Turkey Positions Itself as the Middleman in “East-West” Conflict

By Conor Gallagher

While the war in Ukraine continues to hammer European economies and harm others via sanctions-induced high energy and commodity prices, one potential winner from the conflict is emerging: Turkey.

Positioned at the crossroads of Europe and Asia and linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean, Turkey is one of the most important pieces of real estate in the current conflict between the US and the EU on one side and Russia (and potentially China if the US has its way) on the other.

After years of poking allies, enemies, and neighbors in the eye, Turkey Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to finally be realizing the most productive path forward is to leverage the country’s strategic position to his advantage.

Russia’s Lone Remaining Bridge to the West

Turkey is the only NATO member that hasn’t closed its airspace to Russia or enacted economic sanctions on the country. Consequently trade with Russia is booming – and there might be a lot more money to be made.

Turkey is now setting itself up to facilitate trade that bypasses sanctions the EU imposed on Russia:

Cetin Tecdelioglu, head of the Istanbul Ferrous and Non-Ferrous Metals Exporters’ Association, said Russian demand had increased for Turkish products it could no longer source from European companies and Turkish companies had received enquiries from European businesses about supplying Russia via Turkey.

“What they (Russia) cannot buy from Germany, Italy and France, they are buying from us. Separately, a lot of EU companies are planning to sell their products to Russia via Turkey.”

The Turkish business daily Dunya reports that goods are already coming in from the EU and sent onto Russia:

Mehmet Serkan Erdem, Turkey General Manager of Rif Line, noted the packed warehouses due to the cargo transit to Russia via Turkey. He said in a statement to DÜNYA, “I was in Mersin last week. Due to the loads coming from all over the world and to be transferred to Russia, the warehouses in Mersin are full to the brim.

Tecdelioglu said the same could potentially happen with China – that is if the US continues to beat the war drums in Taiwan and drags their EU junior partners into the fray. Turkey continues to position itself nicely to fill that role as it has recently stopped criticizing China’s Uighur policies and even cracked down on Uighur protesters in Turkey at China’s request.

A Difficult Balancing Act

At the same time Ankara embraces Moscow, it continues to sell military hardware to Ukraine, including drones and mine-resistant vehicles to Ukraine. It also has the second largest army in NATO, and hosts two US military bases, one with nuclear weapons.

Russia can hit Turkey in a range of ways because Ankara and Moscow are involved in many conflicts that are not covered by NATO security commitments: Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Economically, Turkey receives from Russia nearly a quarter of its tourism, more than one-third of its gas needs, and 80 percent of its grain from Russia and Ukraine.

Despite this dependence, Turkey has always sought alliances with western powers to counter Russia. Since the end of World War II that has been primarily the US, but the relationship has been on the rocks for a while now.

Did US/NATO Missteps Help Bring Russia and Turkey Closer together? 

Turkey began looking to purchase a missile defense system during the Gulf War in the early 1990s. Ankara asked NATO multiple times to deploy early warning systems and Patriot missiles to Turkey, but it never came to pass.

US security experts Jim Townsend and Rachel Ellehus explained it like this:

Long suspicious that NATO did not appreciate Turkey’s vulnerability in such a dangerous neighborhood, Ankara came to view its missile defense requests as a litmus test for how much NATO really cared about Turkey.

Ankara didn’t like the answer to that litmus test. Despite being the most important country in NATO by virtue of its geography, Turkey felt ignored by its western partners. Its EU membership was all but dead, and it wasn’t getting the military hardware it requested.

In 2017 Turkey turned to Russia. It purchased Russian S-400 missile defense systems, which are arguably superior to anything the West has – something the Russians are demonstrating in Ukraine. In response the US expelled Turkey from its F-35 program and sanctioned the country’s defense industry organization and its leaders.

It was a new low point in US-Turkey relations that came on the heels of disagreements over US cooperation with the Kurdish militia YPG in Syria and the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. The undertaking was so dimwitted it led to suspicion that Erdogan orchestrated it himself. Erdogan, though, blamed dissident cleric Fethullah Gülen and the US for harboring him.

Since the coup attempt about 80,000 people have been jailed, and anti-US sentiment in Turkey has since reached record highs.

Washington, possibly wary of driving historical rivals together (as it did with China and Russia), might finally be realizing that a stick alone won’t work with Ankara.

The commotion over Finland and Sweden is a prime example. NATO appeared caught off guard when Erdogan voiced opposition to the new members, which would be a deal killer since each of the 30 NATO member states must approve.

Turkey wants concessions for its vote, including extradition from Finland and Sweden of individuals it labels terrorists and adjusting laws in Helsinki and Stockholm to allow arms sales to Turkey.

Sweden and Finland are already beginning to extradite the individuals accused by Turkey of having ties to Kurdish or Fetullahist organizations. They include a 26-year-old Kurdish activist who arrived in Sweden when he was 18 and now fears he will be imprisoned and tortured upon his return to Turkey because of his homosexuality and Kurdish ties.

