Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is trying to get the most from Turkey's theoretical Western allies while in reality allying with Russian President Vladimir Putin – like sort of a Muslim Fidel Castro.
In an article published last month, this author suggested:
"Once again, Western optimists are misreading Erdoğan, that he is 'rekindling fraught relations with the West.' He just needs Western money, a few pats on the shoulder and legitimacy for his sultanship."
The New York Times, in an editorial, woke up and agreed:
"Just two months ago, many in the West thought they had seen indications that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey was shifting away from what they saw as his overly chummy relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
"Turkey allowed a group of celebrated Ukrainian fighters to return to the battlefield, prompting Russia to accuse it of violating an agreement. And Mr. Erdoğan finally dropped his resistance to allowing Sweden to join NATO, strengthening the military alliance aimed at countering Russia.
"But any sense of a significant change in Mr. Erdoğan's balancing act between Russia and the West appeared to evaporate on Monday, when he and Mr. Putin stood side by side after a meeting in the Russian resort town of Sochi and spoke of expanding cooperation."
Back in July, the West wanted to maintain its comfortable sleep over bitter facts when Erdoğan unexpectedly green-lit Sweden's bid to join NATO. This move provoked a degree of celebration and praise that individual leaders rarely get at a summit. U.S. President Joe Biden applauded Erdoğan's "courage, leadership, and diplomacy." "This is a historic day," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said. Erdoğan could not have been read more mistakenly.
At the Sochi summit on September 4, Erdoğan, speaking as if he were Putin's spokesman, suggested that "Ukraine should soften its position on the grain corridor deal," referring to the UN-brokered Black Sea Grain Corridor Agreement, from which Russia had withdrawn on July 17. Having taken orders from the boss, Erdoğan returned home with an agenda to convince Western parties to the deal on whatever terms Moscow insists should be in any new agreement.
Erdoğan needs Western money to prevent Turkey's economic suicide. He needs U.S.-made fighter jets to maintain a delicate power balance over the Aegean skies. He needs Western pats on the shoulder to win legitimacy for his undemocratic one-man rule. But he wants all of these cookies without having to give up Russia. Over the past years, Erdoğan has made Turkey addicted to Russia, like a junkie to a dealer.
Russia is building -- and will own -- Turkey's first nuclear power plant in Akkuyu on the Mediterranean coast. In Sochi, Erdoğan and Putin agreed to build a second Russian nuclear power plant, planned for Sinop on the Black Sea coast.
In 2022, Russian exports to Turkey reached $60 billion, making the country the biggest source of Turkey's imports. In 2021, Russia ranked second after China, with exports worth $29 billion to Turkey. Turkey's crude oil imports from Russia rose from 10 million tons in 2021 to 19 million tons in 2022. This means Russia supplied 41% of Turkey's total oil imports in 2022. Turkey's energy watchdog said that in May-June of 2023, Russia's share of oil imports reached 50%. Also in 2022, Russia also supplied 39% of Turkey's natural gas. Russia is Turkey's top energy supplier.
Five million Russian tourists visited Turkey in 2022. The head of Turkish construction companies' union, Erdal Eren, said that Turkish companies hold $18 billion to $20 billion in their Russian construction portfolio.
Against this backdrop, it was appalling to hear an EU ambassador in Ankara tell me that he was appalled that Erdoğan said that a) he trusts Russia as much as he trusts the West, and that b) Ankara could "part ways" with the European Union if necessary. Erdogan's ultranationalist ally, Devlet Bahçeli, immediately endorsed the cheap bluff: "We're done with the EU."
That is the way Erdoğan does horse trading. Sadly, each time, the gullible West gets cheated.
At least $14 million worth of coal produced in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, occupied by Russia, has been exported to NATO member Turkey this year, according to Russian customs data reviewed by Reuters. Between February and July 2023, about 160,400 tons of coal from the regions arrived in Turkey. Three producers listed in the customs data confirmed to Reuters they had shipped coal from the two regions to Turkey during that period.
Erdoğan's Turkey is one of the countries breaking Western sanctions on Russia. Earlier in September, the US State Department imposed sanctions on five Turkish shipping and trade companies for repairing Russian Defense Ministry vessels, transporting Russian military goods, and helping Russia to evade sanctions.
Perhaps Erdoğan is right. Turkey should part ways with the EU – and NATO too.
Burak Bekdil, one of Turkey's leading journalists, was recently fired from the country's most noted newspaper after 29 years, for writing in Gatestone what is taking place in Turkey. He is a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.