Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will try to leverage his strategic position in NATO and his rapport with Russia’s Vladimir Putin when he visits Kyiv on Thursday in a bid to head off war in Ukraine.
The Turkish leader hopes mediation between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky can avert a Russian offensive that Washington warns could start by mid-February.
His high-profile efforts — met with caution in Moscow — carry huge stakes and potentially rich rewards.
Analysts believe a serious conflict in Ukraine could upend Turkey’s economy and imperil Erdoğan’s chances of extending his rule into a third decade in elections due by mid-2023.
It could also force Ankara to pick sides between Putin — a leader who holds several economic and military trump cards over Turkey — and traditional Western allies that have grown impatient with Erdoğan’s rule.
Kyiv’s acquisition of battle-tested Turkish drones is a particular worry for Russian-backed separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine and for the Kremlin.
But analysts think success in averting a Russian invasion could highlight Turkey’s importance to the Western defense alliance and warm Erdoğan’s chilly relations with US President Joe Biden.
“This is an opportunity for Turkey to elevate its status and come out of the doghouse, metaphorically speaking, in NATO,” Aslı Aydıntaşbaş of the European Council on Foreign Relations told AFP.
“Ankara will also use this as an opportunity to improve ties with Washington,” she added.
“Erdoğan has developed this unique personal relationship with Putin that is simultaneously competitive and consensual — allowing them to support different sides in Libya, the Caucasus and Syria.”
‘Keeps his word’
Erdoğan’s evolving relationship with Putin has been one of the defining features of diplomacy across southeastern Europe and the Middle East.
Their relations 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 Erdoğan on the night he survived a Turkish coup attempt in 2016.
Most Western leaders waited days before publicly supporting Erdoğan — indecision that analysts say pushed Turkey closer to Russia in subsequent years.
This bond has withstood repeated tests since.
Their support for opposing sides in Syria and Libya did not keep Turkey in 2019 from acquiring a Russian missile defense system at the heart of current tensions with Washington.
Putin also appeared to take in stride Turkey’s game-changing supply of drones to Azerbaijan during its 2020 war with Moscow-backed ethnic Armenians in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh.
“This is a person who keeps his word — a real man,” Putin said of Erdoğan weeks after the Karabakh conflict wound down.
İstanbul Medipol University scholar Abdurrahman Babacan said Erdoğan and Putin share what “most leaders do not have in their bilateral relations: timely intervention and playing their cards face up.”
‘Counter the Bayraktars’
Ukraine represents one of the leaders’ points of friction.
Erdoğan vocally opposed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea because of the historical presence of ethnically-Turkic Tatars on the peninsula.
He has backed Kyiv’s NATO ambitions and approved Ukraine’s acquisition of Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 combat drones.
Ukraine’s release of grainy footage of a TB2 destroying a separatist military target prompted Putin to raise the issue during a December 2021 call with Erdoğan.
Eastern separatist leader Denis Pushilin cited the drones as the main reason Russia should start openly arming Ukraine’s rebel fighters.
“First and foremost, we need to counter the Bayraktars,” Pushilin said.
Military analysts play down the drones’ importance in case of all-out war.
“Yes, in an asymmetric fight that pits the Ukrainian army against the forces in the Donbass, a few TB2s can tilt the balance of forces,” the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Middle East Program director Aaron Stein told AFP.
“However, in the event Russia invades, the TB2 isn’t going to matter.”
‘All about Erdoğan’
Most analysts doubt Erdoğan would openly confront Putin on Ukraine.
“If Turkey does escalate, Russia can respond in kind — pressure (against Turkish soldiers and proxies) in Syria, economic sanctions,” said Oxford University scholar Dimitar Bechev.
“Given its weakness, the Turkish economy can ill afford a boycott by tourists from Russia,” veteran Turkey watcher Anthony Skinner added.
Washington Institute fellow Soner Cağaptay said Erdoğan’s immediate worry was to keep the economy strong enough to give his sagging approval numbers a chance to recover before the next election.
“Turkey is all about Erdoğan right now, and Erdoğan is all about winning the election in 2023,” Cağaptay said.
Analysts said this made Erdoğan’s mediation efforts all the more important.
“Russian (military) actions will exacerbate Turkish economic weakness, such as increasing the cost of oil,” said Stein. “This will not be pleasant.”