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Analysis: Erdogan Hoping Russian Invasion Of Ukraine Can Bolster Turkish Regional Power


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (center) gives a speech to welcome delegations from Russia (left) and Ukraine ahead of peace talks in Istanbul on March 29.

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

While not exactly a pariah nation, Russia can now count on few allies. Other nations have remained essentially neutral, including China, the Persian Gulf monarchies, and Turkey.

The government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned Russia for its aggression but did not join the global drive to sanction it.

Instead, Turkey has tried to navigate a different path, casting itself as a potential peacemaker, offering to mediate 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 deescalate tensions.

That message was articulated recently by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. "In order to weaken Russia, some NATO countries do not want peace, while Ukraine does not really care about them. I will cite one section/part of our road map regarding Ukraine: the gradual withdrawal of Russian troops should take place in parallel with the easing of sanctions," said Cavusoglu.

Ankara's Economic Interests

"Ankara has staked out a position of maximum benefit, trying to exploit the conflict as much as possible for its own good," political scientist Ivan Preobrazhensky told RFE/RL's Russian Service.

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"The earlier ties that Russia and Ukraine enjoyed significantly limited Turkey's ability to play a bigger role in the politics of this part of Eurasia, which it wanted very much to do. In the past, Turkey wielded influence over the entire south of Ukraine. The Turks remember this well, and, moreover, under Erdogan, they are aware of this past role more and more, because in domestic politics the government is ideologically pushing for a rather interesting mix of Pan-Turkism and Islamism."

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

Given those economic considerations, it's perhaps not surprising that Ankara decided not to send Soviet-era weaponry to Ukraine -- despite such urgings from NATO as well as Ukraine's rising prominence as a Turkish trade partner.

Last year, Turkey invested some $4.5 billion in Ukraine, making it the biggest foreign investor in the country. On February 3, just weeks before Russia launched its invasion, Erdogan and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signed an agreement in Kyiv aimed at increasing annual trade to $10 billion. And while Ankara has balked at providing Soviet-era weapons, it has long supplied Kyiv with other arms, notably its highly touted Bayraktar drones. Erdogan and Zelenskiy also reached agreement on the future delivery of ships, aircraft engines, and other parts.

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

But despite reported urgings from NATO, Turkey has refused to deliver any 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, mainly the United States," Preobrazhensky said.

"Because of that, Turkey lost the chance to partially produce modern American fighter jets on its territory -- and relations with Washington deteriorated mainly due to this reason. And so, about two weeks after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, NATO urged Erdogan to send a Russian S-400 to Kyiv in exchange for American Patriot-class air defense systems -- as Slovakia did. But Erdogan did not do that…because I don't think he fully trusts his NATO partners."

Ivan Preobrazhensky
Ivan Preobrazhensky

While it may be urging a de-escalation of Russia's war on Ukraine, Turkey can exploit the conflict to raise its regional profile, said Preobrazhensky.

"Turkey in general is becoming a true regional leader and is trying to uphold the ancient principle of 'divide and conquer' in its relations with both Russia and Ukraine. The more conflict there is in the whole post-Soviet space, the more Turkish influence there will be. This applies not only to Russia and Ukraine, but to the entire South and North Caucasus and throughout Central Asia," the Russian analyst explained.

Despite its reluctance to supply certain systems to Ukraine, Ankara is increasing defense cooperation with Kyiv. On February 3, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov announced Turkey and Ukraine had agreed to coproduce Bayraktar drones at a production site in Ukraine.

In 2019, Baykar Makina, a privately owned Turkish drone maker, won a contract to sell six Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) 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 was planning to buy 24 more Turkish combat UAVs 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.

Use of the TB2 drones by Ukrainian forces against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine has irked Moscow. And in addition to Ukraine, Turkish drones also played a key role for Azerbaijan in its short 2020 conflict with Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh.

For Erdogan, trying to play peacemaker between Kyiv and Moscow may also help heal the rift with the West. That was something Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka had some success with until his bloody crackdown on the country's democratic opponents following his reelection in August 2020, a vote largely viewed as rigged by much of the world. "The Turkish president probably wants to help bring an end to this war in order to receive significant geopolitical and diplomatic bonuses," Preobrazhensky said.

Economy Hit Hard

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 Russia-Ukraine war could lead to mass unrest and social upheaval as food prices rise in their wake following a cycle of uprisings that culminated in the region's Arab Spring.

Over recent years, Turkey has become heavily dependent on agricultural products from both Russia and Ukraine. In 2021, Turkey received 65 percent of all imported wheat from Russia and more than 13 percent from Ukraine. The recent sharp rise in prices for wheat -- in large part due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine -- has forced Ankara to reduce its purchases abroad by about 30 percent.

Russian energy carriers are no less important for the Turkish economy. Leading right up to the start of the assault, Russia supplied Turkey with more than 50 percent of imported gas, 17 percent of oil, and about 40 percent of gasoline.

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

Moscow and Ankara have signed a number of trade and economic deals in recent years. The most important of these is for the Turkish Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant being built with the help of Russian state energy firm Rosatom, which is supposed to cover 10 percent of Turkey's energy needs. Erdogan has repeatedly stated that he is keen to complete this project, which is valued at $20 billion, at any cost.

Russia is also a big market for Turkish fruits and vegetables. Last year, Turkey exported a record nearly 1.5 million metric tons of fresh fruit 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 businesses even created a special new airline, Southwind, which will transport only Russians to Turkish beach resorts. The new air carrier will be based in Antalya, Turkey, with the first flights scheduled for the end of May.

Turkey's banks are also expanding the network of the Russian payment system Mir to help lure tourists to the country, Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati said on April 27, predicting that the country would break a record for tourism income this year.

That money is sorely needed as the Turkish economy, already hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, is facing even harder times amid the Russian invasion. For Erdogan, his government is on a shaky footing amid simmering sociopolitical tensions across the country.

Annual inflation in Turkey approached a 20-year high at the start of 2022, while the unemployment rate reached 15-20 percent. Prices for basic goods and services rose by 30-50 percent, as the value of the Turkish lira has witnessed two large drops in its value.

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

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

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL's Georgian and Russian services.
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