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Russia-Ukraine war may have new casualty

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Picture: Sergei Karpukhin/REUTERS – Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a meeting in St Petersburg, Russia, on August 9, 2016. Putin’s close relations with the Turkish leader have given Russia a back door on Western sanctions, say the writers.

By Robyn Dixon, Kareem Fahim and David L Stern

As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan lifted a veto this week on Sweden joining Nato, Russian hardliners, stung by a flurry of recent Turkish gestures of support for Ukraine, demanded that Türkiye be designated an “unfriendly” country. The pro-Western moves by Türkiye, including Erdogan’s warm welcome of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Istanbul on Friday, led to speculation that Türkiye was pivoting to restore warmer relations with Europe and the US after several years of close co-operation with Moscow.

In Russia, where President Vladimir Putin’s good relationship with Erdogan is valuable geopolitical currency, the sense that Erdogan may be flipping to a closer, more co-operative relationship with Western leaders seemed to provoke almost as much anxiety as the idea of Sweden joining Nato, raising questions about whether Russia’s war has undermined one of Moscow’s most valued relationships.

The Kremlin’s criticism of Ankara was cautious, but Russian legislators and hardline nationalists bitterly denounced Erdogan, while Russia’s mainstream press questioned whether the Turkish leader is making a lasting, fundamental pivot away from Russia. A marked change in Erdogan’s tone was evident during Zelenskyy’s weekend visit to Türkiye – his first since the Russian invasion – when the Turkish leader hailed the friendship between the two nations, expressed support for Ukraine’s independence and said it deserved Nato membership.

Days later, his move to unblock Sweden’s entry to Nato was a major strategic blow to Moscow, which has made deterring Nato from accepting new members a centrepiece of its security policy since the 1990s. Putin’s close relations with the Turkish leader have given Russia a back door on Western sanctions, while the Kremlin’s propaganda machine extols the Russian president as a strong global leader with powerful friends.

The two share a desire to challenge Western dominance, a position central to Putin’s professed self-image as a leader waging war on Ukraine to save the world from US hegemony and greedy Western elites. As Putin faced his greatest challenge during last month’s Wagner mercenary rebellion, Erdogan called him to express his “full support”, according to the Kremlin. Putin moved quickly to congratulate Erdogan after his May election win, calling him a “dear friend”.

But Erdogan’s move over the weekend to free a group of Ukrainian Azov Brigade commanders and others who led the defence of Mariupol and are designated “terrorists” by Moscow was seen as a betrayal. Russian outrage was amplified by the other signs of Turkish support for Ukraine. Zelenskyy and Erdogan signed a deal on co-operation in strategic industries, including drones, at the meeting, according to the Ukrainian presidential office, after confirmation last week that construction of a Bayraktar drone plant in Ukraine had begun. In Moscow, all this news rankled.

“Türkiye is gradually and steadily continuing to turn from a neutral country into an unfriendly one,” said Viktor Bondarev, chairperson of the committee on defence and security in the federation council, or upper house of parliament, complaining of Türkiye’s recent moves in support of Ukraine.

Russian analyst Sergei Markov said that Erdogan’s decision to hand over the leaders of the Azov Brigade to Zelenskyy “sent shock waves through Russia” because Moscow considered the regiment to be “a symbol of Ukrainian Neo-Nazism and war crimes against the Russian population”. Pragmatic relations between Moscow and Ankara would continue, “but without trust between the leaders,” he said. The Kremlin’s irritation about the prisoner release was its sharpest public reaction, especially after regiment commander Denys Prokopenko said they would return to the fight.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov complained of “a violation” of the prisoner swap deal, and Russia demanded explanations in a call between the Russian and Turkish foreign ministers on Sunday.

But potentially more worrying for Moscow was a comment last week by Ukrainian general staff spokesperson Oleksiy Gromov that Ukraine was expecting to get Turkish T-155 Firtina self-propelled howitzers. Türkiye has not confirmed the transfer. If Türkiye gives Ukraine the T-155 Firtina, “this would mean that a qualitative change has taken place in Türkiye’s policy regarding the Russian-Ukrainian conflict”, according to an editorial in the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta.

Peskov publicly downplayed Moscow’s dismay that Türkiye opened the gate to Sweden joining Nato, saying that Moscow understood Türkiye’s Nato obligations. “This has never been a secret for us. We have never worn rose-coloured glasses in this respect,” Peskov said Tuesday.

He said Russia would continue to pursue common interests important to both countries. Türkiye and Russia have been on opposite sides in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts, but relations between the two leaders had remained surprisingly close, even as Moscow’s relations with Nato plummeted.

The importance of these ties to both sides is evidenced by statistics on Turkish exports to Russia, which have soared since the invasion of Ukraine, from $2.6 billion in the first half of last year to $4.9bn in the same period this year, while Turkish imports of Russian oil also grew sharply in 2022 – an economic windfall thanks to Türkiye’s refusal to join Western sanctions against Russia.

At the heart of Erdogan’s calculations, according to analysts, is ameliorating Türkiye’s economic crisis of high inflation, a plunging lira and exports to other countries in decline. Despite the increased trade with Russia, Türkiye’s overall exports fell by 10.5% to $20.9bn in June, compared with June of last year, according to Turkish trade figures. Before the recent elections in Türkiye, Erdogan won help from Moscow to contend with an unusually strong opposition challenge when Russian state-owned gas company Gazprom deferred a $600 million gas payment until 2024.

But afterwards, he adopted a number of Turkish opposition campaign pledges as his own, including the pursuit of better relations with the West. On Monday, he called for the European Union to “open the way” for Türkiye to join after its application stalled in 2019.

Evren Balta, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Ozyegin University, said it was “too early to say whether Türkiye is turning its face to the West right now”, rather than adapting to changed circumstances, including the need to attract investment as the country struggles through an economic crisis. Now, “the needs of Turkish foreign policy and the structural needs of the Turkish economy have changed”, Balta said, citing Türkiye’s desire to attract Western investment.

Türkiye had been “normalising” its foreign policy for several years, with outreach to adversaries such as Greece, Israel and Persian Gulf states, she said. Türkiye has also been seeking to conclude a $20bn deal for F-16 fighter jets with the US, which is seen as a key motive in Erdogan’s move to drop the veto on Sweden joining Nato.

Timur Kuran, an economist and political scientist at Duke University, said he saw Erdogan’s “dizzying moves to return Türkiye to the Western fold” as potentially signalling a break with Russia. “This pivot may be tactical; his visceral hostility to the West is well known,” Kuran tweeted, but he added that the pivot could prove lasting if it brought more Western investment. In Moscow, there is a conviction that Erdogan’s desire to stand up against Western global dominance will always be a trump card for Russia.

Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, played on Turkish resentment of what it sees as Western arrogance with a dig at Türkiye’s long, unsuccessful mission to join the EU. In Europe, “no one wants to see Türkiye in Europe”, he said on Tuesday, asked about Moscow’s fears that Türkiye may be pivoting to the West. “Our Turkish partners should have no illusions about that.”

The Kremlin values its ties with Erdogan, but Russian nationalists, an unpredictable and increasingly influential political grouping, have soured on him.

Russian state television journalist and military blogger Andrey Medvedev said it was no surprise that Erdogan had conned Russia. “What is he, our ally? A friend? No, and he has never been. Russia has no allies. No friends, either. There are tactical partners. And those, in general, pursue their own goals. So there’s little hope in them.”

Dixon reported from Riga, Latvia; Fahim reported from Istanbul; and Stern reported from Kyiv.

This article was first published in The Washington Post