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Is Putin Pushing Erdogan into a War with Greece?

Turkey’s President Recip Tayyep Erdogan has reached new highs (or lows depending on your viewpoint) in his dangerous rhetorical attacks on Greece. He has, over the last year, denounced the 1923 Lausanne Treaty that defined the boundaries of modern Turkey, denounced the founder of the modern Turkish state, the once-revered Kamal Ataturk, as a drunk and a traitor for giving up Aegean islands that “I can shout at,” questioned Greek sovereignty over the Aegean islands, threatened to “come in the night,” to drive the Greeks “into the sea” on the 100th anniversary of the burning of Smyrna, denounced France and the United States for supporting Greece, demanded the UN force Greece to “demilitarize” the Aegean Islands, and threatened to annex the Turkish occupied north of Cyprus. This list is not exhaustive. Turkish cabinet officers, senior military and even Turkish opposition parties have all piled on, often surpassing even Erdogan’s bellicosity. Turkish threats in the Aegean are an old story but the level and ferocity of the rhetoric is beyond precedent. Moderate Turkish intellectuals and politicians (yes, there are a few left) tell us that this is only Erdogan campaigning on nationalist sentiments for elections next year, fearing he would otherwise lose them because his financial mismanagement has inflicted nearly 100% inflation on his country.

No matter the excuses, his rhetoric has not only raised tensions but has boxed him into a corner: a single accidental spark could ignite a war that would be catastrophic for both countries. Unless they are completely delusional, Turkey’s military high command knows the war could go badly. But who would benefit from such a war? Has Erdogan done a Putin? Does the restoration of Turkey’s imperial past so obsess him, just as Putin’s obsession to restore Russia’s imperial glory led to the invasion of Ukraine?

Who would benefit from such a war? Certainly not Turkey or Greece. But Russia would, for sure. Such a war would distract from the Ukraine war and disrupt NATO. Such a war would close the Turkish straits to Ukrainian shipments of grains and other key commodities at a time of worldwide food shortages. Such a war would disrupt Azerbaijani pipeline gas going through Turkey and Greece to Europe just as gas prices in Europe hit dizzying highs. The world economy, already in a tizzy from the Ukraine war, would fall into chaos. At that point, Putin might figure that the world economy would be in such crisis that lifting sanctions on Russian oil and gas would be a necessity. It could be the nuclear option for Putin, without the mushroom clouds.

Has Putin pushed Erdogan along his reckless path? Pundits stopped calling Vladimir Putin a master strategist after the fiasco of his misadventures in Ukraine persuaded us that he was more a dangerous bumbler. But Putin has been manipulating Erdogan ever since the Turks shot down a Russian fighter bomber in November 2015. Instead of allowing the incident to harm relations between Ankara and Moscow, Russia manipulated Turkey away from the NATO consensus and closer to the Russian orbit. Turkey is the only NATO country that allows Russian airlines into and through its airspace. Earlier this year Turkey threatened a major military incursion into Syria to strike Kurdish positions. Russia vetoed it, forcing Turkey to back down in embarrassment. Although supporting opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, several years of diligent Russian pressure has put Moscow’ hands on the on-off switch for Turkish operations in Syria. Russia also persuaded Turkey to procure the Russian-made S400 air defense missile system, driving an unprecedented wedge between Ankara and Washington. The United States kicked Turkey off the F35 stealth fighter program, and it now appears that Congress will block the sale of more F16s, a sale that normally would have been approved in a routine fashion. Lately, Moscow announced Turkey will buy an additional tranche of S400 systems. Turkey has refused to go along with the NATO/U.S. consensus on applying sanctions to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Alone among NATO members, Turkey allows Russian overflights of Turkish airspace. Turkey has attempted to restore its relationships with its NATO allies and the United States by assuming an outsize role as a go-between in the Ukraine war. But it could not have done so without Russian permission.

Russian tourists saved the Turkish economy this summer after European tourists went elsewhere.

News agencies quoted Erdogan at a joint news conference with Serbia’s President in Belgrade saying, “I can clearly say that I do not find the attitude of the West right.” Calling NATO policies “provocative,” Erdogan suggested that Russia was justified in cutting off natural gas supplies to Europe in retaliation for sanctions. In July, there were reports that Russia’s state-run Rosatom sent $5 billion to its Turkish subsidiary that plugged a gap in Turkey’s foreign currency reserves. In September, Russia’s Central Bank said it “could buy currencies of friendly countries” like the badly suffering Turkish lira. Symbolically, Russia sent a Muslim as Ambassador to Cyprus, a first and clearly a signal of support to Erdogan. More importantly, Russia has not interfered with Turkey’s Caucasus protégé, Azerbaijan, attacking Armenia last month.

Putin clearly has Erdogan’s ear. He would not want Russian fingerprints on a war between Greece and Turkey. However, is Putin encouraging Erdogan’s crazy bellicose rhetoric? It would make sense. Rapidly increasing Turkish air and sea incursions and rhetorical provocations have raised tensions on the Greek side. As his rhetoric escalates, it boxes-in Erdogan. Imagine a scenario such as the recent collision between Greek and Turkish coast guard boats. What if the Turkish boat had sunk, killing Turkish servicemen? What happens if a Turkish fighter plane has an accidental flameout over the Aegean? At what point does Erdogan have to “put up or shut up” or watch his electoral chances evaporate? Putin could count on Erdogan’s desperation to do something stupid.

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