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Erdogan and Putin: Complicated Relations with Mutual Benefits

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BRUSSELS Turkey’s mercurial President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in political trouble ahead of next year’s election, with his economy imploding, a nearly currency-strapped central bank and volcanic inflation of around 80 % per year.

Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has his own problems, with the war in Ukraine bogged down and severe economic sanctions hitting Russian industry and the economy in general.

The mutual challenges brought the two men closer than ever. They have met twice in the past three weeks, most recently last weekend in Sochi, Russia, in hopes of reducing their vulnerabilities by expanding their partnership and understanding each other, Erdogan said , on economic cooperation that he hoped would total $100 billion.

It’s a relationship that raises the hedgehogs of Mr. Erdogan’s NATO allies, as it provides Mr. Putin with a significant hole in the barrage of sanctions the West has worked to build in its efforts to thwart Mr. Putin’s war in Ukraine. Some wonder where Mr. Erdogan’s real loyalties lie, beyond his own self-interest.

There is no doubt that, for now, the tie is proving to be mutually beneficial, as the details of their negotiations subsequently emerge. For Mr Putin, the benefits include energy and arms sales, investments and a close tie with a NATO member, who is trying to isolate him and help Ukraine defeat its military. ‘invasion.

Turkey, which is not a member of the European Union, has refused to apply Western sanctions against Russia. He is exploring ways to work with otherwise sanctioned Russian banks and accept payments by Russian credit cards. Russian gas flows unhindered through the TurkStream pipeline. There are reports that Russia is also seeking help from Turkey to supply subsystems for its weapons, which can no longer source Western components directly.

For Mr Erdogan, the benefits include central bank cash injections, cheap energy, global prominence, a large export market, renewed Russian tourism and, most importantly, apparent Russian acquiescence to his efforts popular politicians to crush Kurdish separatism in Syria, where Russia supports the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.

But the two leaders remain arch-enemies, each a thorny strongman who has given himself extraordinary powers and keeps his own council. When they met in Tehran last month, Mr Erdogan left Mr Putin alone for nearly a minute as the Russian leader, himself known for his sleight of hand, shifted uncomfortably in front buzzing cameras.

The move was interpreted as a subtle reminder of the shifting balance of power between them that Mr Putin had kept Mr Erdogan waiting for as they worked together, even trying to keep the upper hand. Increasingly, the relationship between the two countries comes down to the relationship between the two men. Discussions between the two autocrats are also being kept close, with the Turkish Foreign Ministry, not to mention the public, largely kept in the dark.

Turkish foreign policy has entered a very dangerous period, said Ilhan Uzgel, a political scientist who taught international relations at Ankara University before being sacked by presidential decree. The two leaders meet and negotiate. But only the two leaders sitting in the palace alongside a few other people, a very small group, know the content of these negotiations.

Mr Erdogan bought sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft missiles that compromise NATO security and single-handedly decided to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO, dropping his objections for now, but in the hope that there will be more drama to come before the Turkish Parliament votes. on whether to ratify their membership this fall.

The obstructionism could only delight Mr Putin, who has long warned against the Nordic states joining the alliance.

Washington watches intently, officially declare that we urged Turkey not to become a haven for illicit Russian assets or transactions, and urged Turkey to reduce its energy dependence on Russia. The statement also noted that Turkey supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that Erdogan called the Russian invasion unacceptable.

Indeed, Turkey opposed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, prevented Russian warships from entering the Black Sea and sold weapons to Kyiv, including sophisticated drones which helped to kill Russian soldiers.

For the West, Mr. Erdogan’s ability to deal with Mr. Putin has not been all bad. Turkey has maintained close diplomatic relations with Moscow and acts as the main mediator between Russia and Ukraine for grain deliveries and possible peace talks. Mr. Erdogan or his top aides talk to Mr. Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky several times a week.

Erdogan is keeping all his options open, which is what countries tend to do when thinking only of their own interests, which allies don’t, said Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO. He has found a way to play his game, but he does so at the expense of an alliance that is key to his own safety.

Having a NATO ally with good lines of communication with Mr. Putin is a good thing, Mr. Daalder added, as long as he is saying the right things, trying to solve problems in a way that is consistent with NATO’s goals. alliance and without undermining it.

Turkish analysts agree that Mr Erdogan’s main objective is his own re-election, and he is seeking help both for the economy and his efforts to fight what he sees as Kurdish terrorism in Syria and his home.

The goal of the Erdogan government is not to relieve Putin, it is to create the right conditions for himself on the way to the elections, Professor Uzgel said.

Erdogan has three worries, he said. First, tell the West it can do business with Putin. Second, he expects the money from Russia to provide temporary relief to exchange rates. Third, he wants to be on the same page with Russia for any incursion he wants to lead inside Syria.

Mr Erdogan is doing poorly in the opinion polls with elections due by June next year. Its main vulnerabilities stem from the ruinous economy and popular exhaustion and resentment towards the millions of refugees it hosts.

On both issues, Putin wields enormous influence over Erdogan, said Asli Aydintasbas of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Russia is a source of hard currency, cheap energy and jobs, she said, while a few Russian bombardments on northern Syria would be enough to inundate an additional two million refugees from Syria. across the border to Turkey.

Regional security threats, which include an interim peace deal in the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey backs Azerbaijan, while Russia stepped in to save Armenia means any Turkish government would want a relationship of balanced work with Russia, said Sinan Ulgen, director of EDAM, a Turkish research institute.

Turkey needs a diplomatic partnership with Russia in our neighborhood given crisis areas like Syria or Nagorno-Karabakh, so it does not have the luxury of isolating Russia, Ulgen said. .

Mr. Erdogan’s ability to bring Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers together and broker the deal to get Ukrainian (and Russian) grain out of the Black Sea blockade validates Turkey’s balanced approach to Russia, said Mr. Ulgen. Turkey has been pro-Ukraine without being anti-Russian.

Turkish officials, he said, are also aware of the thin line between not enforcing sanctions and appearing or acting like the country helping Russia evade sanctions.

The Putin-Erdogan relationship is a strange one, with the two countries openly cooperating but also waging proxy wars in Syria and Libya, while Turkey needs Russia’s agreement to pursue the Syrian Kurds and preserve the ceasefire -fire between Armenia and Azerbaijan, said Ms. Aydintasbas.

No one in Ankara is happy that Russia controls parts of Turkey’s northern flank on the Black Sea and parts of its southern flank with Syria, but they understand that they need to negotiate a relationship with Russia and establish a modus vivendi, she said. The only alternative is to fight.

Returning Friday from his meeting with Mr. Putin in Sochi, Mr. Erdogan told reporters: Mr. Putin has a fair attitude towards Turkey.

He added: The mutual understanding we have built with Mr. Putin on trust and respect secures our relationship.

Reporting was provided by Carlotta Gall in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Nimet Kirac in Istanbul.

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