In the lead-up to his toughest election battle in two decades, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did not hesitate to bash Western allies and principles, seeking to bolster support from conservative and nationalist voters and distract them from his dismal economic record in recent years.
Erdogan campaigned against rights for LGBT citizens, held up NATO membership for Sweden, and accused Washington of meddling in the May election in which he faced a formidable challenge from center-left candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu amid raging inflation.
But he won. And now that he has secured a new five-year term, Erdogan appears to be making amends with Western countries following years of strained relations, raising questions about what that means for his cordial relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, for Ankara’s deepening economic ties to Moscow, and for Turkey’s approach to Kyiv and the war in Ukraine.
On the eve of the July 11-12 NATO Summit in Lithuania, the Turkish leader grabbed the spotlight by greenlighting Sweden’s entry into the transatlantic military alliance and calling for the resuscitation of Turkey’s bid to join the European Union — the latter a surprise and by most accounts a long shot.
Days earlier, while hosting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Ankara, he said Ukraine deserves NATO membership — which Russia has described as a firm red line — and released five Ukrainian military commanders to Kyiv earlier than he had promised Putin, eliciting protest from the Kremlin.
The announcements brought Erdogan dividends, including a bilateral meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, promises of F-16 fighter jets his army sorely needs, and Swedish commitments to facilitate an upgrade of the Turkey-EU customs union and to cooperate against terrorism — which in Ankara’s eyes means cracking down on Kurds.
But experts say the apparent rapprochement does not mean Erdogan is all in with the West or that he is prepared to jeopardize his relationship with Putin, who shares the Turkish leader’s opposition to what they claim are Western efforts to dominate the world. Putin threw Erdogan a financial lifeline during the presidential campaign as Western leaders quietly rooted for him to lose.
Erdogan’s tentative tilt toward the West is largely driven by pragmatic financial considerations — namely the need for greater foreign investment to revive Turkey’s economy — though Putin’s tarnished strongman image following the Wagner mercenary group’s short-lived mutiny in June may also be playing a role, experts said.
‘On His Own Terms’
The Turkey-Russia relationship has largely been driven by the two authoritarian leaders’ personal rapport, but a weakened Putin becomes a less reliable partner, experts said.
Erdogan “is trying to warm ties with the West” now that the election is over, but he wants the rapprochement to happen “on his own terms,” Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told RFE/RL.
She said he has shown no intention yet of addressing the problems of his own creation that have led to the downward spiral in relations with the West, such as his dismantling of Turkish institutions.
Addressing those issues is critical if Turkey is serious about joining the EU and upgrading its customs union with the bloc but that has been buried in the excitement following Erdogan’s statement ahead of the NATO summit.
Nicholas Danforth, a Turkey expert, warned in a tweet that playing up Erdogan’s moves as “some big reset” with the West gives the Turkish leader “exactly the economic and political benefits he’s seeking without actually having to take any meaningful steps on say, human rights or rule of law.”
Ruslan Suleymanov, a fellow at the Baku-based Institute for Development and Diplomacy, noted in a report published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that Erdogan’s comments on European integration are also aimed at helping increase his party’s support among pro-Western city-dwellers ahead of municipal elections next year.
NATO’s Disruptive Ally
Relations between Turkey and the West have soured under Erdogan, the nation’s premier leader since 2003, as he rolled back democracy, jailed opponents, independently launched foreign interventions, crossed swords with EU member states, and deepened ties with Putin.
Ties between Russia and Turkey have been rocky at times, too, but have swiftly recovered after disputes. In 2015, Putin accused Ankara of a “stab in the back” and banned imports from the country after a Turkish warplane shot down a Russian jet near the Syrian border in 2015, but relations warmed up again a few months later.
Erdogan angered NATO with the purchase of a Russian S-400 system following a deadly 2016 coup attempt that he blamed on a U.S.-based cleric — and by association, Washington.
Following the $2.5 billion deal with Moscow, the United States kicked Turkey out of the F-35 fighter jet program in 2019 and refused to sell Ankara its most advanced fighter as bilateral ties reached their lowest level in decades.
Ties remained tense when U.S. President Joe Biden took office in 2021. During the campaign, Biden called Erdogan an “autocrat” and said the United States should help the Turkish opposition defeat him at the voting box.
“We can support those elements of the Turkish leadership that still exist and get more from them and embolden them to be able to take on and defeat Erdogan,” Biden said in 2020.
In April 2021, three months into his presidency and following calls with many world leaders, Biden finally phoned Erdogan. He informed the Turkish leader that he would recognize the mass killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during and after World War I as genocide.
Biden’s predecessors had avoided making the declaration lest they alienate Turkey, a strategic ally whose army is the second largest in NATO. However, Biden, who cast democracy and human rights as a central element of his foreign policy, did not intend to prioritize relations with Erdogan, experts said at the time.
However, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 — which came at one of the lowest points in his 20-year rule — opened the door for Erdogan to make himself indispensable to NATO and Washington while also further irritating them.
He is the only NATO leader in regular contact with Putin and also has good relations with Zelenskiy, making him a potentially effective mediator between Russia and Ukraine.
Erdogan has kept a delicate balance since the invasion, condemning the Kremlin and aiding Ukraine while ramping up trade with Russia and closing his eyes to sanctions evasion.
