Erdoğan HOT amid ambivalent diplomacy with Putin and NATO

  • Turkish President Erdoğan is on a streak of foreign policy successes
  • Erdoğan advances his own interests, while maintaining ties with both Putin and NATO
  • Erdoğan aims to improve his image domestically in light of 2023 election
Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council.

Why is Erdoğan’s heat level HOT?

Answer: By casting himself as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine, Erdoğan advances his importance in international relations, and benefits from maintaining ties with both Putin and NATO.

As a key player having good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had the opportunity to extend his diplomatic influence and improve his image domestically and internationally in the past few months. He can take credit for negotiating the only two agreements between the two conflicting sides since the beginning of the war. The first was a landmark deal signed by Russia and Ukraine in July, that allowed the export of 22 million tonnes of grain through Russian blockaded Ukrainian ports, partly relieving the global food crisis caused by the blocked grain exports. More recently, in September, Erdoğan convinced Putin to exchange two hundred hostages with Ukraine. 

Erdoğan has maintained an ambivalent approach to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. At first, right after the Russian invasion, he closed the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Russian ships, and continued to supply Turkish drones to Ukraine – two moves apparently in favor of Ukraine. However, Türkiye is also the only NATO member that has not endorsed sanctions on Russia, and, instead, Erdoğan has had four meetings in four months with Putin, and even increased economic cooperation. His strategy to adopt a neutral mediator position has allowed him to justify and maintain economic cooperation with his close friend Putin.

With elections coming up in June 2023, Erdoğan is trying to uplift Türkiye’s economy and improve his image domestically. Although he is “hot” because his diplomatic efforts are succeeding so far, only the long term effects on the economy, and especially the result of the June 2023 elections, will tell whether he succeeded or not.

Who is changing Erdoğan’s temperature?

Answer: NATO is changing Erdoğan’s temperature by caving in to his requests, while inflows of Russian money are improving Türkiye’s financial crisis.

Months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Erdoğan finds himself in a position of relative power over NATO. NATO needs to avoid at any cost the risk of pushing him away, and closer to Putin. Türkiye is, after all, the second largest military in the organization, and Turkish drones have played a huge role in Ukraine’s defense so far. This leverage allowed him to advance his own interests in June, when he blocked Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO, until he ensured that the two countries toughen up their approach towards the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Erdoğan considers a terrorist group.

Erdoğan obtained an agreement to the handover of more than 70 individuals that are sought by him under accusations of terrorism, and that are living in exile in Sweden and Finland. This was a win for Türkiye’s President, not only because it addresses a security concern, but also because it is likely going to win him support from nationalists. Because anti-NATO sentiment is widespread in Türkiye, he benefits from looking like he is a disruptive player that can partly steer the direction of NATO

Due to his strategy as an in-between actor proving crucial for diplomacy, NATO has also had to allow Erdoğan to continue economic cooperation with Putin, despite the fact that this reduces the effectiveness of sanctions. Continued economic cooperation with Russia is beneficial for Erdoğan, since Russian trade and tourism are essential for the Turkish economy. Thanks to access to Russian energy, Türkiye also partly escaped the price increases seen in Europe, and, in October, Putin even announced the proposal to make Türkiye a “supply hub” for Russian gas to Europe.

This was yet another win for Erdoğan, who is trying to improve the economic situation in Türkiye, as well as to substantiate his regional role. It shows that Russia’s economic isolation is working to his advantage, as Türkiye is now the only remaining window to Europe for Putin, and this gives Erdoğan some leverage over Putin as well. When Putin threatened to pull out of the grain deal in October, it took Erdoğan only two days to convince him against it, which was seen as a sign of his influence

It appears that Erdogan’s standing in the polls has recently improved after capital flowed into the economy due to a successful summer of tourism, where Russian tourism played by far the largest role. The Central Bank of the Republic of Türkiye’s balance-of-payment statistics for this year included a surplus of $28 billion in “net errors and omissions”, which has been attributed to informal capital inflows from Russian citizens.  

What is driving Erdoğan?

