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Happy to help How Turkey's President Erdogan has leveraged Russia’s war in Ukraine to punch above his weight

 Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Story by Anna Filippova. Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale.

On August 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his intention to facilitate a direct meeting between the Russian and Ukrainian presidents in order to “solve the crisis” in Ukraine. That may be a lofty goal, but it's no surprise that Erdoğan wants to take it on: Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine has made clear, among other things, Turkey’s ability to turn any crisis into an opportunity. Ankara's malleable foreign policy allows it to succeed as an intermediary in situations where other countries wouldn't. And with presidential and parliamentary elections coming up in Turkey in 2023, Erdoğan appears well-placed to maintain near-absolute power. But his strategy of seeking power through mediation long predates Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Meduza takes a look at how Turkey's "new sultan" has become one of Europe's most adroit leaders.

A flexible outsider

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was born in the working-class Istanbul neighborhood of Kasımpaşa. After attending a religious school, Erdoğan wanted to study political science at Ankara University — but found that the institution would only admit graduates of secular schools. At the time, the government limited the number of religious people allowed in the healthcare and civil service sectors — a legacy of reforms passed by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, intended to restrict Islam's influence on social and political life.

Later, as prime minister, Erdoğan would roll back these policies, which many religious Turks saw as a historic injustice. Before that, though, he hid his religious leanings for years in order to boost his electoral prospects. Early in his career, he and his Justice and Development (AK) party even declared their commitment to European values and professed a desire to join the EU.

When Erdoğan first came to power, Turkey was still reeling from its 2001 economic crisis and lacked the resources necessary to conduct an active foreign policy. But 2001 also saw the publication of the book Strategic Depth, which laid out the “neo-Ottoman” doctrine that would define Erdoğan and his party’s foreign policy in the years to come. At the core of this doctrine was the idea that Turkey should serve as an “arbiter” for its neighbors.

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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.

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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 book argued that “Turkey can no longer pursue a 'Cold War-style' foreign policy based on the postulate that the global balance of power is immutable. It must develop a new foreign policy strategy that allows it to respond quickly to changes in the international sphere.” Its author — Ahmet Davutoğlu — was Turkey’s foreign minister in 2009-2014 and the architect of Erdoğan’s foreign policy.

In 2016, the Turkish military made a violent attempt to overthrow Erdoğan's government. Given the four successful coup attempts in modern Turkish history, this one wasn't necessarily doomed to fail, but fail it did. Erdoğan responded with widespread purges of Turkey's military and public institutions, targeting people with Western education who espoused secular values.

One of the first leaders to call Erdoğan and express his support after the coup attempt was Vladimir Putin. He invited his Turkish counterpart to Russia — Erdoğan's first trip abroad after the incident. Unlike many Western politicians, Putin didn’t criticize Erdoğan for his post-insurrection crackdown. As political scientist Soner Cagaptay noted, it was no accident that Erdoğan was invited to St. Petersburg rather than Moscow. Putin received him in the Greek drawing room of the National Congress Palace (Constantine Palace) in Strelna. “It was like Putin was trying to say, ‘Look, we’re in the city of Catherine the Great, who fought against Turkey for many years, but I, Vladimir the Great, am ready to be friends,” said Cagaptay.

Erdoğan and NATO in Madrid

On June 28, 2022, after more than a month of Turkey preventing Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, the three countries finally signed a memorandum at the alliance's summit in Madrid. Sweden and Finland agreed not to provide support for groups Turkey considers “terrorist” organizations —such as the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party and Hizmet, a movement founded by Pennsylvania-based cleric Fethullah Gülen — and to take measures to outlaw the groups on their territory.

The U.S. Senate ratified Sweden and Finland’s accession into NATO on August 3. Turkey’s parliament, however, still hasn’t. Despite signing the memorandum in Madrid, Turkish leaders have continued to hint that their ratification will ultimately depend on how willing Sweden and Finland are to extradite Kurdish “terrorists” in practice.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg (far left), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez at the NATO summit in Madrid. June 29, 2022
Denis Doyle / Getty Images

At the same time, while the memorandum was ultimately non-binding, it did send an important signal that Turkey’s leaders share the other NATO members’ views regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. At that point, Turkey was trying to get out from under sanctions imposed against it by the West for its purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems. In the weeks before nominally agreeing to Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession, Erdoğan was likely trying to lobby the U.S. to sell more American F-16 fighter jets to the Turkish armed forces — not bowing to Vladimir Putin.

