Peace or politics? In Ukraine, Turkiye has its eyes on both
With Russia’s war in Ukraine now in its 10th month, Turkiye has emerged as one of the conflict’s most important external actors. As most global powers have chosen sides, Ankara has managed to preserve ties with both Moscow and Kyiv, positioning itself as a key mediator in efforts to end the conflict.
But is the quest for peace really Turkiye’s motivation, or is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan more interested in gaining as much leverage over Russia as possible?
Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly praised what he calls the Turkish neutrality in relation to the war. The irony, of course, is that while Ankara has kept lines of communication open with both sides, it is far from neutral.
Not only is Turkiye supplying Ukraine with Bayraktar drones but also TRLG-230 laser-guided missiles. In October, Turkish shipyard RMK Marine even launched Ukraine’s first anti-submarine naval ship.
What’s more, Turkish drone maker Baykar is expected to complete construction of a drone-manufacturing plant in Ukraine in the next two years. Does that mean that Erdogan, Putin’s “dear friend,” has received guarantees from the Kremlin that Russian forces will not attack this Turkish investment?
As self-defeating as that sounds for Putin, it would not be the first time that the two leaders have made such an arrangement. They have a history of lucrative deals in a number of countries, from Syria and Libya to Armenia and Azerbaijan.
Recently, Erdogan confirmed that he supports the shipment of Russian grain to poor African countries. Coincidentally or not, the countries to which Russia will send its grain for free — Mali, Djibouti, Sudan and Somalia — are the very places in which Turkiye has been trying to increase its influence.
Thus, from Erdogan’s perspective, Putin’s “goodwill gesture” will help Ankara achieve its own foreign policy aims.
Following the Crimean Bridge explosions in October, which hindered Russia’s ability to resupply its forces in Crimea, the Kremlin withdrew from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, accusing Ukraine of using the “security corridor” it had created to attack the Russian Black Sea fleet. However, one telephone conversation with Erdogan was all it took for Putin to change his mind and agree to allow Ukraine to continue to export its grain via the Black Sea.
As a result, Turkiye can now buy grain from both Ukraine and Russia at lower prices, which will greatly benefit the inflation-hit Turkish economy.
Indeed, the extension of the grain deal yet again positioned Turkiye as an important player in the conflict and suggested that Erdogan has significant leverage over Putin. But why?
As a result of Moscow’s international isolation, Turkiye has become Russia’s major gateway to the world. It remains the only NATO member nation that has not imposed sanctions on Russia, providing Putin with an economic lifeline. It is not surprising, then, that the Kremlin has turned a blind eye to Ankara’s actions in Ukraine and, more recently, in Syria.
After Turkiye launched air strikes in northern Syria last week, Erdogan went out of his way to stress that he did not notify Putin in advance, despite Russia having its own military presence in the country. Erdogan is well aware that Moscow is unable to help either the Kurdish-dominated People’s Defense Units in northern Syria — Ankara’s major target — or President Bashar Assad’s Syrian Arab Army.
Similarly, after Turkiye recently decided to tighten the rules governing oil tankers that transit the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, a move that could restrict flows of Russian oil, Moscow yet again had to bury its head in the sand.
Essentially, Turkiye is buying Russian silence. In 2021, the volume of trade between Russia and Turkiye reached almost $35 billion and is expected to approach $60 billion this year, according to Russian sources. Moreover, the Kremlin aims to increase its energy cooperation with Ankara, and to turn Turkiye into a regional gas hub.
Although Erdogan supports the gas plans, there is no guarantee the EU will give the green light to such a project. Doing so would require construction of both the TurkStream 2 Gas Pipeline, first proposed in 2019 by Alexei Miller, CEO of Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom, but also a new pipeline that would pass through EU member states Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. If Russia remains under Western sanctions, such an outcome is unrealistic.
Despite having significant leverage over Putin, however, it is unlikely that Erdogan has enough influence to end the war in Ukraine. What he can do is continue to mediate in an attempt to force Russia to withdraw from the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, and help Moscow and Kyiv reach agreements on grain and ammonia shipments, prisoner exchanges, and perhaps even a ceasefire.
And yet the biggest question of all is this: What is in it for Erdogan? One possible answer is domestic support. With a general election scheduled for June next year, Erdogan might be looking to strengthen his foreign policy record by using his leverage over Putin to convince Turks that the Justice and Development Party is essential for Turkiye’s long-term security and economic growth.
Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that at this stage in Turkish-Russian relations, one leader is calling all the shots. This puts Erdogan in an enviable position; how he chooses to use this power could shape the region for years to come.
• Nikola Mikovic is a political analyst in Serbia. His work focuses mostly on the foreign policies of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, with special focus on energy and “pipeline politics.”