In addition, it appears Washington is now prepared to sell F-16s to Ankara. Both US and Turkish officials  said there was no quid pro quo regarding the F-16 announcement, but the timing certainly didn’t negatively affect Turkey’s agreement to allow the NATO invitations to Sweden and Finland.

But will it be too little too late?

Ankara and Moscow continue to form stronger ties, and it might not be temporary:

No longer do construction, tourism, textiles, and fruit or vegetables define Turkish-Russian economic ties. Instead, cooperation has shifted to strategic industries that create long-lasting mutual dependencies.

A Lifeline for Turkey’s Economic Freefall

Turkey’s status as a key swing player in the “East-West” conflict couldn’t come at a better time for Erdogan who is facing the biggest challenge to his two decades of rule due to an economy in shambles.

Inflation is running at an annual rate of around 80 percent, but Erdogan is intent on maintaining economic growth by focusing on exports and employment. It’s not working. Its foreign trade deficit is up to a monthly average of $8 billion this year.

The Middle East Institute explains further:

A considerable amount of short-term external debt is also looming on the horizon. A total of $182.4 billion of debt in hard currencies must be paid back or rolled over in the next year. The Turkish economy needs at least $220 billion in the coming 12 months. There is another factor adversely affecting Turkey’s external balance as well, which is the appreciation of the dollar against the euro. While 58.4% of external debt and 71.2 % of imports are in dollars, Turkey’s revenues from exports and tourism are mainly in euros. As a result, all else being equal, the external deficit is rising once again.

Details are still trickling out about the Turkey-Russia summit in early August, but it looks as though the deals will be mutually beneficial by supplying a safe harbor for sanctions-hit Russian capital and providing an economic lifeline for Erdogan.

While Turkey continues to adopt the Russian payment system Mir, which is a relief for Russian tourists after Visa and Mastercard halted their services, Moscow is injecting money into Turkish coffers.

Ugur Gurses, a former Turkish central banker, believes the Russians are using a nuclear power plant they’re constructing in Turkey to transfer funds by purchasing Turkish bonds instead of direct bank transfers.

Gurses told Al Monitor this would help explain Turkey’s recent increase in foreign and gold reserves — from $98.9 billion on July 26 to $108.1 billion on Aug. 4.

In return, Turkey — by not heeding the embargoes — is helping the movement of capital, offering an important function as a bridge for goods to flow to Russia.

And Aydin Sezer, a former trade attache at Turkey’s embassy in Moscow, doesn’t believe the cooperation will end there:

Putin might make other gestures such as agreeing to defer gas payments or accepting payments in bonds to help Erdogan win in 2023.

No doubt, the US and NATO will take an interest in next year’s election as well.

Turkey Abandons Western Ship in Syria

In early August Turkey’s foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu disclosed that he spoke with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, last October.

It was a stunning statement as this would represent the first high-level meeting between Turkish and Syrian government officials since 2011.

The meeting was likely laying the groundwork for higher level meetings between the two countries – potentially even Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Al-Monitor reports that Ankara is working to engage Damascus with the Kremlin’s support.

Putin wants now “to move relations to a political level” in order “to coordinate against the United States and its Syrian Kurdish allies” who control the northeast of the country and the bulk of its oil and water resources. This was one of the top agenda items during Erdogan’s Aug. 5 summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi with Vladimir Putin.

Despite Turkey spending the past 11 years trying to overthrow Assad, rapprochement could now benefit Erdogan domestically. With Turkey’s economic woes, it is untenable to continue to spend billions annually occupying parts of Syria and on the millions of Syrian refugees inside Turkey.

By making peace with Assad, Erdogan could focus solely on preventing a Kurdish state in northeast Syria – something Damascus is also opposed to.

It would also curry favor with Moscow – and draw the ire of Washington.

A Familiar Role 

Western leaders can stamp their feet all they want over Turkey playing both sides, but the truth is there just isn’t much they can do via their preferred method of punitive measures.

Brussels has littler leverage, and Turkey can always counter any punitive measure by turning back on the spigot of migrants into Europe.

Washington sometimes hints at Western companies withdrawing or decreasing their economic ties with Ankara or even cutting it off from the dollar via secondary sanctions, but such moves would almost certainly drive Turkey permanently into the Eastern bloc.

The West seems to be recognizing slowly (e.g., the Finland and Sweden extraditions, potential F-16 sales) that more carrot and less stick is what Erdogan is seeking.

One needs look no further than  World War II when Turkey was courted by all sides. Turkish cartoonist Ramiz Gökçe depicted Turkey at the time as ‘The Comrade of Germany; The Sweetheart of America; The Ally of Britain; The Neighbour of Russia; The Protector of Peace; The Friend of the World’.

In 1941, Turkey and Germany signed a nonaggression pact, and Ankara raked in economic and military aid from both Axis and Allies trying to woo Turkey to their side.

