The biggest winner in Ukraine is Turkey's Erdoğan - Louis Fishman

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan may be the biggest winner of the war in Ukraine because he has been able to maintain ties with both Kiyiv and Moscow and won plaudits from NATO allies, said Louis Fishman, an associate professor at Brooklyn College.

But the longer the Russian and Ukrainian conflict persists, the harder it will be for Turkey to continue on the third path it has chosen, Fishman said in an analysis for the Haaretz newspaper on Wednesday.

A full version of the article follows below:


Against a backdrop of Russian bombs falling indiscriminately on civilians in Kharkhiv and Kyiv, Ukrainian and Russian delegations met for an initial round of ceasefire talks – and Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, reiterated that Turkey could not cut off ties with either Russia or Ukraine.

Since the war broke out, Erdoğan has condemned the Russian aggression and voiced full support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, falling in line with NATO allies. However, Turkey has opted out of sanctioning Russia.

That insistence on maintaining warm and equidistant ties with both Russia and Ukraine will soon come under perhaps impossible strain. But for now, if you thought this policy would outrage the defiant Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, think again.

Up to this point, Turkey has managed to maintain good relations with both countries. Erdoğan even visited Kyiv just a day after Russia declared the Donbas and Luhansk regions as so-called "people’s republics”, a day before the Russian invasion, and he was welcomed by Zelensky with open arms. Turkey also has supplied Ukraine with Bayraktar surveillance and attack drones which are already in active use against the Russian army.  

Erdoğan’s quick visit to Kyiv was an exhibition of solidarity and also a reiteration that Turkey’s efforts to carve out a third way did not just consist of sitting on the fence: It strategically balanced a determined stand alongside the Ukrainian people, while sustaining a working relationship with Russia.

For now, that balancing act has the implicit OK from the U.S.-European coalition against Putin’s war. Turkey is important for the coalition as an interlocutor with Russia, and at the same time, Turkey’s engagement in the crisis is the best chance to fix what have been severely strained relations between Turkey, the United States, and Europe.

Turkey cannot in any case quickly dash the relations it has cultivated with Russia, especially taking into consideration the poor state of its economy.

Even before Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 defense system in 2017, opting to challenge its relations with the United States, the scope of trade relations between Turkey and Russia had been steadily increasing. Turkey has been a key tourist destination for Russians, crucial for revenues during the pandemic, although now with air routes and the Russian economy under pressure, that source of funds may well dry up.

More importantly, Turkey’s motivation for moving closer to Russia, was first and foremost related to Syria and the understandings between the two states’ militaries there, while for Putin, snatching a NATO member towards his orbit was too enticing to pass over.

The two countries have been through major crises over the last few years, such as the 2015 downing of a Russian jet, the 2016 assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara, and the less known 2020 killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in a Russian airstrike on a Turkish army convoy in Syria, but have weathered them. Despite these crises, Erdoğan and Putin have met regularly, always in an apparently pleasant atmosphere, and exchange phone calls even more frequently.

However, Turkey knows that the real value of its relations with Russia is to serve as a pressure point for leverage with the United States. Simply put, Russia can never replace Turkey’s economic, social, and cultural ties with the United States and the European Union; to claim otherwise would be preposterous.

The current Russian-Ukrainian war comes at an important crossroads in Turkey’s foreign relations in which in the Middle East it finds itself more isolated than ever. With the country in deep economic despair, Turkey has had to swallow its pride and place its Islamist allies aside to make up with the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Egypt, all of which were used until recently as punching bags by Erdoğan and his AKP government. 

Erdoğan’s recent trip to Abu Dhabi was received with much fanfare in the UAE, with its leader Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan gratified by Erdoğan’s public recognition of the significance of bilateral relations after years of hostile interactions. Later this month, Israeli president Isaac Herzog is planning to visit Turkey, in an historic move to jumpstart relations between the two countries after a constant slew of crises during Netanyahu’s long tenure.

And, while reconciliation with Egypt is still in the works, Turkey’s rapprochement with the UAE and its attempts to renew ties with Israel is the clearest signal Erdoğan now wants to return to the American sphere in the Middle East. Therefore, for U.S. politicians, Turkey’s attempt to maintain relations with Russia is no longer seen as a threat, even if Washington continues to pressure Turkey to forfeit the S-400s.

That’s why this week, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken praised his Turkish opposite number and thanked Turkey for its "strong support in defence of Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity”. On the same day, Republican Marco Rubio, who serves as vice-chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, praised the Turkish drones used by Ukraine. 

Turkey won more plaudits from Republicans and Democrats when it invoked the 1936 Montreux Convention that allows Ankara, in times of war, to block all warships from crossing the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus straits. Zelensky had flagged this ask in a tweet several days ago, and it is likely to have been on the agenda of their Kyiv meeting.

It may be that invoking the convention will end up affecting Russian warships’ mobility between the Black Sea and its naval facility on the Syrian coast, a potential strategic headache more than impacting the Ukraine crisis, where Russian warships are already in battle positions.

Turkey can package this as a bold move which Russia is unlikely to challenge, as doing so would land not just Turkish-Russian relations in rough waters, but also that of the NATO alliance at large.

But the longer the Russian and Ukrainian conflict persists, the harder it will be for Turkey to continue on the third path it has chosen. If Erdoğan is successful at maintaining this fragile strategic balance, the economic pains of his current crisis at home will at least be alleviated, while paving his way back to the United States and EU, without playing too hard on his relations with Putin.

There are signs Erdoğan is prepared to seriously test the elasticity of Putin’s patience: On Monday, his U.N. ambassador Feridun Sinirlioğlu declared Russia’s aggression on Ukraine as "baseless, unjust, and unprecedented in history", adding for good measure that it was "illegal, illicit and unacceptable". Balancing that, Erdoğan’s spokesman stated the same day that Turkey would not be imposing sanctions on Russia in order to "keep a channel open" for dialogue.

But if Erdoğan is gratified by the warmth already emanating out towards him from the halls of power in Washington and Brussels, he might find that the price for further rehabilitation is to roll back the measures he has pushed that threaten democracy and the rule of law.

A cynic might say Erdoğan’s strong support for Ukraine’s freedom is somewhat ironic when, at home, he treats his opposition and voices of dissent more like Putin than Zelensky.

If a boost in Turkey’s global standing through its conduct on Ukraine could entice Erdoğan into restoring relations more substantively with the West, it would necessarily have to include an end to his government’s widescale clampdowns on civil and political freedoms, and the jailing of those who dare voice dissent outside the narrow parameters his government deems acceptable. Without it, there is a glass ceiling on relations with the United States and the EU.

The question Erdoğan is juggling is whether loosening his near-authoritarian grasp on power in Turkey could save his political career – or end it. If he does not make the choice to change, the Turkish electorate might just make that choice for him in next year’s elections.

(A link to the article can be found here.)

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