By: Eren Roso
Picture credits: Voice of America via Wikimedia
It is not controversial to say that diplomatic relations between the West and Russia have been less than amicable over the past year. Russia’s expectations of a subdued Western response to its invasion of Ukraine were not fulfilled by the West, and instead, there was a united effort in support of Ukraine. However, while the West is determined to see Russia withdraw from Ukraine, it must be taken into account that the US is more willing than its European counterparts to defeat Russia before negotiations can commence. Additionally, Putin’s stance on not conceding to Western intermediaries, namely France and Germany, threatens to accelerate the conflict due to the lack of mediation between the combatant parties.
Turkey could prove to be a more credible mediator in Putin’s eyes than its Western counterparts. Turkey’s credibility comes from a process of rapprochement between Turkey and Russia that started in 2015 and accelerated after the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. This relationship has proved to be mutually beneficial, and its effect on both countries will be discussed below. However, addressing Turkey’s and Erdoğan’s motivations for their close relations with Russia should be given priority. Another point of discussion will be regarding Turkey’s unique role in the conflict, and how its position can be used to alleviate the food insecurities caused by the war.
The Strategic Partnership and its Benefits
Russia and Turkey have formed a strategic partnership that is advantageous for both countries. Erdoğan sees Putin as an important ally as his political platform is based on making Turkey and himself be perceived as an independent power that competes and even economically outperforms the West, rather than being subservient to it. Domestic dynamics and voting patterns are key to understanding Turkish foreign policy, as Erdoğan’s voter base’s perception of him as a strongman in the international arena bears more importance than his actual policies, which helps explain Turkey’s detente with Russia coinciding with the country’s slide into authoritarianism.
Russia benefits from its cooperation with Turkey both economically and politically. Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system resulted in the country being kicked off the US’ F-35 programme with threats of sanctions. For Russia’s hybrid war against the West, this decision was beneficial as it strained the relationships between the US and its European allies. Russia also benefits from its gas and food exports to Turkey, as well as from constructing infrastructure projects such as the TurkStream and nuclear power plants, which are being built by state-owned enterprises.
The conflict in Syria is another factor that affects the relationship between Russia and Turkey. The two countries support opposing factions, and this could potentially jeopardise negotiations for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Turkey is also aware of this as can be seen through the lack of a strong reaction to Russia after a Russian airstrike on Turkish positions, killing 33 troops. These factors are imperative in understanding Turkey’s position in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Turkey’s Pragmatic Foreign Policy
While Turkey sells its cheap but effective Bayraktar drones to Ukraine, it also maintains and even increases the import of Russian products. Due to the reasons stated above, Turkey presents itself as more trustworthy to Russia than its Western counterparts who have decisively placed themselves against Russia in the conflict. Therefore, under Turkey’s auspices, Russia and Ukraine were willing to negotiate. The two opposing parties held their first round of negotiations in the Turkish city of Antalya and the second round in Istanbul.
However, goodwill is not enough to explain Turkey’s view on Russia. As mentioned before, Turkey is an official NATO member, yet its independent ambitions often supersede those of the mutual defence alliance. The most recent example of this was the Turkish refusal to ratify Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession. While it is in the interest of the alliance to expand its borders, unconditional ratification of the accession would have been detrimental to Erdoğan’s public image. Finland got the green light for its accession by supposedly meeting the demands of the Turkish government by extraditing a ‘sufficient’ number of people to Turkey. However, Sweden’s accession has been put on hold by Turkey until Erdoğan’s demands are sufficiently met. Therefore, Turkey’s pragmatism and lack of ideological limitations in the international arena could make it a credible diplomatic channel between the West and Russia.
In any scenario, Erdoğan is the one whose personal goals must be satisfied. The Turkish elections, which will be held on May 16, are quickly approaching. Erdoğan is against a nearly united opposition block, an increasingly devalued currency and a 137.55% annual inflation rate. Erdoğan’s main strategy is to delay, not avert, the impending economic collapse of the country. Erdogan is attempting this through liquidity injections from his regional authoritarian partners such as Qatar, rather than the IMF packages that he so thoroughly criticised his predecessors for accepting. The aforementioned economic issues have made it difficult for the country to pay off the copious amounts of natural gas bought from Gazprom. Turkey has requested a postponement of its substantial debt to Gazprom alongside a price discount. Erdoğan plans to delay a projection of the inflation vis-à-vis natural gas prices and deprive the opposition of a key talking point in advancing their electoral support. Therefore, he requires Russian support in winning an election that will be an existential struggle for him.