Turkey has continued to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons and did so long before other members of NATO. Bayraktar drones from the Turkish company Baykar were crucial to Ukraine’s defense in the early stages of the war. Baykar, partially owned by Erdogan’s son-in-law, is building a plant in Ukraine that is expected to open in 2025.
Erdogan helped broker a deal between Moscow and Kyiv that had allowed Ukraine to export grain during the war, alleviating a global food crisis, but Russia let it collapse this week after a year in operation. Turkey is a major importer of Ukrainian and Russian grain and had directly benefitted from the deal.
Erdogan also helped negotiate prisoner swaps, including one in September 2022 that foresaw Turkey holding several commanders of the Azov Regiment until the end of the war. Erdogan’s release of the men into the hands of Zelenskiy ahead of the NATO summit enhanced his image within the alliance while also serving as a boost for both leaders at home.
But it prompted accusations from Russian propagandists that Erdogan was acting “unfriendly” toward Moscow, while some experts questioned whether it signaled that Erdogan had become concerned about Putin’s hold on power following the June 23-24 mutiny led by Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin.
“I think Erdogan is very careful not to snub Putin at least not in the direct personal sense,” Rich Outzen, a former State Department official who is an analyst for the Atlantic Council, told RFE/RL.
“There is an adjustment going on or rebalancing, if you will, [of Turkish foreign policy],” he said, “and part of that is driven by a genuine attachment to Ukrainian sovereignty.”
Outzen said it would be “a strategic and geopolitical disaster” for Turkey if Russia were to conquer Ukraine because Moscow would have control over a wide swath of the Black Sea coastline “and be in a much better position to strong-arm Turkey.”
Following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Ankara legally blocked Russian warships from entering the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits, hindering its war effort.
Turkey shares the Black Sea with Russia, Ukraine, Georgia as well as fellow NATO members Romania and Bulgaria. There is also tension between Moscow and Ankara over Russia’s persecution of the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar minority on the Russian-occupied Black Sea peninsula in Ukraine.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov seemed to downplay the release of the Azov commanders, saying Ankara had been under “a lot of pressure” ahead of the NATO summit and wanted to show “solidarity” with the alliance.
He also asserted that Russia was not surprised by Erdogan’s decision to drop objections to Sweden’s membership, saying that “Turkey is committed to its obligations” and “we have never looked at it through rose-colored glasses.”
Erdogan had used his veto power as a member of NATO to hold up membership for Finland and Sweden, which moved quickly to join NATO following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
He demanded the two countries crack down on Kurdish groups his government deems terrorists. His tough stance won him popularity at home heading into the election.
It also gave Erdogan — who is known for his transactional approach to foreign policy — a bargaining chip with the United States on F16s that the Biden administration later consented to deliver.
Though Sweden’s application for membership was clearly driven by Russian aggression, Erdogan’s spokesman, Fahrettin Altun, avoided singling outMoscow, saying Turkey’s support for NATO expansion is “not against a specific country, but to make it a comprehensive security organization that will help achieve stability.”
Erdogan also said Moscow understood his reasons for the release of the Azov commanders and no longer voiced protest. The Kremlin did not comment further.
Erdogan will get a chance to discuss the release of the commanders and much more pressing issues with Putin when he hosts the Russian leader in August in Turkey. The Kremlin has yet to confirm the trip.
Putin has met with Erdogan possibly more than any other leader outside the former Soviet Union, a sign of their good working relationship and ability to compartmentalize their competing interests in Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Syria, and Libya.
If the visit takes place, they are likely to discuss the war in Ukraine, a possible revival of the grain deal, and the expansion of economic ties, experts said.
Erdogan will “prod Putin to think about conflict resolution in terms that don’t lead to further escalation,” Outzen said.
In comments made to the media on July 21, Erdogan held out hope that the grain deal would be resumed following his meeting with the Russian leader in Turkey.
With the election behind him and tension with the West easing, Erdogan will have a stronger hand this time around in talks with Putin, experts said.
Erdogan’s vulnerability lies in Turkey’s heavy dependence on Russian energy and in its weak economy, the results of his own policies.
As a result, Erdogan has refused to join the West in imposing sanctions on Russia to punish the Kremlin for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Analysts say he is driven by the desire to avoid exacerbating economic hardships at home, where inflation is 40 percent and the national currency near a record-low versus the dollar.
Russia became the largest exporter to Turkey by value last year, surpassing China, as Ankara snapped up greater volumes of discounted Russian oil, gas, and coal shunned by the West.
And with Europe closed off, Russian tourists and businessmen are flocking to Turkey, pouring foreign currency into the economy.
Yet Erdogan’s tilt to the West and improving ties with Middle East neighbors show he now has options other than Putin and Russia to help him out of his economic troubles, experts said.
Ahead of Putin’s expected visit, Erdogan swung through the Middle East, securing promises of major investments.
And while Turkey still needs cheap Russian energy, Putin and the Russian elite need Turkey more, Mark Katz, a professor of political science at George Mason University in the United States who focuses on Russia’s relations with the Middle East, told RFE/RL.
Turkey has been an important conduit for sanctioned goods into Russia.
Furthermore, with access to Western financial markets closed, Russians “need access to Turkey to get their money around,” Katz said.
“They can’t afford to see relations with Turkey spiral downward. Putin doesn’t want Erdogan going any further over to the West,” he said.