Turkey has repeatedly signaled its desire to return to the F-35 development program and to purchase American F-16 fighter jets in return for giving Sweden and Finland a “green light.” At the official level, the American politicians negotiating the deal deny that the issue of weapons supply and that of Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession are related. The U.S. Congress also has a powerful anti-Turkish lobby that has so far been able to block the F-16 deal. Still, the State Department recently said that selling Turkey F-16s would “serve NATO’s interests,” while Joe Biden reinforced the statement with an address to Congress. It’s quite possible that the U.S. will reconsider its position on the issue — especially if Turkey continues to find success as an arbiter between Russia and Ukraine.

A new chapter in the Turkey–Russia partnership

Since Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine, Turkey has made a greater effort than any other third-party country to work towards a diplomatic resolution. In the spring, it invited delegations from the two countries to Istanbul for negotiations. Later, it oversaw the signing of the agreement on grain exports from Ukraine. The deals — one for Russia and one for Ukraine — were signed in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace, with Turkey and the UN serving as guarantors.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan during a meeting at a health resort. Sochi, August 5, 2022.
Vyacheslav Prokofyev / TASS

Then, on August 5, Erdoğan flew to Sochi to meet with Putin. The meeting solidified Turkey’s status as Russia’s main partner in circumventing Western sanctions. Ankara agreed to pay for Russian gas in rubles as well as committing to move forward with the adoption of Russia’s electronic payment system, Mir. It's unclear whether Turkey will face “secondary” sanctions for helping Russia.

Russia needs Turkey. So does Europe.

In the first half of 2022, Russians bought more Turkish real estate than foreigners from any other counter. They’ve also continued vacationing in Turkey, though because of their reduced purchasing power, they were surpassed by German tourists this year. The new Turkish airline Southwind is adding flights to Russia this month. Another joint project between Russia and Turkey, the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, which should cover up to 10 percent of Turkey’s energy needs, was initially in jeopardy, but the Russian state energy company Rosatom found a way to send money abroad to finance the project for at least two years.

Turkey is one of Eurasia's main political mediators, and in addition to facilitating dialogue between Russia and other regional players, it’s also rapidly establishing relationships with other nearby states. Recently, Turkey has even started building ties with its traditional adversaries: the border between Turkey and Armenia was recently opened for the first time in a decade, despite the fact that Turkey has supported Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and Turkish officials are also working to restore diplomatic relations with Israel.

A Turkish army patrol in a newly fortified section of the Iranian-Turkish border. September 27, 2021
Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Another important role Turkey serves for Europe is as a buffer for refugees from the Middle East. In March 2016, Turkey and the EU signed a “cooperation agreement” requiring Turkey to take measures to prevent Syrian refugees from illegally entering Europe. In return, Turkey was to receive 6 billion euros ($5.98 billion) from the EU (though Turkish officials claim the country has only received 4 billion, or $3.98 billion). There are currently four million Syrian refugees in Turkey, while the rest of Europe contains about one million.

On August 16, 2022, Turkey launched a planned military operation in Syria (in coordination with Russia and Iran). Its main goal is to create a 30-kilometer (19-mile) “safe zone” in the city of Idlib.

Notably, just days earlier, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu called on the Syrian opposition to “come to terms” with Assad’s supporters “in the name of peace.” This marked an unprecedented shift in Turkey’s rhetoric surrounding the Syrian conflict, in which Turkey and Russia have long been on opposing sides. It’s possible that it’s simply a diplomatic gesture necessary for Turkey to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey to Idlib. If Erdoğan manages to do that, it will be a huge blow to his ultranationalist opponent Ümit Özdağ, who’s gaining popularity amidst a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment (and in the leadup to elections, that’s dangerous for Erdoğan). Whatever the case, this would have been impossible without the go-ahead from Russia.

Turkey has demonstrated and continues to demonstrate great political ambition and demands recognition as a global player. In June, the country officially changed its international name to match its Turkish one: Türkiye. The official reason for the change was that the word “turkey” also refers to the bird in English. In fact, though, this appears to mark the global rebranding of a country determined to conduct its own ideologically independent foreign policy, even as it remains part of the West on an economic level.

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