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Thriving in the middle Turkey finds itself caught in between Russia and the EU. That's not such a bad place to be.
The war in Ukraine has led Europe and the U.S. to launch an unprecedented economic blockade against Russia, deepening the rift between the putative “East” and “West” and seemingly giving rise to the return of a bipolar geopolitical world. But there is at least one regional power with significant experience balancing East and West: Turkey. The republic immediately condemned Russia's aggression against Ukraine, but has also refused to participate in sanctions against Russia. Meduza took a closer look at how Turkey has been trying to engage in economic and traditional diplomacy, overcome its own domestic political crisis, and reduce its dependence on Russia.
The economic front
Oil and Gas
The architecture of the current relationship between Russian and Turkey first began to take shape in the late Soviet period, though the relationship is often described in terms of the “friendship” between Putin and Erdogan. In 2019, the Russian embassy in Turkey even did its own version of the "10-Year Challenge," posting a photo of the two leaders together in 2009 alongside one of them in 2019. The USSR and Turkey signed the first agreement for Turkey to import Soviet gas, slated to last for 25 years, in 1984. The contract was finalized in 1986, and Soviet (and later Russian) gas began to flow to Turkey through the Trans-Balkan gas pipeline in 1988. Use of the pipeline continued until 2020, when TurkStream opened.
In 1997, during then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s visit to Turkey, the two countries signed an agreement to build the Blue Stream pipeline, a joint project of the Turkish company Botas, Gazprom, and the Italian Eni, which in March 2020 announced its intention to sell its 50% stake in Blue Stream. The pipeline was laid along the floor of the Black Sea, linking the Russian Black Sea coast to the Asian part of Turkey, and began operating in 2003. During its first 15 years of operation, the pipeline delivered more than 158 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia to Turkey; in 2021, it delivered 15.98 billion cubic meters. On January 8, 2020, another major gas pipeline opened: TurkStream, which was built to bypass Ukraine.
In 2019, more than 50% of Turkish imported gas came from Russia. By 2021, it was down to 45%, and the Turkish government plans to continue reducing this figure systematically. Other major gas exporters to Russia include Azerbaijan, Algeria, Nigeria, Qatar, and Iran, but Russia still surpasses all other countries on the list by a wide margin.
As for Turkish oil imports, Russia ranks second, after Iraq, and provides 17% of Turkey’s supply (and up to 40% of its gasoline supply). Alparslan Bayraktar, Turkey’s Deputy Energy Minister, has already expressed concern that sanctions against Russia will cause the economic situation in the entire Middle East to worsen, and that finding a replacement for Russian oil won't be easy (nor will it happen quickly).
Nonetheless, as expert at the Financial University and the Foundation for National Energy Security Igor Yushkov noted, in the meantime Turkey continues to buy gas from Russia — and at a great price. “So far, the imposed sanctions have not restricted trade between Russia and Turkey in any way. For Turkey, Russian supplies are now some of the most cost-effective, because the price of gas is tied to the price of oil. It works out so that if Turkey can buy gas on the spot markets — the very same LNG [Note: liquified natural gas] [that Russian is selling] — for more than $1,000 per 1,000 cubic meters, then Russian gas costs less than 1,000, more like $800 or $900 per 1,000 cubic meters. So Turkey makes sure to choose gas that's under contract with Gazprom. There are no restrictions in this regard — buying gas, oil, and coal from Russia is not forbidden. The question is how Turkey will pay for the gas, but I don’t think they'll have any particular problems there, either. The country has not suffered in this respect.” On the contrary, he believes that Turkey benefits from preserving its contacts with Russia and not imposing sanctions — for example, now some Western goods in Russia will have to be replaced with Turkish-made goods.
Of all the countries that have continued to cooperate with Russia — the most notable of which are China and India — Turkey has the undeniable advantage of geography. It's not just a metaphorical bridge between Russia and Europe, it's a literal one. In Igor Yushkov's reckoning, “Turkey will become a transport hub, and possibly a reloading point for parallel imports to Russia. In other words, a certain number of goods will go through Turkey, and merchants will turn a blind eye to where they end up. Turkey will then be happy to resell all of it.”
Whether this will also apply to the resale of Russian energy resources to Europe ultimately comes down to the capacity of the Turkish gas transmission system. "The second TurkStream line goes from Turkey to Europe, and its capacity is 15.75 billion cubic meters [Note: 175 billion cubic meters if you also count Turkey]. There's also the TransBalkan gas pipeline from Turkey to Bulgaria, Romania, and Ukraine, but again, it doesn't have the capacity to power all of Europe. If a ban is imposed on Russian oil imports, then a certain quantity can still go through Turkey. But Russia wouldn't be interested in this, because if sanctions are imposed against Russian hydrocarbons, then Russia will want to 'dry up' the market — that is, to create a deficit in order to force Europe to the negotiating table.”
