Erdogan seeks reward from US-Russia clash over Ukraine
Erdogan– The wise Turkish leader is hoping that mediation between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky can avoid a Russian attack, which Washington predicts will begin in mid-February. His high-profile initiatives, which have been viewed with skepticism in Moscow, are fraught with high stakes and possibly lucrative rewards.
Analysts worry that a major conflict in Ukraine might destabilize Turkey’s economy and jeopardize Erdogan’s hopes of extending his leadership into a third decade in mid-2020 elections. It might also compel Ankara to choose sides between Putin, who wields a number of economic and military trump cards over Turkey, and traditional Western friends who are fed up with Erdogan’s reign. Russian-backed separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, as well as the Kremlin, are concerned about Kyiv’s procurement of battle-tested Turkish drones.
However, observers believe that preventing a Russian invasion will showcase Turkey’s importance to the Western defense alliance, as well as improve Erdogan’s icy relations with US President Joe Biden. Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations told AFP, “This is a chance for Turkey to enhance its reputation and emerge out of the doghouse, metaphorically speaking, in NATO.” “Ankara will also take advantage of this to strengthen ties with Washington,” she continued. “Erdogan and Putin have formed a unique personal connection that is both competitive and cooperative, allowing them to support opposing groups in Libya, the Caucasus, and Syria.” ‘Follows through on his promises’
One of the distinguishing elements of diplomacy in southeastern Europe and the Middle East has been Erdogan’s growing relationship with Putin. After Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in 2015, their relationship deteriorated. They significantly improved when Putin became the first head of state to phone Erdogan on the night he survived a failed coup attempt in Turkey in 2016. Most Western officials waited several days before formally endorsing Erdogan, a delay that some believe has moved Turkey closer to Russia in the years thereafter.
Since then, this friendship has weathered the test of time. Turkey acquired a Russian missile defense system in 2019, despite their support for opposite factions in Syria and Libya, which is at the center of current tensions with Washington. Putin also sounded unconcerned about Turkey’s game-changing transfer of drones to Azerbaijan in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020. “This is a man who keeps his promise,” Putin observed of Erdogan a few weeks after the battle in Karabakh ended.
According to Abdurrahman Babacan of Istanbul Medipol University, Erdogan and Putin have something “most leaders don’t have in their bilateral relations: timely involvement and playing their cards face up.” Ukraine is one of the leaders’ issues of contention in ‘Counter the Bayraktars.’ Erdogan spoke out against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, citing the peninsula’s historical presence of ethnically Turkic Tatars.
He has endorsed Kyiv’s NATO ambitions and authorized Ukraine’s purchase of Bayraktar TB2 attack drones from Turkey. The publication of shaky footage of a TB2 bombing a rebel military target in Ukraine prompted Putin to address the subject with Erdogan during a phone call in December 2021. The major reason, according to eastern separatist leader Denis Pushilin, for Russia to publicly arm Ukraine’s rebel troops is because of the drones. “First and foremost, we must defeat the Bayraktars,” remarked Pushilin.
In the event of all-out conflict, military analysts downplay the usefulness of drones. “Yes, in an asymmetric conflict pitting the Ukrainian army against rebels in the Donbass, a few TB2s can tip the balance of forces,” Middle East Program Director Aaron Stein of the Foreign Policy Research Institute told AFP. “However, in the event that Russia invades, the TB2 will be irrelevant.”
‘It’s all about Erdogan,’ says the title.
Most observers believe Erdogan would avoid direct confrontation with Putin over Ukraine. “If Turkey escalates, Russia can retaliate with pressure (on Turkish soldiers and proxies in Syria) and economic penalties,” said Dimitar Bechev of Oxford University. “Given its vulnerability, the Turkish economy can ill sustain a boycott by Russian visitors,” said Anthony Skinner, a seasoned Turkey analyst.
Erdogan’s immediate concern, according to Washington Institute scholar Soner Cagaptay, is to maintain the economy robust enough to allow his plummeting support ratings to improve before the next election. “Right now, Turkey is all about Erdogan, and Erdogan’s goal is to win the election in 2023,” Cagaptay stated. According to analysts, this increased the importance of Erdogan’s mediation efforts. “Russian (military) activities, such as raising the cost of oil, would deepen Turkish economic fragility,” Stein warned. “This isn’t going to be fun.”