Erdogan's re-election would serve Putin

Relations between Turkey and Russia are ambivalent. Moscow is nonetheless trying to prop up the leadership in Ankara. Elections are to be held in Turkey in June – and the last thing Russia wants is Erdogan’s departure.
Relations between Turkey and Russia are ambivalent. Moscow is nonetheless trying to prop up the leadership in Ankara. Elections are to be held in Turkey in June – and the last thing Russia wants is Erdogan’s departure.

Relations between Turkey and Russia are ambivalent. Moscow is nonetheless trying to prop up the leadership in Ankara. Elections are to be held in Turkey in June – and the last thing Russia wants is Erdogan’s departure. By Burak Unveren

By Burak Ünveren

Russia's war of aggression in Ukraine has isolated the government in Moscow in a very short time, especially among Western industrialised countries. Russian President Vladimir Putin has not been left with many influential partners. One partner, however, with whom he is still of speaking terms is Turkey. Putin and his colleague Recep Tayyip Erdogan have maintained a close relationship for years.

At the end of 2021, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Erdogan and Putin had a "friendly relationship". Last November, Erdogan spoke of a "relationship of trust" with Putin.

Erdogan cleverly used the start of the war to expand his influence: with few diplomatic channels open to Russia, Ankara offered itself as a mediator between Moscow and Kiev, and to this day it remains the main player with whom both sides are happy to talk.

High-level meetings between the Ukrainians and Russians have taken place in Turkey: on 10 March 2022, the Ukrainian, Russian and Turkish foreign ministers met in Antalya. Within barely two weeks, the delegations were back at the negotiating table again, this time in Istanbul. The grain agreement, which allows Ukrainian wheat to be exported across the Black Sea, was brokered by the UN and Turkey in July and signed in Istanbul.

 Syria: the Maram refugee camp in Idlib after an attack by the Assad regime (image: picture-alliance)
مخيم للاجئين في إدلب بعد هجوم شنه نظام الأسد. كثير من الناس هنا يرون تركيا مصدر أمان لهم.

For Russia, Turkey is the "gateway to the rest of the world"

The war in Ukraine, for example, has contributed to the Turkish and Russian leaders moving closer together, confirms foreign policy and energy expert Aydin Sezer. "For Russia, Turkey is like the gateway to the rest of the world. The Kremlin values its relationship with Ankara very highly."

And to keep it that way, the leadership in Moscow would like to see the government in Ankara confirmed in the elections on 18 June. Putin has understood, says Sezer, "that it will be in Russia's interest if a leader like Erdogan governs Turkey".

Moscow has therefore tried several times recently to support the incumbent Turkish government. Russian state-owned company Gazprom recently deferred Turkey's gas purchase debts.

Russia is not "just doing this", it is acting in its own interest, says a Turkish diplomat emeritus, who wishes to remain anonymous. In October, Putin suggested that Turkey could be turned into a so-called energy hub. This would mean Russian gas being delivered to European consumers via Turkey – a win-win situation for both presidents.

Putin needs Erdogan – and Erdogan needs Putin

Ever since the ruling Turkish AKP began having difficulties with the EU and the USA, political and economic support from Russia has become all the more important for its survival, stresses international relations expert Hande Orhon Ozdag in interview. There have been disagreements and tensions between Turkey and the West for several years. Turkish-European and Turkish-American relations have deteriorated, she says.

"The Ukraine war is an opportunity for the AKP to deepen economic relations with Russia, because Turkey has not signed up to the U.S. and EU sanctions." Putin, he said, has enabled Erdogan to achieve two important things: "Political popularity through the grain agreement and economic support related to gas". Since the AKP's popularity with the electorate is declining, this is exactly what the party needs in the run-up to the elections.

President @RTErdogan:

"As Russia-Türkiye-Syria, we have initiated a process. We will bring our foreign ministers together, and then we will come together as leaders, depending on the developments."

— Republic of Türkiye Directorate of Communications (@Communications) January 5, 2023


Democratic opposition unwelcome

It is by no means certain that the political situation in Turkey will remain as it is. Erdogan is hoping to be confirmed in office in the presidential elections. But the polls do not suggest an easy victory – the opposition might actually win, meaning the country would get its first change in leadership in over 20 years.

In Russia, on the other hand, the image of Erdogan and his government is good, says Turkish political scientist Umit Nazmi Hazir, who conducts research in Moscow. "Putin and Erdogan have known each other for twenty years. They are both familiar with each other and can communicate directly." This naturally makes it easier to communicate their individual concerns.

Should the opposition win the elections in Turkey, this would also run counter to Russian interests, according to Hazir. The new government would possibly be more democratic: "Russia's ability to control Turkey would diminish. Moscow would then have to talk to several actors."

Rivalry between Moscow and Ankara over Syria

There is, however, also potential for conflict and disagreement between Moscow and Ankara. Both countries, for example, are involved in the Syrian war with their own soldiers and support opposing factions. Russia is traditionally the Syrian regime's most important ally and Turkey supports parts of the Syrian opposition such as the Free Syrian Army, while at the same time taking military action against the Kurds in northern Syria.

But there are signs of an understanding between the two countries. After years of harsh rhetoric against Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, Erdogan has now softened his tone. Turkey has announced its intention to hold peace talks with Syria soon, and Russia will also be part of the process. "Our three foreign ministers will sit down together first, followed by us, the three leaders," Erdogan announced on Thursday, 5 January.

Many observers, however, are sceptical about the rapprochement between Russia and Turkey. Ankara is interfering in Moscow's sphere of influence, says Hazir. And Eastern Europe expert Zaur Gasimov of the University of Bonn adds that Erdogan has begun to "play a much more active policy in the post-Soviet space and the Middle East". Russia is not finding this easy to come to terms with.

In interview, Gasimov concludes: "The Kremlin does not consider Turkey an ally. In Syria, in the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and in Libya, the Kremlin is pursuing entirely different goals to Turkey. If anything, the Kremlin considers Turkey more of a rival than a partner."

Burak Unveren

© Deutsche Welle 2023