Other than delaying an economic catastrophe, Russian investments also bear a mark on Turkey’s strategic role as the bridge between Europe and the Middle East. With Nord Stream 1 being rendered inoperable and the weight of the Western sanctions, Russia lacks a clear way of exporting natural gas to Europe. To alleviate this issue, Putin has referenced Turkey as a natural gas hub that states can use as a third state between the provider of the gas and potential buyers. A realisation of this project would theoretically allow Russia to dodge the sanctions and continue with its export of natural gas while Turkey would have a stronger position in negotiations with its European allies. A project of this size would certainly allow Erdoğan to enhance Turkey’s image as a key player in global affairs and could prevent the capture of the ultra-nationalist votes by the opposition. Therefore, this project is mutually beneficial to both countries and gives another reason for the two countries to continue their strategic partnership.
Turkey’s Mediation in Practice
Turkey’s successful adoption of a pragmatic policy approach is evidenced by the Grain Export Deal signed between Russia and Ukraine, which was facilitated by the UN. This deal is a net positive for the recipients of the Ukrainian exports as it alleviates the price shocks dealt by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Among the recipient countries is Ethiopia which is on the verge of a country-wide malnutrition crisis that its Tigray conflict, weather events and the Russo-Ukrainian war can exacerbate. Ethiopia imports 100% of its grains from Russia and Ukraine and although the Ukrainian grain exports are not sufficient enough to halt the looming threat, its presence can lessen the impact of the price shocks. As can be seen in this graph, world grain prices have decreased from an annual high of 169.04 in May 2022 to 145.53. Attributing this decrease to solely the grain deal is highly reductive of course, yet the trend starting from July 2022 (the month the deal was signed), and reaching its lowest point in August is not purely coincidental. The deal is a net positive for the countries affected by the price shocks, yet a global net positive does not signify equal levels of satisfaction among all.
Turkey is one of the two guarantors of the grain deal and is responsible for ensuring the safety of the ships. Istanbul and its Bosphorus Strait serve as a bridge connecting these ships to the rest of the world, highlighting the geopolitical importance of Turkey in the functioning of this deal. Turkey’s international standing has been improved by the diplomatic points it gained from brokering the deal. However, it is too optimistic to expect a return to pre-2015 relations with the West.In contrast, Russia does not have the same level of satisfaction with the deal that Turkey and Ukraine have. This dissatisfaction first became apparent in November when Russia pulled out of the deal with the claim that Ukraine was abusing the deal to attack Crimea. This retreat did not prove to be long-lasting as Russia returned four days later and agreed to extend the deal until March. Analysts claim that Russia withdrew from the deal with the belief that the price shocks after the country’s withdrawal would strengthen its hand in negotiations. However, the guarantors of the deal called the country’s bluff and pledged to continue the grain exports. The Turkish Black Sea Fleet is the strongest navy in the region and has the will and the power to enforce the deal. Moreover, Russia’s ties to Turkey make it unlikely that it will try to hamper the grain corridor. Russia agreed on another extension of the deal on 19 March, with the caveat of it being a 60-day extension rather than a 120-day one as requested by Ukraine. This underlines the inherently precarious position the deal is in, yet as long as Russia’s fortunes in the war remain unimproved and the Bosporus Strait is closed for Russian military vessels, the deal is safe from long-term jeopardy.
Turkey has a unique position in the war. Its history of a turbulent alliance with the West and a novel strategic partnership with Russia grants it a position of an important intermediator. Both sides in the conflict are aware of the country’s importance and therefore approach Turkey to manage the negotiations between them. Lucrative trade and investment deals with Russia alongside an improved international standing for its efforts in brokering the grain deal make an exception in Erdogan’s less-than-exemplary foreign policy track record. While the opposition states that it supports Ukraine in conflict, it remains to be seen whether this support will be embodied in policy in a potential opposition victory. Another question that will be resolved in the elections is whether Erdoğan’s improved standing with the West and Russia will be reflected on the ballots.