An opportunity for Erdogan in the Ukraine war

Turkey’s longtime leader has been given a boost

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan at a news conference following the Nato summit, in Brussels, Belgium, on March 24. Reuters

Nearly five weeks into Russia’s war in Ukraine, Turkey has emerged as the West’s favoured fulcrum, maintaining strong ties with both combatants and doing the diplomatic heavy lifting that could broker a sigh-inducing ceasefire.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Friday said the warring states had made progress on several key points of negotiation, including Ukraine expressing willingness to partially disarm and accept Russian as an official language. Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba quickly clarified that Ukrainian is his country’s only state language, while the President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, on Sunday said his government is ready to consider neutrality and accepting Russian forces returning to previously occupied areas of eastern Ukraine.

Turkey is set to host a new round of peace talks on Tuesday, and Mr Erdogan may well have a bounce in his step in these first days of Spring. For starters, he seems to have been welcomed back into the western fold. In the past fortnight, a steady stream of dignitaries has come a’ calling, including the leaders of Nato, Germany, Israel and Greece.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) welcomes German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Ankara on March 14. AFP / Turkish Presidential Service

Despite a trip to nearby Poland, US President Joe Biden was not among the visitors. But after a phone call with Mr Erdogan last week, he praised Turkey’s diplomatic efforts and talked of seeking ways to strengthen bilateral ties.

Mr Erdogan may have sought to take advantage of his turn in the spotlight last week when he urged the EU to restart Turkey’s accession talks, which began in 2005 and have been stalled at least since Ankara and Brussels agreed to a refugee deal in early 2016. Ankara has also been working with Paris and Athens to open a humanitarian corridor in southeastern Ukraine, to help rescue thousands trapped in the besieged port of Mariupol.

There has even been talk that the long-gestating eastern Mediterranean pipeline may get fresh energy as Europe seeks to wean itself off Russian oil and gas. Since the US backed out a few months ago, Turkey has been talking with the Israelis about building a pipeline carrying Israeli gas to Europe through Turkish territory.

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Nato-member Turkey has not joined western sanctions on Russia, and has in recent days rolled out the welcome mat for Russian oligarchs seeking sanctuary

The Ides of March have also been good domestically. Mr Erdogan and his ruling AKP have lost political ground in the past three years mainly because of a lingering economic crisis and the presence of millions of mostly Syrian refugees. Many Turks see them as taking too many jobs during a period of high inflation and unemployment. But as tens of thousands of both Ukrainians and Russians have arrived in recent weeks, Turkey’s opposition parties have largely refrained from protesting against the open-door policy.

Perhaps the sight of nearly 4 million Ukrainians pouring into Europe has spurred new sympathy for refugees in Turkey – a greater willingness to continue shouldering the burden.

Or maybe it’s linked to Turkey’s unemployment rate, which fell sharply in 2021, from a high of 13.8 per cent in April to 11.4 per cent by January 2022, which is not far off the pre-crisis rate of 10.9 per cent.

Either way, all this has given Turkey’s longtime leader a boost. In December, as the Turkish lira hit record lows, Mr Erdogan’s approval rating sunk to 38 per cent, his lowest in more than six years. A poll last week put him back above 43 percent – a significant reversal after more than two years of steady decline.

The old adage appears to be holding true: in times of war, people rally around their leader. When fearing an external threat, Turks, in particular, seem to prefer a strong leader unafraid to call on his military.

Yet the other shoe may soon fall. Economists largely agree that the war and Russian sanctions will inevitably hurt the Turkish economy, which relies on Russian tourists, grains and gas, as well as billions in trade and business deals.

There could also be a spillover of violence. On Saturday Turkish authorities picked up a spiked mine bobbing near the northern end of Istanbul's Bosporus, some 620 kms south of Odessa, where both Russian and Ukrainian forces have reportedly deployed mines. Hours later reports emerged of another mine in the area, which Turkish security services soon dismissed.

A snow-covered square outside Hagia Sofia in Istanbul, on March 11. AFP

For all the snow that blanketed Istanbul on the weekend, within a matter of weeks sunbathers and boaters will start descending on beaches just a few miles from there. More importantly, the Bosporus is one of the world’s busiest shipping routes, and any extended shutdown would further undermine Turkey’s economy.

Nato-member Turkey has not joined western sanctions on Russia, and has in recent days rolled out the welcome mat for Russian oligarchs seeking sanctuary. Many analysts now fear Turkey may seek to find ways to help Russian firms evade western sanctions.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Starting in 2012, Turkish banks helped Iran evade western sanctions and ended up buying some $13 billion in Iranian gas with gold. Turkey also has a more recent record of questionable financial dealings. Last October, the Financial Action Task Force, the world’s leading anti-money laundering body, put Turkey on its grey list of countries that need to swiftly resolve several financial deficiencies.

Israel, which has also refrained from joining western sanctions, has vowed not to enable Russians looking to evade sanctions. Turkey has yet to make a similar pledge. But this is likely more an attempt to remain in the good graces of Russian President Vladimir Putin as peace talks hint at a breakthrough, rather than any expression of interest in sanctions evasion.

Some months ago, I outlined Mr Erdogan’s remarkable resilience, after nearly two decades in power, and wondered how he might bounce back from record-low polling numbers. We may now have our answer: by leveraging a war that has rendered his leadership more valuable at home and abroad.

Of course, a great deal may happen between now and the elections in June 2023.

Published: March 28, 2022, 2:00 PM
David Lepeska

David Lepeska

David Lepeska, a veteran journalist who has reported widely across the region and contributed to top outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Atlantic, is the Turkish and Eastern Mediterranean affairs columnist for The National