Erdogan seeks to cash in on Russia-US clash over Ukraine

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will try to leverage his strategic position in NATO and his relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin when he visits Kiev on Thursday in a bid to avert war in Ukraine.

The veteran Turkish leader hopes mediation between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky can avert a Russian offensive that Washington says could begin in mid-February.

His high-profile efforts — met with caution in Moscow — carry high stakes and potentially rich rewards.

Analysts say a serious conflict in Ukraine could upend Turkey’s economy and jeopardize Erdogan’s chances of extending his rule into a third decade in elections due by mid-2023.

It could also force Ankara to choose sides between Putin – a leader who holds several economic and military advantages over Turkey – and traditional Western allies who have grown impatient with Erdogan’s rule.

Kiev’s acquisition of battle-tested Turkish drones is of particular concern for Russian-backed separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine and for the Kremlin.

But analysts believe that successfully avoiding a Russian invasion could underscore Turkey’s importance to the Western defense alliance and warm Erdogan’s cold relationship with US President Joe Biden.

“This is an opportunity for Turkey to elevate its status and step out of the niche, metaphorically speaking, of NATO,” Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations told AFP.

“Ankara will also use this as an opportunity to improve ties with Washington,” she added.

“Erdogan has developed this unique personal relationship with Putin that is both competitive and consensual, allowing them to support different parties in Libya, the Caucasus and Syria.”

– ‘Keep your word’ –

Erdogan’s evolving relationship with Putin has been one of the defining features of diplomacy in southeastern Europe and the Middle East.

Their relationship imploded after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in 2015.

They improved markedly after Putin became the first head of state to call Erdogan the night he survived a Turkish coup attempt in 2016.

Most Western leaders waited days before publicly backing Erdogan – the indecision that analysts say drove Turkey closer to Russia in subsequent years.

This link has withstood repeated testing ever since.

Their support for opposing camps in Syria and Libya did not prevent Turkey in 2019 from acquiring a Russian missile defense system at the heart of current tensions with Washington.

Putin also appeared to take into account Turkey’s groundbreaking supply of drones to Azerbaijan during its 2020 war with Moscow-backed ethnic Armenians in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.

“He is a person who keeps his word – a real man,” Putin said of Erdogan weeks after the end of the Karabakh conflict.

Abdurrahman Babacan, a researcher at Medipol University in Istanbul, said Erdogan and Putin share what “most leaders lack in their bilateral relations: timely intervention and playing their cards face up.”

– ‘Against the Bayraktars’ –

Ukraine is one of the leaders’ sticking points.

Erdogan strongly opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 due to the historical presence of ethnically Turkish Tatars on the peninsula.

He supported NATO’s ambitions in Kiev and approved Ukraine’s acquisition of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drones.

Ukraine’s broadcast of grainy footage of a TB2 destroying a separatist military target prompted Putin to raise the issue during a December 2021 call with Erdogan.

Eastern separatist leader Denis Pushilin cited drones as the main reason Russia should start openly arming Ukrainian rebel fighters.

“First and foremost we have to counter the Bayraktars,” Pushilin said.

Military analysts downplay the importance of drones in the event of total war.

“Yes, in an asymmetric fight between the Ukrainian army and the Donbass forces, a few TB2s can tip the balance of forces,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told AFP.

“However, in the event of an invasion by Russia, TB2 will not matter.”

– ‘All about Erdogan’ –

Most analysts doubt that Erdogan will openly confront Putin over Ukraine.

“If Turkey escalates, Russia may react in the same way – pressure (against Turkish soldiers and their proxies) in Syria, economic sanctions,” said Dimitar Bechev, a researcher at the University of Oxford.

“Given its weakness, the Turkish economy cannot afford a boycott by Russian tourists,” added Anthony Skinner, a veteran Turkey watcher.

Soner Cagaptay, a fellow at the Washington Institute, said Erdogan’s immediate concern was to keep the economy strong enough to give his falling approval numbers a chance to recover ahead of the next election.

“Turkey is Erdogan right now, and Erdogan wants to win the elections in 2023,” Cagaptay said.

Analysts said that made Erdogan’s mediation efforts all the more important.

“Russian (military) actions will exacerbate Turkish economic weakness, such as the rising cost of oil,” Stein said. “It won’t be pleasant.”

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