Exclusively for The Geopost: Janusz Bugajski
A recently re-elected President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now more confident in strengthening Turkey’s NATO credentials and reducing Ankara’s relations with Russia. Officials in Moscow are vehemently complaining that Turkey is turning from a “neutral state” into an “unfriendly country” following a series of “provocative decisions” by Erdogan.
Since Russia’s full-scale attack on Ukraine in February 2022, Erdoğan has engaged in a balancing act between the two states. On the one hand, he has condemned the invasion and supplied Ukraine with military equipment including a fleet of effective Bayraktar drones. On the other hand, he has avoided alienating Moscow by maintaining a dialogue with President Vladimir Putin and continuing to purchase sizeable volumes of gas and oil from Russia. That balance is now shifting. Several important steps on the eve of the NATO summit in Vilnius indicate that Turkey wants to play a more prominent security and leadership role in the Black Sea and in the trans-Atlantic Alliance.
Just before the Vilnius Summit and to everyone’s surprise, Erdoğan suddenly discarded his resistance to Sweden joining NATO and expressed his willingness to swiftly move the ratification process through the Turkish parliament. This earned him praise and prominence at the Summit, having resisted Sweden’s accession for several months because of the country’s long-standing support for the rights of Kurds in Turkey. The Kremlin has been staunchly opposed to Sweden’s membership after Finland recently gained entry because this will essentially transform the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake.
Even more aggravating for Moscow, Erdoğan greeted President Volodymyr Zelensky in Ankara on July 8th as his “dear friend” and endorsed Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. He also strongly defended Ukraine’s independence and declared that Russia’s seizure of any Ukrainian territory contravened international law. Some officials in Moscow harbored hopes that because of Turkey’s frictions with Washington and Brussels, it would form a stronger alliance with Russia.
In a clear demonstration of disdain for the Kremlin, during Zelensky’s visit the Turkish authorities also released five commanders of Ukraine’s military. They had courageously defended the Avostal steel producing complex in Mariupol while facing months of bombardment by a much larger Russian force. After Russia’s seizure of Mariupol in May 2022 over 2,500 Ukrainian soldiers were taken into captivity. The five key commanders from among the 200 released fighters were sent to Turkey as part of a prisoner exchange deal brokered by Erdoğan. The agreement stipulated that they would not return to Ukraine until after the war.
Ankara brazenly discarded the exchange agreement to underscore its support for Ukraine, while Russian officials condemned the move as a “stab in the back” and an “insult to Russia.” Sergey Markov, a Kremlin adviser bemoaned that Russia was losing support even among former partners. He concluded that “violating agreements with Russia has become the norm” and mourned that few countries now fear Russia.
Ankara further angered Moscow by pushing for more substantial Ukrainian grain exports across the Black Sea. Russian forces have stolen millions of tons of grain from occupied southern Ukrainian territories and blocked Ukrainian shipments in order to strangle the Ukrainian economy. Turkey successfully unblocked some of these exports in short-term deals with Moscow. Both Erdoğan and Zelensky now want an extension of the grain export deal over longer timeframes – from every two months to two years – so that essential Ukrainian grain can help combat hunger in poorer nations.
There are two explanation for Erdoğan’s recent actions. First, he has calculated that at some point Ankara will be accepted as the mediator in a future peace deal between Kyiv and Moscow. Hence, he wants to gain the confidence of the Ukrainian government while reducing his ties with Moscow.
Alternatively, Erdoğan may have concluded that Ukraine will be fully victorious in its counter-offensive and will continue to be supported with substantial weapons and economic aid by the Western powers. Hence, he wants to be at the forefront as a guarantor of Black Sea security and position Ankara for gaining lucrative contracts during Ukraine’s economic reconstruction. Either way, Erdoğan seems convinced that Russia is a declining power and Turkey needs to play a much more prominent strategic role in Europe and Eurasia.
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His recent book is Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture. His forthcoming book is titled Pivotal Poland: Europe’s Rising Strategic Player.