Against the backdrop of the need to find alternative oil and gas sources, Turkish leaders have discussed the possibility of constructing a gas pipeline from Turkey to Israel, two countries that are traditionally not very close. However, the United States, represented by Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland, has made its skepticism about the project clear: “We don’t need to wait for 10 years and spend billions of dollars on this stuff. Ten years from now, we don’t want a pipeline. Ten years from now we want to be green.”
There is one more project, a gas pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan — but its prospects are even cloudier. First of all, there are currently no investors willing to underwrite it. Secondly, the situation in Kurdistan is very unstable; any economic activity in the region comes with massive risks. “Kurdistan can at least partially replace some of the missing gas supplies in Europe, on the condition that our colleagues in Baghdad are willing to cooperate with us,” said Masrour Barzani, the Prime Minister of Iraqi Kurdistan.
It's also the case that Iran, which does not want to lose its place on the gas exports market, is sure to oppose a potential partnership between Turkey and Israel. Several experts have connected the rocket strike on Kurdistan’s capital, Erbil, which took place on March 13, 2022 and for which the IRGC (Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) has claimed responsibility, directly to this issue, claiming Iran wanted to use the strike to send Turkey and its allies a message.
Another key strategic Russian-Turkish joint project, which Erdogan intends to complete at all costs, is the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, which is ultimately slated to supply up to 10% of Turkey’s energy consumption. The cost of the project is estimated at $20 billion. “The construction of Akkuyu, which should open by 2023 [Note: more accurately, two of its four reactors should open], was one of Erdogan’s key electoral promises,” said Ekaterina Chulkovskaia, a journalist, expert on Turkey, and writer at Al-Monitor.
Turkey will hold parliamentary elections in 2023, and the position of the AKP — the Justice and Development Party, of which Erdogan is the leader — has been seriously weakened by hyperinflation that intensified in late 2021 and has continued into 2022. Judging by the latest press releases on the nuclear plant’s website, construction continues on key structures. Meduza asked Akkuyu Nuclear whether the sanctions imposed on Russia would have any effect on completing the plant's construction, but at the time of publication, they hadn't responded
Agriculture is another major aspect of Russia and Turkey's trade. In 2021, Turkey bought 64.6% of its imported grain from Russia and 13.4% from Ukraine. In early March 2022, Turkey announced that due to increasing grain prices it would cut its imports sharply — by 30%. Clearly the dramatic rise in food prices is not only dangerous for Turkey, but will have a destabilizing effect on every country in the Middle East. One of the key factors in the beginning of 2011’s Arab Spring was a sharp increase in wheat and bread prices.
Will Russia offer Turkey any privileges under these new conditions? Nikolai Dunaev, Vice President of Opora Rossii ("Russia's Support"), an association of small and mid-sized businesses, doesn't believe so; on the contrary, he said, trade will continue in the usual format. “As I see it, the Turks have firmly taken up the position of a trade transit hub between two warring ecumenes. Of course, status as a transit country in trade will significantly improve Turkey’s economic position in the medium term. The Turks will use this position to increase their processing volume. For example, while we've started supplying refined oil to southern European countries, it’s possible that they’ll soon refuse it. If that happens, we can supply unrefined oil to the Turks, and they'll refine it and send it on to Europe,” Dunaev said.
He noted that the Turkish side is already working on financial infrastructure for continued smooth trade with Russia: “The Turks are now building a channel for payments in rubles between [the countries'] central banks that will be operational by autumn 2022. Within the next two years, they'll also start accepting the 'Mir' payment card everywhere, just like UnionPay. I don’t foresee country quotas [for food sales] in the near future. Russia will instead discuss transferring payments to rubles. The Turks will pay in rubles and sell to those who can’t. Standard practice.”
Tourism is another major source of income for Turkey: tourists brought in $25 billion in 2021. Last year, about 4.5 million Russians (and 2 million Ukrainians) visited Turkey. At the moment, it's unclear how declining Russian purchasing power, which will inevitably follow the current sanctions, will affect the 2022 tourist season, but Turkey remains one of Russians' most affordable options for overseas vacations, as well as for real estate investments. Russians who have decided to shelter their savings in Turkish real estate have already driven up local housing prices.
Economics forms the basis of the active, if unstable, relationship between Russia and Turkey, but it's not the only aspect. As politicians, Erdogan and Putin have quite a bit in common — their rhetoric is based largely on antiglobalization and resentment. Just like Vladimir Putin, who constantly complains that the West “broke its promises,” did not allow Russia into the European family of nations, and “forced” Russia to invade Ukraine, Erdogan constantly reminds European politicians that Turkey has never been accepted into the EU — despite the fact that the integration process has already begun and Turkey has taken many of the initial steps towards joining.
