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[ANALYSIS] Putin’s support for Erdoğan: a strategic move to weaken NATO?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

As the Turkish parliamentary and presidential elections approach, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is further deepening the Russian-Turkish partnership, which has been growing steadily. Putin attended the inauguration of Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, the Russian-built Akkuyu, virtually and commended Erdoğan for his contributions to Turkey’s economy and citizenry. “A convincing example of how much you, Mr. President, are doing for your country, the growth of its economy, and all Turkish citizens,” Putin said, adding, “I want to say it straight: You know how to set ambitious goals and are confidently moving towards their implementation.” He praised Erdoğan’s efforts to foster Russian-Turkish relations and expressed confidence in the mutual benefits of their cooperation. The nuclear plant was described as a “flagship” project, symbolizing the strength of the partnership between the two nations.

Putin participated in this high-profile event, apparently for propaganda purposes, ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey set for May 14. During the live broadcast, Putin explicitly praised President Erdoğan in comments that could be heard by the entire world, which can be interpreted as a concrete indication of Putin’s support for Erdoğan before the elections. For Turkish citizens who support Erdoğan and who watched the ceremony, the fact that they heard remarks praising Erdoğan from the leader of an influential country like Russia reinforced their belief that Erdoğan is a leader capable of earning the respect of world leaders. Why did Putin explicitly express his support for Erdoğan before the elections?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 and subsequent developments have led to significant changes in the geopolitical landscape. The economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the US-EU members and the G-7 countries have yet to have the desired effect on the Russian economy. Russia, whose economy relies heavily on hydrocarbon revenue, has begun selling natural gas and oil to eastern markets such as China and India after being unable to sell to the EU. Russia’s relations with China have evolved in the military, economic and political spheres. China and Russia have agreed to create a multipolar new world order. Although China has yet to support Russia militarily openly, Russia could procure weapons and ammunition from China to alleviate logistical problems faced on the battlefield.

Putin cannot afford to lose the war in Ukraine and is doing whatever it takes to win. This is the main reason for Russia’s recent rapprochement with China. It is in China’s interest that the war in Ukraine continue and that the US and NATO focus all their attention on the war between Ukraine and Russia. China does not want to draw the full attention of the US and NATO until it has fully completed the growth of its military and economic power. China is getting stronger militarily and economically with each passing day, and time is working in its favor. On the other hand, prolonging the war between Russia and Ukraine has caused disagreements within the EU. France, in particular, believes the EU should develop a policy toward China and Russia independent of the United States. However, the EU’s insufficient military power makes it impossible to create a separate foreign policy any time soon. The EU needs NATO, where the US is the leading military power, to ensure its security. Under these circumstances, NATO remains the most effective tool in the hands of the US to protect the rules-based international order against both Russia and China. A disagreement within NATO regarding Russia and China would damage the fundamental strategy that the United States has developed on these issues. It is strategically necessary to anticipate that Russia and China will use any means possible to create discord within NATO. In other words, Russia and China need an agent provocateur within NATO.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visited the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv on April 23. “Let me be clear: Ukraine’s rightful place is in the Euro-Atlantic family,” the secretary-general said, and added, “Ukraine’s rightful place is NATO; over time, our support will help you make this happen.” As Stoltenberg’s recent statement suggests, launching Ukraine’s NATO accession process could be one of the options on the table in the near future. Important decisions on NATO support for Ukraine may be made at the NATO summit in Lithuania July 11-12. From Russia’s perspective, disagreement among NATO members at this summit is crucial. In Putin’s view, some European Union countries are uncomfortable with the United States forcing them into a single policy option vis-à-vis Russia and China. Therefore, a few EU member countries may support this objection if another dissenting voice within NATO objects to US policy toward Russia.

Turkey, with Erdoğan as president, is one of the few countries within NATO that could voice this objection to the US, at least briefly. For Putin, among other economic and political reasons, Erdoğan winning the May 14 election and becoming president again is crucial to possibly triggering a crisis within NATO. China is also likely to support Putin’s thinking. China is concerned that the US could use NATO as a tool to contain itself militarily, just as NATO did in the past against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). In particular, French President Emmanuel Macron’s statements following his April 5-8 visit to China have shown that the European Union is not speaking with one voice on its China policy as the United States would like. Transferring disagreement on China from within the EU to NATO and creating dissent within the alliance on China would therefore work in China’s favor. Russia and China need a dissenting voice or an agent provocateur within NATO.

In conclusion, Putin’s explicit support for Erdoğan before the elections can be seen as a strategic move designed to create dissent within NATO and weaken its unity in dealing with the challenges posed by Russia and China. The outcome of the Turkish elections could significantly impact the dynamics within the alliance and, in turn, the global balance of power.

* 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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