Answer: Erdoğan aims to advance Türkiye’s influence as a regional power, and is hoping to earn support domestically.

Erdoğan benefits from being a friend of both Russia and NATO almost opportunistically. Being part of NATO allows him to project strength, and increases Türkiye’s security, as part of a union of defense. The President needs NATO’s backing against the PKK, and in conflicts in the Mediterranean, especially in Syria and Libya, where Türkiye and Russia are facing each other. In fact, while Türkiye and Russia are united in their stance against some of the West’s policies, Türkiye competes against Russia for power in the region, and siding with NATO is a good backup against feared Russian expansionism.

At the same time, while abiding by what NATO membership obligates him to, he benefits from playing the “neutral” actor, and not enforcing the Western rhetoric. He does so by not fully participating in the resistance against Russia, since he must be careful not to offend Putin. Erdoğan therefore does not want to place all his cards on either Russia or NATO, because he has reasons to play with, and against, both. 

Additionally, Erdoğan’s foreign policy has generally been balanced between a multitude of actors. Developing alternatives in terms of allies serves to ensure security and strategic autonomy, while also expanding Türkiye’s influence as a regional power. Other than maintaining ties with both NATO and Russia, Erdoğan has also looked to other potential partners. In the past year, he has sought to restore relations with Middle Eastern rivals, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Israel.

Ties with Israel allowed him to reassert dominance over east Mediterranean energy, in light of competition with Greece and Cyprus over the EastMed pipeline, while cooperation with UAE and Saudi Arabia attracted beneficial investments. In September, we also saw Erdoğan state the intention for Türkiye to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which includes strategic partners such as India, China and Russia. By improving relations with SCO members, Erdogan can strengthen his position vis-à-vis NATO, as Türkiye would be the first NATO member to join. 

By supplying Turkish drones to Ukraine, Erdoğan is increasing Türkiye’s military influence and capabilities internationally. Sales of weapons and drones have been a recurrent tool used by him to boost the Turkish defense industry, build relationships with other countries, and further his aspirations of global influence. 

Finally, Erdoğan has been using his foreign policy to distract from the deteriorating economy. High inflation, which rose above 80% in August, and the general economic crisis are the main cause of unpopularity for AKP. Successful foreign policy can increase support in the short term, by attracting nationalistic votes, as well as by gaining investments to uplift the economy. Successful foreign policy can also serve to distract from other undemocratic means of holding onto power. In a more aggressive attempt to reinforce his grip on power, last month he passed a new law that enables the government to arrest journalists who spread ‘disinformation’ about Türkiye’s security. 

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Erdoğan will continue to strategically use his regional role to his advantage, while exposing NATO’s failure to uphold its values.

The events of the past months allowed Erdoğan to make a greater role for Türkiye and himself in the international world order, and he has managed to attain quite a lot in his negotiating stance. He will continue to benefit from playing the disruptive member in NATO, and, while doing so, expose the alliance’s weakness. NATO remains in the difficult position where it can either placate Erdoğan by giving in to some of his requests, or take a more repressive stance, but, in both scenarios, risks to embolden him.

Putin and Erdoğan will also both continue to benefit from their friendship, united by their common interest to challenge NATO’s role in international affairs. However, Erdoğan’s increasing regional power is, at least for now, unlikely to translate into international affairs beyond the Russia-Ukraine conflict, the East Mediterranean and Europe. NATO should be concerned about losing legitimacy while failing to uphold its values when one member does not align with the rest of the bloc. Even though the alliance commits to defending democracy and human rights, it did not intervene to stop democratic backsliding in Türkiye, and it quickly agreed to surrender 70 political prisoners to Erdoğan’s justice system when trying to obtain Sweden and Finland’s accession.

NATO also overlooked the risk of a military intervention against PKK bases at Türkiye’s border with Syria, especially now that Erdoğan hopes Russia is preoccupied with Ukraine and could leave a power vacuum. Maybe NATO hopes that, given how much Erdoğan benefits from the current situation, he will not act in a manner that could result in losing his recently acquired position of power.