The past three months have underscored Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s difficult and sometimes awkward balancing act as he has sought to navigate between his relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the one hand and Turkey’s allies in the West on the other. Neither of these relationships is straightforward for him: Each brings with it various political, economic, and security benefits as well as challenges. And Erdoğan has for years sought to cultivate both, in part to be able to play the two sides off one another whenever he finds himself in opposition to one or the other. At the same time, a sudden rupture in either relationship or serious volatility emanating from Russia or the West would have potentially devastating consequences for Turkey if it were forced to face such a prospect alone.
The stakes for Turkey, thus, leapt sharply and unexpectedly in late June 2023, when Yevgeny Prigozhin, Russian oligarch and founder of the Wagner Group private military company, launched an insurrection against Russia’s Ministry of Defense. His mercenary force marched, largely unopposed, toward Moscow before he and the Kremlin negotiated a secret deal compelling him and his Wagner fighters to stand down in exchange for amnesty. Though in the immediate term Putin’s rule survived seemingly unscathed, the episode made the Russian leader look weak in the process and raised doubts about the future stability of his regime.
On June 24, the second day of Prigozhin’s abortive coup, Erdoğan was one of the few foreign leaders — and notably the only one from a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member state — who called Putin to express his support. This was perhaps not surprising, as a serious crisis inside Russia — whether culminating in Putin’s fall or the complete collapse of the country’s political system — would immediately roil Turkey and the surrounding neighborhood. Ankara would be unable to cope on its own, however; it would need political, economic, and security backing from its strategic allies in the West. The West, too, would find it exceedingly difficult to shape or mollify the consequences of a Russian collapse without Turkish involvement. Yet today, Turkey and the West look at each other in terms of problems not solutions. Neither mutual phone calls nor the U.S.-Turkey Strategic Mechanism Dialogue will change that. Indeed, Russia’s smoldering internal crisis (set in motion by the full-scale invasion of Ukraine) — which Putin can delay but is ultimately unlikely to be able to stop — could prove to be one of the last openings for a reset in the Western-Turkish relationship and a chance to avoid geopolitical costs that neither side can afford.
After reaching out to the beleaguered Russian president, Turkey pointedly made several friendly gestures toward the West and Ukraine over the following several months. These included agreeing to forward to the Turkish parliament ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership as well as meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Istanbul (and releasing to him a group of Ukrainian prisoners of war from Azovstal, against Moscow’s objections). In turn, a U.S. Congressional delegation traveled to Turkey, and the two countries conducted drills in the eastern Mediterranean, involving the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford. These gestures were significant but not decisive, and Erdoğan followed them up with renewed efforts to cultivate his relationship with Putin. On Sept. 4, he met with his Russian counterpart in Sochi, inter alia to try (unsuccessfully) to talk Putin into returning to the Ukrainian maritime grain export deal Russia unilaterally scuppered over the summer as well as to discuss the situation in the South Caucasus, on the eve of Azerbaijan’s operation to liquidate the Armenian rump-statelet in Karabakh. And while attending the United Nations General Assembly, in New York City, weeks later, the Turkish president did not mince words about his relations with Russia and his Western partners, sardonically telling PBS News that he trusted Moscow “just as much as the West.”
Russia as Turkey’s strategic partner
The nature of Ankara and Moscow’s bilateral relationship is a legitimate concern in the West. Turkish-Russian ties developed rapidly, if not always smoothly, since 2016, when Erdoğan faced down his own coup attempt against him, and even amidst the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war. These relations are strong politically and personally: The presidents are in regular contact, while Erdoğan has no analogous rapport with any Western leader. Moreover, cooperation in the security sphere has proven solid, as in the case of Turkey’s $2.5 billion purchase of Russian S-400 air-defense systems (which ultimately resulted in its removal from the F-35 program) or the two governments’ effective dialogue on critical areas such as Syria and the South Caucasus. Bilateral economic cooperation has similarly grown in strategic importance: Today, around 40% of imports come from Russia, and Turkey is expected to become a regional hub for Russian natural gas. Russia also constructed the first nuclear power plant in Turkey, built, owned, and operated by the Russian state-owned nuclear firm Rosatom. Total trade between the two countries doubled in 2022, to $62 billion, and Russia became Turkey’s leading import partner. Finally, financial transfers from Russia helped stabilize the currency crisis in Turkey on the eve of the 2023 election campaign. The situation is similar from the Russian perspective, especially under the latter’s current isolation from the West and the extensive sanctions regime; taking into account volumes of Russian gas purchases, the re-export of European goods to the Russian market, and bilateral financial cooperation, Turkey is easily one of Russia’s most critical economic partners.
