In July 2018 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan surprised Turkey’s Western allies by attending a summit of BRICS, an economic and geopolitical bloc comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, in South Africa’s economic hub of Johannesburg. It has been five years since Erdoğan called on the leadership of BRICS at the summit to admit Turkey as a member of the association. However, Turkish officials were not seen at any BRICS meetings in the following years. South Africa is now set to host the 15th annual BRICS summit Aug. 14-22.
South Africa’s BRICS ambassador, Anil Sooklal, told journalists in Johannesburg last week that “twenty-two countries have formally approached BRICS countries to become full members.” He further stated that there are more than 40 countries that want to join BRICS. While officials from Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kazakhstan, Egypt and many others attended the BRICS National Security Advisors Meeting on July 25 in Johannesburg, Turkey’s representation was limited to a single deputy from Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), Arif Demirkıran, who attended the meeting upon the advice of a Russian delegate. Russian diplomat Andrey Klimov, the deputy chair of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, confirmed during a press conference at the BRICS Political Parties Plus Dialogue in Johannesburg on July 18 that they were in Turkey a few days prior to arriving in Johannesburg to negotiate grain exports with Ukraine that also involved Turkish and UN representatives in Istanbul. During this visit, they invited the AKP representative to the BRICS meeting in South Africa.
Turkey’s interest in BRICS lies in Erdoğan’s personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wields strong influence in the organization along with China, and is not a consequence of Turkish foreign policy. Despite Turkey and Russia backing different warring groups in Libya, Syria and Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh region, and Turkey opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, both countries have stakes in bilateral strategic energy investments, such as the Blue Stream trans-Black Sea gas pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in the Turkish province of Mersin. It remains important for Putin to maintain a strategic relationship with Erdoğan to ensure the safety of Russian forces in Syria. NATO member Turkey has conducted joint military patrols with Russian forces in northwestern Syria. Erdoğan’s main concern in Syria is to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region similar to the Iraqi Kurdistan region. The US government and major European states France, England and Germany support groups such as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), spearheaded by the People’s Protection Units (YPG). However, Turkey considers the YPG a Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting against Turkey since 1984, aiming to establish an autonomous or independent Kurdish state in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeastern region. Erdoğan believes that since Putin does not necessarily back Kurdish groups in Iraq and Syria, Turkey may be able to prevent the establishment of a Kurdish entity in Syria with Putin’s help.
Despite significant crises such as the December 2016 assassination of Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara and the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet on Turkey’s Syrian border in November 2015, Erdoğan and Putin have surprisingly developed strong “personal relations.” After these incidents, Erdoğan’s AKP even purchased a Russian S-400 missile system despite strong criticism from NATO members and warnings of possible sanctions. Some media in Turkey claimed that Putin supported Erdoğan during a coup attempt in July 2016, and as a result, Turkey shifted its foreign policy axis towards Russia. However, there has been no confirmation from Turkish officials or BRICS members that Turkey is among the 22 countries that have officially applied for BRICS membership. Even if the Erdoğan government has applied to join BRICS, NATO members may try to pressure Ankara to not become part of the organization. Additionally, Turkey purchased the S-400 missiles but hasn’t yet operated them.
Putin and Erdoğan had private meetings during the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in 2018. A decade ago, Erdoğan asked Putin in St. Petersburg to save Ankara from “the troubles” of the EU accession process by allowing Turkey into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. However, the honeymoon period between Erdoğan and Putin seems to be coming to an end, as Putin has been weakened at home following Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s rebellion against him. Furthermore, Erdoğan agreed to back Sweden’s NATO membership at a summit in Vilnius on July 11, after a year of blocking the move. This indicates that Ankara is leaning towards the Western axis. Erdoğan’s main objective in approving Sweden’s NATO membership is to convince US President Joe Biden to move forward with the sale of F-16 fighter jets for the Turkish military. Troubled by economic hardship at home, one might say Erdoğan no longer possesses the strength to challenge the West over joining the Russia and China-dominated BRICS league.