Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine opened an opportunity for Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to play statesman and powerbroker. The Turkish president deserves credit for brokering a deal with Kyiv and Moscow that has allowed grain shipments to resume from Ukrainian ports. But he has been careful to safeguard important economic ties with Moscow. After his cosy-seeming four-hour meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin last Friday, western capitals worry Erdoğan is deepening links with Moscow when its Nato partners are doing the opposite, and the Kremlin is looking for ways to bypass western sanctions. The Turkish leader is playing a complex but risky game.
Erdoğan has had a bumpy relationship with Putin, a fellow strongman and geopolitical rival, notably over their differing priorities in the Syrian conflict. In Ukraine, Ankara courted Moscow’s wrath by providing Bayraktar attack drones to Kyiv’s forces. But Turkey has not adopted US and EU sanctions on Moscow, is buying Russian oil and gas as normal, and has kept its skies open to Russia’s commercial planes — keen to hold on to the lucrative Russian tourist trade, which it lost in 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter over Syria.
Exactly what Erdoğan and Putin agreed in Sochi remains unclear. A joint statement talked of increasing trade and energy ties and deeper collaboration in sectors including transport, industry, finance and construction. A Russian deputy prime minister said Turkey would begin paying for gas partially in roubles.
Turkey’s president was later quoted as saying five Turkish banks would adopt Russia’s Mir payments system — a boon for Russian tourists in Turkey after Visa and Mastercard suspended Russian operations. Western capitals worry the Mir link could also be used to skirt sanctions, though there was no evidence Erdoğan had accepted supposed Russian proposals, leaked by Ukrainian intelligence, for deeper banking and energy co-operation that might help Moscow evade western restrictions.
Erdoğan has good reason to woo Russian financial inflows as he tries to win re-election next year amid an escalating debt and currency crisis, caused largely by his own economic mismanagement. Inflation hit a 24-year high of 79.6 per cent in July and the lira has halved in value against the dollar over 12 months. Despite Turkey’s Nato membership, it has no legal obligation to impose US and EU sanctions against Russia.
Any deepening of economic ties with Moscow, however, is likely to inflame frictions with the west when Turkey is already dragging its feet over Sweden and Finland’s Nato membership. Erdogan’s position also provides a test of the western alliance’s ability to make sanctions stick globally. Failure to prevent sanctions leakage via Turkey would make it all the more difficult to restrain other emerging markets such as China — which has so far been cautious about providing help to Russia.
One senior official has suggested western countries might call on companies and banks to pull out of Turkey if Erdoğan follows through with the intentions he signalled on Friday. But Turkey is simply too important geopolitically and for western businesses. Europe frets over Ankara’s ability to flood the continent with the 3.7mn refugees from Syria and elsewhere that Turkey is hosting.
Yet the US has imposed punitive measures on Turkey before — for example, over its purchase of a Russian air defence system — and secondary US sanctions are a risk. Though these would have to be calibrated to avoid creating a domestic backlash that Erdoğan could exploit, they could still do damage that would offset the benefits of co-operation with Moscow. In his game of geostrategic poker, Erdoğan should be wary of overplaying his hand.
Source: Financial Times