That said, Turkish-Russian relations are not without tensions, disagreements, and internal contradictions. Strategic cooperation is accompanied by strategic rivalry, sometimes on the very same geopolitical issues noted above that brought some level of bilateral concord — for example in Syria, Libya, or, in particular, the South Caucasus. Turkey opposes the Russian annexation of Crimea and supports Ukraine militarily in the war; moreover, it has backed NATO enlargement to include Finland and, presumably, eventually Sweden; in cooperation with Azerbaijan, Turkey tore up the system of Russian domination in the South Caucasus by, on the one hand, diplomatically reaching out to Armenia and, on the other hand, supporting the military resolution of the Karabakh conflict. Nevertheless, Ankara considers ongoing cooperation with Moscow the best way to reduce bilateral and regional tensions, finding it beneficial to present Turkey as an “impartial” intermediary and mediator between Russia and Ukraine or the Global South and the West (such as in the previous grain export agreement, which Moscow finally walked away from earlier this summer).
The West as a source of frustration
A powerful factor influencing the state of relations with Russia is the relative health of Turkey’s relationship with the West. First of all, NATO provides security for Turkey at the strategic level; and in turn, Turkey is one of the frontline pillars of the Alliance. At the same time, the European Union is one of Turkey’s most important economic partners, and Ankara has been engaged in accession negotiations with the bloc since 2005, although its membership prospects currently seem more distant than ever. More broadly, the West is a vital institutional and economic pole of attraction for Turkey and Turkish society. Yet despite all of this context, Turkey’s relations with the West are undermined by ongoing tensions and mutual resentment.
Turkey feels disregarded by the West (mainly when it comes to its security and regional interests), isolated (because of limited and tension-laden meetings), and at times outright threatened. The West’s — and particularly some NATO allies’ — stance on issues such as the Kurdish forces in Syria or the 2016 attempted coup, undisguised support for the Turkish opposition, support for Greece, and other bones of contention, have filled a deep well of distrust in Ankara. The recent downing of a Turkish combat drone that flew too close to U.S. troops deployed in Syria caused another flareup in tensions, although Washington was quick to try to de-escalate the situation; nonetheless, days later, on Oct. 9, Erdoğan publicly vowed eventual relation. Turkey and its Euro-Atlantic allies again found themselves at loggerheads in recent weeks, over how to respond to the Israel-Hamas war and the level of consideration for the Palestinian population.
Over the past decade or so, Turkey’s response has been to support the emergence of a multipolar world adequate to Turkish ambitions and allowing it to diversify its dependence on the West (including through cooperation with Russia). Nonetheless, Ankara is aware of the downsides and limitations of the partnership with Moscow, and so Turkey’s overarching policy goal is to revise the terms of its strategic and irreplaceable cooperation with the West but not jettison it outright.
Turkey in the face of the crisis in Russia
The shocking events that transpired in southwestern Russia over a weekend in mid-June shook Ankara’s foreign policy strategy built in part on cooperation with Moscow. Although Prigozhin’s rebellion ended in a grotesque fiasco, it exposed the scale of Russia’s internal erosion and powerfully undermined Putin’s authority, even if the consequences of this will not be readily apparent for some time. More specifically, Prigozhin’s coup, Putin’s reaction, and, above all, the evident degree of erosion of the Russian state’s institutions and political mechanisms must have significantly lowered the Kremlin’s stature in Erdoğan’s eyes. It is almost certain that the revolt will one day be regarded as a milestone in a decisive crisis that could eventually overwhelm Russia, leading to Putin’s removal, sparking an intra-elite “war,” and likely fracturing the institutional apparatus and structures of the state. Regardless of how developments actually proceed, the consequences of instability in Russia will be global. And Turkey is particularly positioned — geographically, geopolitically, and economically — to feel them firmly and directly.
On the one hand, any problems Russia and Putin experience should strengthen Turkey’s hand, directly improving its bargaining position vis-à-vis Moscow. Depending on the scale of the crises battering Russia, Ankara could see new chances opening up to impose its interests in areas where Moscow is currently holding it back (Syria, the South Caucasus, the wider Black Sea region, but also Central Asia and perhaps even Africa). Indeed, last month, Turkish ally Azerbaijan’s military operation to retake the rest of Armenian-backed separatist Karabakh brought Ankara and Baku one major step closer to establishing an overland corridor connecting the two and providing Turkey with a more direct, coveted link to the Turkic states of Central Asia. That development was facilitated not only by Turkish support but also apparent Russian acquiescence due to its focus on Ukraine — or potential calculated effort by Moscow to step in as a “peacemaker” and “indispensable” security guarantor after the fact. In any case, such developments could fulfill Turkey’s strategic goals of reclaiming its role as a leading regional power and of becoming an independent pole in the world.
