, the indications are that the US wants to take maximum advantage of Erdoğan in the Ukraine-Russia crisis and is willing to make small concessions in return but will not give Erdoğan any additional support for the 2023 elections. The US plans to fill the power vacuum that will arise in the Black Sea region, the Caucasus, and Central Asia due to Russia’s loss of power in the post-Putin era with Turkey returning to its factory settings. Therefore, Turkey will revert to democracy and the rule of law no matter who is elected. Without these, Turkey can neither ensure its security nor export security to surrounding countries.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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