Turkey has long had to balance its anti-Western foreign policy and close military cooperation with European countries and the US. The republic has been a NATO member since 1952 and has the largest army in the alliance after the US. At the same time, Turkey has condemned America's “imperial ambitions,” actively cooperated with Russia, and even bought Russian arms, despite sanctions that the US imposed in response to such deals: in 2017, Turkey signed a contract with Russia for $2.5 billion for an S-400 air defense system after the US refused to sell them Patriot air defense systems. Even now, as a full-scale war is ongoing in Ukraine, Mevlut Cavusoglu, Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, hasn't denied the possibility that Turkey might continue to buy arms from Russia. “My priority is the safety of my country,” Cavusoglu said at a forum in Qatar in March 2022.
On April 3, 2022 Russian Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov said that “Turkey is the most sovereign of all of the NATO member states,” and that “Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a great and powerful leader.” Similar rhetoric has been used in Turkey about Putin for many years. “The majority [of Turkey’s population] supports Ukraine and understands that it needs help. But there's also 20-30% of the population that support Putin and generally views the war in Ukraine as a confrontation between Russia and NATO,” Chulkovskaia said. “In Turkey, only 20% of the population approves of NATO’s activities — that's a very small figure for a country that’s a member of the alliance. Those numbers are more typical of countries like Russia and Serbia. One of the reasons [for poll results like these] is propaganda. Turkey has very few independent information sources, and all the major mass media are controlled by businessmen with ties to the ruling party [the Justice and Development Party],” she added.
Two countries’ internal political processes have many other similarities as well. Just like in Russia, there's an ongoing systematic purge in Turkey of opposition figures (who are also always “financed by the US” and often turn out to be “drug addicts") and the independent press (which has faced pressure from the state since the 2010s). The media purge reached a fever pitch after the failed coup d’état on July 16, 2016, which Erdogan blamed on a “parallel government” financed by Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious figure living in Pennsylvania. For its part, Russia then condemned the organizers [of the coup] and supported the “legitimate regime of Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” Like Putin, Erdogan has amended the constitution and “zeroed out” presidential term limits — a year ahead, in fact, of his Russian colleague.
According to Soner Cagaptay, the director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who is Turkish-American, “Erdogan and Putin have a stormy political bromance. Erdogan likes Putin’s style. Erdogan would like, just like Putin, to completely ignore the opinions of civil society in his own country.”
Turkey’s position on Ukraine's territorial integrity has always been unequivocal. In 2014, Turkey recognized neither the referendum on the status of Crimea nor the peninsula’s annexation by Russia. Religious factors play a prominent role in Turkish politics, and about 300,000 Crimean Tatars, who are Muslims, live in Crimea. Russia systematically violates the rights of Crimean Tatars, and Turkey has repeatedly condemned these actions. The country has recently repeated its condemnation of the violations, underscoring that its position has never changed.
As early as 2020, Turkey signed a military cooperation agreement with Ukraine. On January 27, 2022, Erdogan said that a Russian attack on Ukraine would be a mistake, and called both sides to have a dialogue and discuss security issues.
Shortly before the start of the war, on February 3, 2022, the two countries signed another agreement on the supply (and possible joint production) of military drones—the same unmanned Bayraktar drones that now appear frequently in military reports. This isn't the first time Turkish drones have destroyed Russian equipment: they've proven their effectiveness in Libya, Syria, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Also on February 3, 2022 Kyiv and Ankara signed an agreement on a free trade zone, since Ukraine is an important trading partner of Turkey — trade volume with Ukraine was valued at $7.4 billion in 2021. Another illuminating detail: as part of Erdogan’s “pre-war” visit to Kyiv, there was a parade of Ukrainian troops at which the Turkish president shouted “Slava Ukrainie! [Glory to Ukraine!]”
On February 24, 2022, the day Russian troops invaded Ukrainian territory, Turkey condemned Russia’s military aggression and stressed that Russia’s actions were a flagrant violation of international law. Nonetheless, it's the Istanbul negotiation format that has shown itself to be the most effective. Even after April 3, 2022, when news broke of Russian atrocities in Bucha, Turkish Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called for Russian-Ukrainian talks to continue, though he noted that recent events had made them more difficult. Turkish diplomacy calls for both sides to be flexible. As Cavusoglu recently put it, “Ukraine does not have the opportunity to choose between east and west. The countries of our region should be able to balance.”
There is a Turkish expression, “Hem ziyaret, hem ticaret,” which is usually translated as “to kill two birds with one stone,” but which literally means “both visit and trade.” Turkey seems to have made this principle a core tenet of its foreign policy — and that seems to be seriously strengthening its status as a regional leader.
Translation by Emily Laskin
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