NEW YORK – As if more proof were needed that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the latest Turkish leader to master both the geopolitical and the public relations games, The Wall Street Journal spotlights his wizardry in a 2000-word article titled ‘Ukraine War Makes Unexpected Winner of Turkey’s Erdogan’.
The reporters, Jared Malsin and Elvan Kivilcim, then note in a sub-headline: ‘The president has leveraged his closeness with Putin to expand his international influence and bolster the country’s faltering economy’.
The story of the turnaround in Erdogan’s fortune follows, beginning with the lead paragraph: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine one year ago unleashed global economic turmoil. In Turkey, it has proved an unexpected windfall for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The Turkish leader has managed to make himself indispensable to all sides of the conflict, a position that is reaping economic rewards that have helped ease the Turkish state’s financial troubles. The turnaround has bolstered his position ahead of a national election that could cement his position as Turkey’s most powerful ruler in nearly a century.”
The article highlights the tightrope Erdogan is brilliantly – if disturbingly – walking: “Under his watch Turkey has profited by selling lethal drones to Ukraine that mowed down Russian troops in the early days of the invasion. Mr. Erdogan is also one of the few world leaders who speaks regularly with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which has put him in the middle of diplomatic efforts on prisoner exchanges and vital food exports.”
It is further noted that the war benefits to Turkey so far include Russian oligarchs pouring money into Turkey to evade sanctions, and leverage over the NATO.
In disturbing news for Greece, threatened almost daily by Ankara, the WSJ notes “the U.S. is hoping to use the sale of a fleet of new F-16 jet fighters to prod him to approve an expansion of the alliance.”
“We decided, you know, we should be the power brokers… Everybody felt this is our moment,” the article quotes “Ilnur Cevik, a senior foreign-policy adviser to the Turkish president, referring to discussions among Turkish officials last spring after Russia’s initial assault on Kyiv failed.”
“Once celebrated for leading an economic boom that lifted millions into the middle class,” the writers note, “[Erdpgan] has gradually become more authoritarian… Under his watch Turkey became one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists.”
The Russian invasion was a Godsend. Erdogan. His re-election prospects threatened by “an economic crisis that wiped more than half the value off the Turkish currency, he saw his poll numbers plummet.”
His fortunes began to change with footage of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drones blowing up “Russian military convoys” helping “Ukraine turn back the Kremlin’s initial attack on Kyiv.”
The article continued: “The drones provided an instant boost for Turkey’s international standing, which had waned in recent years. Members of the U.S. Congress who had otherwise been critical of Turkey’s human rights record called on Ankara to send more drones to Ukraine.”
Erdogan now speaks regularly to both Putin and Zelensky, and “he has urged Russia to accept peace talks but also helped to ease the Kremlin’s isolation and soften the blow of Western sanctions.”
And Putin’s new friend is the best possible partner in his divide and conquer game with NATO.
“Chronic friction between Turkey and the other NATO members played into the Russian leader’s desire to weaken the bloc,” the reporters noted, and Aydin Sezgin, a former Turkish ambassador to Moscow who is now an opposition member of parliament, says that since “Putin wants to create a club of authoritarian leaders. He likes this.”
The Putin-Erdogan relationship is as fascinating as it is disturbing to observe.
The WSJ writes, “former senior Turkish diplomats say that Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan often compartmentalize the frictions between the two countries, focusing on the positives… It’s a kind of trust relationship. They built this over the years. And thus Putin, as far as I can see, sees Erdogan as an asset in Turkey,” said Mr. Cevik.
Erdogan also has the West’s number. “The Biden administration, hoping to prod Turkey to approve NATO expansion in the coming months, sent a proposed $20 billion sale of F-16 warplanes to Congress in January,” the WSJ notes.
What he really cares about, however, is his re-election prospects. “Mr. Erdogan’s poll numbers have ticked up since the beginning of the Ukraine war last year, bouncing back from a low he reached at the peak of Turkey’s economic crisis just before the invasion. Polls showed Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party alliance raising its vote share in a hypothetical national election to 44.7% in November from 39.9% in January 2022, according to leading Turkish political consulting firm MetroPOLL.”
Nevertheless, as a man who could find himself in danger of going to jail once he leaves the presidential palace, WSJ reports that “Mr. Erdogan can’t take a victory for granted.”
But there are good signs in a context where, always and everywhere, “it’s the economy, stupid.”
“Turkey’s exports to Russia increased by 45% last year, with Turkey stepping in to sell goods that Russians could no longer import from the West, including iron, clothing, household appliances and electronics and vehicle parts needed for the military.”
As a reward, Russian funds, including “$5 billion to Turkey for the continuing construction of a nuclear power plant” are flowing freely. “Russia was expected to send another $10 billion for the plant later on, Turkey’s state news agency said… Russia is also considering a possible postponement of up to $20 billion in payments for Turkey’s natural-gas imports, the Turkish energy minister said last month. Those funds could help cover the more than $100 billion in foreign currency the central bank spent last year to prop up the lira, according to economists.”