In July of this year, less than 90 days after Turkiye’s recent Presidential elections, the Turkish Government recently took three important steps that were welcomed by Ankara’s allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) but clearly damaged Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan’s relationship his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. First, on the eve of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Erdogan hosted Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelinskyy in Türkiye and publicly announced his country’s support for Ukraine’s NATO membership.
Also, at the end of Zelenskyy’s visit, Erdogan handed his Ukrainian guest a major public relations victory by turning over a group of Ukrainian Prisoners of War (PoW) that had been placed under Turkish custody by the Russians in 2022 as part of a prisoner exchange deal brokered by Ankara, allowing Zelenskyy to return to Kyiv and deliver these Ukrainian heroes back to their families at an important time in Ukraine’s struggle with Russia.
Finally, on the eve of the NATO summit, Erdogan announced his readiness to submit Sweden’s NATO membership bid to the Turkish Parliament for a vote, potentially removing a significant hurdle in Sweden’s membership bid and handing U.S. President Joseph Biden and the NATO leadership an important victory during the summit.
While Erdogan’s actions were praised in Washington, Brussels, and Kyiv, there were seen as negative developments for the Kremlin. Soon after Zelenskyy flew home with the released POWs, Russian Presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov complained that Ankara had violated the agreement that placed the POWs in Turkish custody. And until the Turkish Parliament votes to approve Sweden’s accession into NATO membership, Washington and Ankara’s other allies should be very alert to the fact that Putin will look for all opportunities to reverse Erdogan’s decision to remove his opposition to the Swedish membership.
Ankara’s decisions indicated that the Turkish President was less worried about upsetting Russian President Vladimir Putin than he had been in the past. While Erdogan and his Foreign Policy team almost certainly understood that by taking steps that would anger Putin, and put him at risk Erdogan’s earlier efforts to be viewed by the Russians as a neutral party in the Russian – Ukrainian conflict, The Turkish President felt that taking a positive step in the direction of the West was now more important than maintaining Turkiye’s position as the “middle party” between Kyiv and Moscow. They also demonstrate that the influence of Turkiye’s “Eurasianists,” those Turks in favor of closer ties with Russia at the expense of Ankara’s relationship with the U.S. and NATO, has decreased following Turkiye’s recent elections, which is a good sign for Washington.
While President Erdogan has taken a step closer to his NATO partners, it would be a mistake for Washington or Brussels to expect Erdogan to completely cut his ties with the Russians. Since the start of Russia’s expanded aggression against Ukraine in the winter of 2022, Erdogan has worked hard to position himself as the central mediator between Kyiv and Moscow. He will almost certainly seek to maintain some balance in his relationships with both countries. While Erdogan sees the importance of improving his relationships with key Western partners and attracting much-needed investment in the Turkish economy, he must live with the fact that until Ankara can develop alternative sources of energy resources to meet Turkish demand, his country will remain dependent on Russian energy exports.
He must also need to protect the important revenue for his economy generated by Russian tourism to Turkiye and protect Turkiye’s access to the Russian market, which is also an important part of the Turkish economy. Erdogan surely understands that while Russians cannot help Erdogan save the Turkish economy, the Russians can create unneeded economic problems for the Turks, which is something they have frequently done in the past to punish and pressure Ankara.
Erdogan and his National Security team also continue to understand the potential threats Russia presents to Turkish internal stability, given Russia’s continued military presence and influence in Syria, the South Caucasus, and the Black Sea region. Turkiye’s NATO allies should remember that Ankara has paid a direct cost for pursuing foreign policy decisions that upset the Kremlin in the past and be sensitive to this reality. For example, in April 2021, following Erdogan’s public expression of support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, declarations of Ankara’s recognition of Crimea’s legal status as part of Ukraine, and commitment to continue to work with Kyiv in the areas of defense cooperation, Moscow responded quickly by canceling tourist flights from Russia to Turkiye based on the Kremlin’s sudden concerns about COVID 19, harming Turkiye’s tourism sector and punishing the Turks for standing behind the Ukrainians.
Thus, while the Turks have taken several important steps in the direction of the West recently, they will no doubt continue to pursue some policies that anger or frustrate some of their NATO allies. It is unlikely that Turkiye will sign on to U.S. or European sanctions placed on Russia following its expanded invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Erdogan will also likely continue to maintain an active dialogue with Putin.
Western leaders should be careful to manage their expectations vis a vis Turkiye’s engagement with Russia and continue to remember that there are benefits to Erdogan’s working to maintain some relationship with Putin. The Turks previously played a key role in securing Moscow and Kyiv’s agreement to sign onto a critical grain deal in 2022. Erdogan has been the only leader of a NATO country who has convinced both parties to engage in negotiations.
Mr. Corn is an Adjunct Professor at the Institute of World Politics and 34-year veteran of the U.S. Intelligence and Foreign Affairs communities. Prof. Corn served for over 20 years abroad, including tours in Russia, Turkey, Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East. He also held senior leadership positions within the Intelligence Community in the U.S. and is the co-founder of the Strategic Advisory and Consulting Firm, Varyag, LLC.
He has a Master’s Degree in Russian Language and Literature from American University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Russian Studies from Hofstra University, and he is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Russian Institute. He speaks Russian and Turkish and has also studied and worked in the Arabic, Uzbek, German, French and Azeri languages during his career in Federal Service.