As the tide changed in WWII, however, Turkey wisely bet on the eventual victors, moving increasingly to the Allied side. In 1944 Turkey stopped exporting chromite to Germany, a key ingredient in the manufacture of stainless steel, and later that year severed diplomatic relations with Germany. In 1945 Turkey declared war on Germany – two months before its defeat.

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  1. DJG, Reality Czar

    Thanks for an insightful and detailed post.

    A few things are lurking out there if we consider information you’ve given:
    –How does one dislodge the U.S. from northeastern Syria, where U.S. troops are stealing Syrian oil, as was linked here at Naked Capitalism?
    –Traditionally, there is major influence of Persian culture on Turkey. After all, Rumi lived in western Anatolia and wrote in Persian. And that’s just one for-instance. What happens as Russia and Turkey decide to deal more directly and obviously with Iran?
    –The Kurds and the Uighurs. There is plenty of evidence of oppression of the Kurds in Turkey itself and in Syria. The evidence for Chinese oppression of the Uighurs isn’t just anecdotal. Two nations without a state, and they end up as punching bags of history. I have no idea who they will find their way in the world.

  2. The Rev Kev

    A really good post this. I would add that it looks like Turkey’s Erdogan and Syria’s Assad are going to meet up later this year – possibly at the G-20. Since Syria survived the assault by the west on it and Assad is going nowhere, I think that Erdogan has decided to make peace with Syria. As both oppose an independent Kurdish state, by cooperating they will be able to put a lid on the Kurds. Of course this means getting the US out of Syria as well which will stabilize Syria as they will be able to get back access to their oil and wheat which the US military is stealing and sending out through Iraq. If they can make peace fully with Syria, then Turkey gets to stabilize its entire southern borders which will mean less stress on the Turkish budget so a win-win here.

  3. marcel

    One can read Elijah j Magnier latest in parallel (paywalled).
    At the end of the day, all actors (Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria & Russia) win by getting rid of the US in the area.

  4. Darthbobber

    Erdogan is quite the juggler. This article doesn’t mention the recent Turkish statement about how returning Crimea to Ukraine should be part of a negotiated settlement. Its not only the west that has complaints about Turkey playing both sides, but given how nasty things could get for it if it came down firmly on either one its unclear what other route they could go.

    1. Polar Socialist

      In Russian media yesterday the pundits seemed to think that Erdogan’s comment about Crimea was meant purely for Ukrainians as a “sugary pill” and had no significance in the real world. They seem to understand the Turkish play, and even expect and accept the “Turkish gambit”.

  5. ChrisRUEcon

    Great post indeed. Confirms my musings about the emerging multi-polar world, in so much as there have to be some countries that are allowed to provide linkages. Curious to see what happens in Africa and South America as US influence wanes there as well.

    DJG/Rev: Yes to you both on Kurds – worrisome. Poor sods. But who knows? Maybe China and Russia can help broker a path forward, both having had to deal with Muslim populations within their federations.

  6. David

    In a sense, the world has always been like this, it’s just becoming more evident recently. Most countries look for advantage in particular situations, and often the calculation is different from case to case. Support my neighbour on this subject, work against my neighbour on that subject, remain neutral on a third. In most parts of the world this is taken for granted: it’s only the western obsession with “blocs,” “alliances” and “traditional” friendships/enmities, that creates problems of understanding for us. Everybody else knows exactly what’s going on.

  7. Maxwell Johnston

    Both Turkish Airlines and Pegasus are having a field day ferrying Russians through Turkey to further destinations. Lots of daily flights to multiple Russian cities, and their ticket prices have gone up considerably (especially now that Finland and the Baltic trio are cracking down on transiting Russians). Supply and demand.

    Also a new thing: many Russians are opening accounts at Turkish banks; an easy way to obtain a bank card that works outside Russia, and apparently Turkish banks aren’t too picky re compliance and KYC procedures, and they don’t mind having Russia-domiciled clients. Goodbye Cyprus and Latvia, hello Turkey. Plus, Russians don’t need a visa to enter Turkey.

  8. John

    Erdogan does not need to hold up a damp finger to find which way the wind is blowing. He is looking after the interests of his country.

  9. Anonymous 2

    I wonder about that. Russia has for centuries harboured ambitions to control the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. If I was Turkey I would not want to let Russia get too close.

  10. Mark of the Slob

    Alan Mikhail, in his book “God’s Shadow: The Ottoman Sultan Who Shaped the Modern World”, points out that Erdogan has “displayed a keen interest in Selim…and has expended enormous resources and energy in promoting the sultan’s legacy.”
    Erdogan may make more sense if we see him defining himself in terms of Selim’s legacy (in which Sunni-ism takes front and center) rather than trying to understand him in terms of whatever he happens to be doing today with the NATO block or the Eurasian block.

  11. ddt

    Also to note, Erdogan was in in Iran just a few weeks back with Putin and Khamenei and there’s parallel ongoing rapprochement with Israel. He’s a good juggler.

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