This would represent another about-turn for Turkey’s foreign and regional policies of recent years. The past decade’s worth of events and developments in the Middle East had notably exposed Turkish limitations, forcing Ankara to behave in a much more pragmatic and cautious manner compared to the early 2010s. In this time, Turkey’s dependence on Russia became more and more risky, especially in the past year and a half, as the prospects for political calamity overwhelming Russia became increasingly conceivable and likely. For Turkey, the immediate effects of a deep crisis of the Russian state would be felt in the tourism sector and trade; more systemic, longer-term pain would materialize in the energy and financial sectors. Turkey’s ability to counter a plunging economy is limited — it is not a global player like the EU, which faced similar problems in 2022, when it proceeded to cut itself off from Russia. Further complicating the situation is the fact that Turkish-Russian relations are heavily dependent on Erdoğan and Putin’s personal relationship and the mutual trust they have built up. A strong Putin is a prerequisite for the effectiveness of this relationship; Putin’s overthrow or the collapse of the Putinist system would cripple relations.
Finally, there is the impact of regional and security issues. Turkey lacks the influence, capabilities, or capacity to unilaterally (and conclusively) resolve the problems and crises plaguing Syria, the South Caucasus, or Central Asia — it has always needed a partner. Any potential escalations there could overwhelm Turkey’s military and diplomatic resources and turn into a domestic political issue. Similarly, in the event that Russia undergoes further politico-economic shocks, Turkey will be one of the countries most exposed to it, while unable to shape the developments or insulate itself effectively from them.
In light of this, Turkey’s natural reflex is to do what it can to strengthen Putin and stabilize the situation inside Russia. Should that fail and the crisis in Russia continue to deepen, Turkey will likely pursue every opportunity that suddenly opens up to fill the vacuum left by Russia in selected areas; but its ability to actually do so will be minimal at best. For now, therefore, Ankara sees no alternative.
The West and Turkey: Crisis as opportunity
From the Western and specifically U.S. perspective, the risk is growing that Turkey may become part of the Russian problem rather than a partner to contain or counter Moscow and the even greater turmoil that could begin to emanate from it. On the other hand, the window of opportunity is closing for a reset in U.S.-Turkish relations — a key prerequisite for dealing with the strategic challenges the North Atlantic Alliance is facing. Erdoğan secured his position by winning the May 2023 elections and concentrating full political power in his hand; but his latitude may run out this autumn/winter, as the tourist season comes to an end, domestic energy consumption increases, and inflation continues to rise. At the same time, he is aware of the need to implement economic reforms that, among other things, facilitate greater cooperation with the West; this was illustrated by the appointment of Mehmet Şimşek and Hafize Gaye Erkan to head the Treasury and the Central Bank and their adoption of monetary-tightening policies. On the other hand, the U.S. election campaign has still not started in earnest, and one of Congress’s foremost Erdoğan critics, Sen. Robert Menendez, is mired in a fresh scandal, which gives the administration more leeway, at least temporarily; at the same time, in NATO and Europe, fierce disputes with Turkey have largely given way to more muted negotiations over Finland’s (completed) and Sweden’s (open) membership in the Alliance.
A reset and revision of Turkish-Western relations would, of course, require a softening of the maximalist expectations on both sides, the return of dialogue at the highest levels, and, finally, the carving out of the few promising areas of cooperation. The latter could presumably be found in the political and security spheres (including on the issue of terrorism, for which Finland has paved the way), economics and trade (which could encourage Turkey to distance itself from the “easy” income that comes from cooperating with Russia), or jointly addressing regional challenges (e.g., the Azerbaijani-Armenian peace process, which the U.S. and the EU are both actively engaged in). Such efforts would be arduous, however, not least because of the growing frustrations in Washington over Erdoğan’s foot-dragging on issues such as Sweden’s accession.
Nevertheless, Prigozhin’s coup was arguably the most serious — and perhaps the final — warning sign that should prompt Turkey to cool ties with Russia and, instead, rebuild its relationship with the West. A similarly sobering realization vis-à-vis Turkey should take place in the West. While the political risks of reengagement are high for both sides, the potential rewards are well worth the effort needed to overcome them. In turn, the costs of inaction could prove catastrophic.
Krzysztof Strachota is the head of the Turkey, Caucasus, and Central Asia Department at the Centre for Eastern Studies, in Warsaw, Poland. He is also a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI’s Black Sea program.
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