Turkey's Erdogan Jostles to Be Putin's Partner, Ukraine Peacemaker

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan heads to Ukraine Thursday as the most likely peacemaker in a war that has pitted NATO and the European Union firmly against Russia.

Erdogan and United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the western city of Lviv, with the nascent UN-Turkish-facilitated Black Sea grain export deal likely top of the agenda.

The Turkish president may also be carrying a message from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who he met in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi earlier this month. Erdogan—now needed by both Ukraine and Russia—may yet play a key role in any eventual ceasefire, though for now an end to the fighting looks unlikely.

In the meantime Erdogan—ambitious, opportunistic, and pragmatic—will deal with both sides, seeking to stabilize its region, its beleaguered economy, and grow its international influence.

"Turkey is trying to find a middle road," said Fatih Ceylan, Turkey's permanent representative to NATO from 2013 to 2018. "Trying to calm things down and trying to bring the two sides together is one of the priorities of Turkish foreign policy."

"Whether it is a middle road or a tightrope is another issue," Ceylan told Newsweek.

Economic Ties to Russia

Turkey has plenty of its own problems. Its monthly foreign trade deficit recently topped $8 billion, annual inflation hit 80 percent this year, and unemployment is above 10 percent. Still dependent on energy imports—particularly natural gas from Russia—Turkey is grappling with the same energy crises as its European neighbors.

"The region has been intoxicated," Ceylan—now the president of the Ankara Policy Center think tank—said. "The balance of the economy was already shaken before the war, and now it's shaken down to the ground."

"So any opportunity—be it in a bilateral, trilateral, or multilateral context—Turkey will try to leverage. There's no doubt about it."

Turkey has declined to join the European Union, U.S. and other NATO allies in imposing tough sanctions on Russia. Ankara is now reaping the rewards. At the Sochi meeting, Turkey and Russia signed a new economic cooperation agreement which Erdogan said he hoped could be worth $100 billion.

Turkish exports to Russia have jumped from $417 million in July 2021 to $730 million in July 2022, Politico reported. Imports from Russia have increased from $2.5 billion in July 2021 to $4.4 billion in July 2022.

Meanwhile, Turkey is now working on measures to facilitate business with sanctioned Russian banks and process payments on Russian credit cards, according to The New York Times. Russia is also hoping Turkey will help source weapons systems made unavailable by Western sanctions.

'Frenemy' Drone Provider to Ukraine

Ankara might appear a weak link in the unified Western response to Russia's invasion, but Turkey is also still allowing the export of Bayraktar drones to Ukraine—the company, whose board members include Erdogan's son-in-law, has even announced it will open a new factory in Ukraine—and its parliament looks set to approve the addition of Finland and Sweden to NATO after Erdogan dropped his opposition.

Oleg Ignatov, Crisis Group's senior analyst for Russia, told Newsweek that the pre-war "frenemy" relationship between Ankara and Moscow has shifted in Turkey's favor.

"They were competitive, there were a lot of misunderstandings," Ignatov said, noting repeated clashes in Syria where the two countries back different factions in the devastating civil war, as they also do in war-torn Libya.

"Since the war, I see more benefits for Turkey than for Russia," Ignatov said.

"Russia continues to cooperate with Turkey—and Turkey is one of Russia's main trade partners—Russia continues to sell weapons, and Russia continues projects in Turkey, such as the nuclear plant they are building," Ignatov said, referring to the $20 billion nuclear project underway in the Mediterranean city of Mersin.

"Turkey is de facto the only transit country for Russian gas," Ignatov added, given the collapse of the Nord Stream 2 project, the constrained capacity of Nord Stream 1, and the problems for natural gas transiting Ukraine.

"Russia is now more dependent on Turkey than Turkey is on Russia," Ignatov said.

Grain ship transits Istanbul Black Sea Ukraine
The Marshall Islands-flagged Star Helena that left the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk transits the Bosphorus strait on August 9, 2022 in Istanbul, Turkey. Vessels loaded with grain continue to depart from the Ukrainian ports of Odesa and Chornomorsk under the Black Sea Grain Initiative, safe passage deal signed on the 22 July between Russia and Ukraine. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

"Russia is becoming more flexible. Turkey started this military operation in Syria; Russia didn't react. Azerbaijan provokes Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh; Russia didn't react. Turkey continues to support Ukraine; Russia doesn't react. Russia participated in this grain deal, which is more beneficial for Ukraine than for Russia."

"For Erdogan, this situation is ideal," Ignatov said. "He is a mediator, he gets economic benefits, he improves Turkey's role in the region and in the world, and he gets a lot from Russia."

Turkey is aware of the shift. "Russia, under present circumstances, is in dire need of Turkey's role," Ceylan said. "This is also applicable to Ukraine, particularly in the case of exporting the grain from Odesa."

Ankara and Kyiv have enjoyed a "strategic" level partnership since 2011, a level of cooperation Turkey has not extended to Moscow. Turkey's recent intervention to open a Black Sea shipping lane was particularly important for Kyiv, whose economy has been smothered by the war and the Russian blockade of the sea.

"Turkey is officially regarded as our strategic partner," explained Oleksandr Merezhko, a member of Ukraine's parliament and the chair of the body's foreign affairs committee.

"Turkey is associated with military aid to Ukraine, including Bayraktars," Merezhko told Newsweek. "In principle, Erdogan is trusted and his role as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia is appreciated."

"Turkey has always supported Ukraine's territorial integrity and its position on Crimea has always been very clear," Merezhko said.

"Besides, Turkey supports Crimean Tatars and their rights, which is also important for Ukraine. We believe that at heart, Turkey and its people are pro-Ukrainian, even though it still retains some economic ties with Russia."

Erdogan and Zelensky in Kyiv February 2022
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan make a statement after their talks in Kyiv, Ukraine on February 3, 2022. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Ceasefire Hopes

The Black Sea grain deal will be top of the agenda in Lviv today. Erdogan may also be hoping to revive the Ukraine-Russia peace talks, stalled for months amid intense fighting and a cascade of suspected war crimes.

"Maybe the things he has heard from Putin, he will share them with Zelensky and try to find common ground to the extent possible," Ceylan said. "A ceasefire deal, maybe he will push for that."

But the gulf between the two leaders still appears too wide. "That's possible, absolutely," Ignatov said. "Yes, we have the grain deal. But Russia hasn't changed its position on the war."

"I think Erdogan can't influence Putin's opinion on this war," Ignatov said. "They got along with each other because they understood each other's interests...And they also understood the limits of their influence."

"Erdogan is a very ambitious politician and he would like to be a peace-broker. But it's not possible, at least for now."