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What an Erdogan victory would mean for Turkey-US-Russia relations

What an Erdogan victory would mean for Turkey-US-Russia relations


In recent years, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has played on both sides of the global geopolitical divide: it belongs to the Western NATO alliance, but has also had increasingly close ties with the Russia.

A mainstay of NATO for more than seven decades, Turkey has served in the alliance’s peacekeeping missions in war zones such as Bosnia, but then more recently bought military equipment from Russia and refused the entry of new NATO members who might offend Moscow.

Turkey’s unique and seemingly contradictory position has amplified since Russia invaded neighboring, pro-Western Ukraine 15 months ago, with Erdogan once again presenting himself as a valuable ally of the United States and the EU. Europe on one side and Russia on the other. It has often seemed to land with Russia at the expense of its Western partners.

The question now is how much or if Turkey’s place on the world stage will change after Sunday’s presidential election, in which Erdogan is expected to win, but only after winning unprecedented opposition.

It will continue to play an important but uncomfortable role from a Western perspective, said Emre Peker, Europe director of Eurasia Group, a risk analysis organization.

Joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization just two years after it was founded on the ashes of World War II, Turkey was until recently the only Muslim country in the alliance. With a population of 85 million and a huge land area that literally straddles East and West, it has the second largest army in the alliances.

Before Erdogan came to power in 2014, Turkey was staunchly secular, so much so that the wearing of headscarves by women was banned in many official places.

But Erdogan has gradually pushed the nation into a more religious sphere, while seizing more autocratic powers. These changes have left him and the country slightly out of step with NATO and, in the opinion of the President and his closest advisers, freer to enter into agreements and allegiances with terrible enemies of the States. United and NATO, including Russia.

From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson speak

From left, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a panel discussion at a NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, in 2022.

(Manu Fernandez/Associated Press)

Privately, some Biden administration officials say they would appreciate the election of someone other than Erdogan, who has not been invited to the White House since President Biden took office. During a visit by Erdogan to Washington during the Trump presidency, his guards reportedly beat up peaceful protesters and quickly left the country to avoid criminal prosecution.

Senator Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who chairs the body’s foreign relations committee, has long criticized Erdogan and his overtures to Moscow.

Will be [Turkey] after the election will he be the NATO ally we always wanted him to be, or will he be in turmoil? he said in a speech last week in New York.

Without a doubt, one person who would be happy to see Erdogan re-elected is Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Since Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine and unleashed a storm of sanctions against his country’s economy, Turkey has become the main lifeline for Moscow, with the pugnacious Erdogan insisting on maintaining economic and diplomatic ties .

We are not at a point where we would impose sanctions on Russia like the West has done, Erdogan said in an interview with CNN last week. We are not bound by Wests sanctions.

We are a strong state and we have a positive relationship with Russia, he said. Russia and Turkey need each other in every possible way.

At the same time, Erdogan presents himself as valuable to the West. He claims he could play a key role in brokering peace, and he helped put Putin in line over the past few years with the Black Sea Grain Corridor Initiative, a United Nations-brokered deal that allowed exports to Ukraine’s cereals to continue and mitigate soaring food prices. He also helped broker a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia.

In some ways, Erdogan and Putin are an odd pair. They have supported opposing sides in the civil wars in Syria and Libya as well as the ongoing conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Relations reached a nadir in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian-Turkish border.

Vladimir Putin, right, talks to Recep Tayyip Erdogan.  The two are seated in front of the flags of their respective countries

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, speaks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their talks on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in 2022.

(Alexandr Demyanchuk/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool photo via Associated Press)

But rather than drive a wedge between the two leaders, the war in Ukraine has only deepened their relationship.

Russia is Turkey’s largest energy supplier, supplying a third of its oil and gas imports. Earlier this month, Moscow agreed to delay some of Turkey’s natural gas payments, a move seen as a favor to Erdogan ahead of the election. The two countries are also working together on Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, which is expected to open later this year.

The closure of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, which would have transported oil from Russia to Germany and Western Europe, has also prompted Russia to push for Turkey to become a regional hub for trade with the European Union.

Bilateral trade, meanwhile, topped $62 billion last year, and Turkey remains the top choice for Russian tourists, with more than 5.2 million visited last year. And with Europe all but closed to Russian citizens, Turkey has become a top destination for Russian expats to live and work in, a development that can be seen every day on the streets of Moda, a trendy neighborhood on the side Asian Istanbul, where Russian couples with pushchairs are a frequent sight and cafes are filled with Russian men and women bent over their laptops.

For the last year? All of our clients are Russians, said Dehlan Agirman, a longtime realtor there. The influx, she said, caused rental prices in the neighborhood to double.

Normally I would have three offers a month or something like that, she said. Now it’s more than seven. Most are young couples, with remote work. And they are prepared to pay three or six months in advance.

Turkey has supplied drones and other hardware to Ukraine, but the country under Erdogan shares much of Putin’s aversion to the West, which has made him a dodgy partner within the NATO.

In the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Sweden and Finland, which have long defended an official position of neutrality, have sought to join the transatlantic alliance. The decision to admit new members must be unanimous, and both cases fell to Turkey, which ultimately ceded to Finland but not to Sweden.

Erdogan says Sweden is home to Kurdish activists linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a group that Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist organization.

The US Congress has punished Turkey for blocking Sweden from buying US-made F-16 warplanes. Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system around 2021 had already cost it access to the F-35s due to fears that Russia could rig the system to spy on the West.

Erdogan’s opponent in Sunday’s second round, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, 74, said he would improve Turkey’s relations with the West and try to revive a bid to join the Union European Union, blocked for a long time. He also lambasted Erdogan for being too close to Putin.

A woman stands close to the camera, smiling, as she and a crowd of people wave Turkish flags

Supporters of Turkey’s president and People’s Alliance presidential candidate Recep Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish flags during a campaign rally in Istanbul, Turkey, on Friday.

(Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

But most analysts predict that Erdogan will triumph. In the first round of elections two weeks ago, he garnered 49.5% of the 50% he needed to win. Kilicdaroglu took 44.9%, but third, who won 5.2%, has since endorsed Erdogan.

Whoever wins will face the instability of a declining economy and the aftermath of the cataclysmic earthquakes that ravaged the south of the country, killing at least 50,000 people and leaving millions homeless.

Populist maneuvers by Erdogan ahead of the election, including raising the minimum wage and pensions and offering free gasoline to citizens, are expected to add further strain to state coffers, even if the Turkish lira remains at a historically low level due to its economic policy.

One school of thought is that the need for Western help will push him into more moderate positions, viewed more favorably by the United States and Europe.

But Gonul Tol, founding director of the Turkey program at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank, has a different view.

I don’t see how Western money will suddenly start flowing into Turkey, in a country where Erdogan is likely to double down on repression at home, she said, referring to Erdogan’s crackdown on thousands of dissidents and other perceived opponents.

This could prompt him to reach out more eagerly to Russia, Qatar or Saudi Arabia to fund any budget shortfalls.

Usually, when autocrats face more instability at home, they tend to pursue a more unpredictable anti-Western nationalist foreign policy, Tol said.

Bulos reported from Istanbul, Wilkinson from Washington.




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