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[OPINION] Can Erdoğan turn his back on Putin?

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Ali Dinçer *

If there was a bet on how Yevgeny Prigozhin was going to die, most wagerers definitely lost money on obvious choices like accidentally falling out of a window or drinking a beverage that turned out to be not so healthy for him. Instead, the Russian warlord/mercenary leader/former presidential chef who back in June led an abortive attempt at unseating some of President Vladimir Putin’s senior military officials ended up boarding a flight that apparently failed to comply with aviation safety standards. Who knew?

As soon as the plane’s wreckage hit the ground, everyone rushed to claim that it was Putin. Mostly because it probably was. You know what they say: If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then Putin probably killed the duck and issued a fake eulogy where he made cheeky comments about how the deceased duck made some “serious mistakes.”

The plane crash also made many people reminisce about a 2018 video of Putin opening up to a reporter about how betrayal is the one thing he is unable to forgive. Betrayal is also the word he used to describe the Wagner insurrection two months ago. The plane crash serves as a valuable lesson for all of us that strongmen can be sensitive and that it is not always a good idea to play with their feelings. So Prigozhin didn’t die for nothing after all.

This brings us to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Picasso of the art of betrayal.

Since his re-election back in May, some of his actions led commentators to wonder whether he is planning to abandon his close ties with Putin in favor of a more pro-Western alignment. The profile of members of his new cabinet, such as the finance minister and the central bank governor, was interpreted as being indicative of his intention to revive Turkey’s traditional Atlantic ties, even though “yet another flimsy window dressing to attract foreign investment” would be a much more plausible explanation and sound much less like wishful thinking.

But it didn’t stop there. In July, Ankara handed over to Kyiv five former Mariupol commanders who were supposed to remain in Turkey under a prisoner exchange deal and softened its stance on Sweden’s NATO accession, as anticipated by an earlier piece published here before the Turkish elections.

Erdoğan’s obstruction against Stockholm was arguably part of his strategy to stick up for Putin by undermining the Atlantic consolidation that emerged in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He didn’t seem interested in a real diplomatic bargain as the conditions that he put forward for lifting his veto included legally unrealistic demands for the extradition of exiled journalists who have claimed political asylum in the Nordic country.

In a possibly retaliatory move, Russia ended a Turkish-brokered deal that allowed the safe export of Ukrainian grain out of Black Sea ports and released video footage of its boarding of a Turkish-operated cargo ship off the coast of Istanbul.

So, the million-dollar question: Is Erdoğan about to pull one of his U-turns on Putin?

My answer: Probably not.

First off, Erdoğan’s Swedish about-face looks less like a pro-Atlantic epiphany and more like his way of caving in response to the leaking of a US-Swedish joint corruption probe that implicates his son. Erdoğan may not speak decent English (or Turkish without a teleprompter), but there is a language that he clearly understands whenever his interlocutors have the courage to speak it. Like that time when former US president Donald Trump threatened to destroy Turkey’s economy if Erdoğan didn’t behave himself, politely urging him not to be, and I quote, “a fool.”

An expert blackmailer himself, Erdoğan presumably recognized the blackmail he was faced with and backed down without getting anything in return. Well, actually, he did get a ridiculously pointless Swedish promise to support Turkey’s EU accession process, which at this point is as dead as anyone who was on board Prigozhin’s airplane.

Secondly and more importantly, Erdoğan and Putin are simply too beholden to each other to walk away from their relationship.

While Ankara has supplied Kyiv with armed drones, it has also religiously avoided the international sanctions on Moscow and thus became one of the Kremlin’s few ways out of “Containment 2.0.” And for Turkey, Russia remains a vital supplier of relatively affordable natural gas at a time when the economy is not exactly doing great and an indispensable partner in the operation of its first and only nuclear power plant at Akkuyu.

Even in military conflicts in third countries where they seem oppositely positioned such as Syria, Libya and the southern Caucasus, Turkey and Russia serve to justify each other’s military presence at the scene and leverage each other’s position vis-à-vis their respective local clients by jointly brokering peace deals on their behalf.

It’s also a Mexican standoff. The two autocrats hold cards that can turn into doomsday weapons when the chips are down.

In northern Syria, Putin’s blessing for a Syrian army offensive to finish off the rebel-controlled enclave of Idlib is the only thing standing between Turkey and another massive influx of migrants (including countless jihadist militants with highly questionable credentials), and Erdoğan’s government is already finding harder and harder to rein in the rising anti-migrant sentiment at home.

Conversely, Erdoğan’s strict adherence to a 1936 international convention regulating naval presence in the Black Sea is the only thing standing between Russia and the Black Sea teeming with American and other NATO battleships, a nightmare scenario for Putin.

When it comes to foreign policy orientation, Turkish government officials often like to say things like it’s not a zero-sum game and that Ankara’s burgeoning business with this or that region are not an alternative to its traditional partnerships. In this increasingly multipolar world, not only is this possible but also reasonable and sustainable.

Besides, Erdoğan already has full access to Western cooperation thanks to his trademark horse-trading. He already has total European and American silence in the face of his regime’s domestic and transnational human rights abuses. He’s already getting billions and billions in sweet Brussels money in exchange for keeping migrants in. And he already enjoys the EU’s customs union, which has not even been brought into question all these years.

Plus, he gets to humiliate Western leaders by taking away their chair privileges (see: Sofagate), call them colorful words like “Nazi remnants” and threaten to expel their ambassadors whenever he feels like it or his domestic approval ratings require it. His stooges can even get away with stalking his critics in European territory, publishing secretly taken photos of exiled journalists and their homes. What more can he expect to get if he dumps Putin, the deed to the Eiffel Tower?

The only substantial cost of Erdoğan’s bromance with Putin has been losing access to the new-generation F-35 stealth fighter jets due to his purchase of the S-400 missile defense system, which might have implications for Turkey’s competition with Greece for aerial dominance over the Aegean Sea. Here, it seems that the damage is already done as Turkey proceeded to integrate the Russian-made system despite the warnings from NATO leadership and Washington, D.C., and all Ankara can do now is mitigate the risks in the Aegean by acquiring more F-16s and perhaps trying to make use of its fleet of homemade UAVs.

To be clear, Erdoğan and Putin’s relationship is far from being problem-free, as evidenced by the recent Ukraine-related souring. Yet, the fact remains that they stand to lose too much if they choose to get a divorce. Unless the war in Ukraine somehow polarizes the world to the extent that makes it impossible for Erdoğan to keep playing his double game, reason dictates that they keep the marriage through thick and thin, until death do them part.

*Ali Dinçer previously worked for the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

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