Turkey’s next leader may be pro-West but not anti-Russia

Although Erdoğan and Putin enjoy a close personal bond, Turkey’s aim is to benefit from Russia’s international isolation regardless of who is in power.

Expert comment Published 12 May 2023 3 minute READ

The recent virtual ceremony to inaugurate Turkey’s first nuclear power plant saw Vladimir Putin describe it as a ‘flagship project’ in strengthening Russian-Turkish relations – a sentiment echoed by Turkish president Recep Erdoğan in referring to the plant as the ‘biggest joint investment’ with Russia.

This $20 billion project is being constructed – and owned for its first 25 years – by Russian energy company Rosatom, with Turkish company Akkuyu as the local operator. The size is impressive – Putin claimed it is the ‘largest nuclear construction project in the world’ – but the timing of its unveiling is also noteworthy.

The ceremony took place in the run-up to Turkey’s pivotal presidential and parliamentary election, and it is no secret that Russia would prefer Erdoğan to win. Opposition candidate Kemal Kilicdaroglu has called upon Russia to refrain from interfering in the election – through disinformation campaigns and fake videos – if it wants to maintain a friendship post-election.

No Turkish leader has formed as close relationship with Russia as Erdoğan, although almost all Turkish leaders have explored areas of cooperation and functional relationships with Moscow – even during the heyday of the Cold War, Ankara cooperated with Moscow on heavy industry.

But all previous cooperations stopped short of going into strategic, defence industry, and geopolitical realms – and this is why Erdoğan is different.

Personal rapport sustaining closer ties

Turkish-Russian relations entered a new era post-2016, driven by geopolitical imperatives and shared discontent with the West, and underpinned by strong personal rapport between Erdogan and Putin. Although establishing the difference between Ankara-Moscow relations and Erdoğan-Putin relations is difficult, it is clear that the personal agency of the leaders is key to understanding the wider relationship.

An opposition government would likely continue with Turkey’s balancing act on the Ukraine war, but the content of this policy would be different

On defence industry cooperation, Turkey purchased Russian-made S-400 missile systems, which prompted the US imposition of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) sanctions and the removal of Ankara from the F-35 fighter jets programme in which Turkey was a production partner.

On geopolitical cooperation, Ankara and Moscow have become engaged in regional conflict management, from Syria, to Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. The Syrian crisis especially has been central in the making of the current shape of Turkish-Russian relations.

The Astana process, launched by Moscow, Ankara, and Tehran in 2016, effectively sidelined the UN-led Geneva process and redesigned the military map of Syria. Now there are quartet meetings between Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Syria, which aim to chart the way for Ankara-Damascus normalization, and Moscow has placed itself as a gatekeeper for this process.

Ankara and Moscow have also been cooperating in sensitive and strategic areas which create long-term dependency – such as the new nuclear plant to be operated by Russia’s Rosatom for 25 years.

This plant is also expected to produce around ten per cent of Turkey’s electricity after the completion of its four reactors, further increasing Turkey’s dependence on Russia for energy just as many other countries are opting to reduce such dependency.

On a more personal level, unlike previous Turkish leaders, Erdoğan has at times tried to justify Putin’s revisionism in geopolitical affairs and the international arena. At a press conference with Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic in September 2022, Erdoğan said he did not think the West’s ‘provocative’ policies towards Russia were correct, in reference to the European Union (EU) and G7 proposed price cap on Russian gas. He also noted other countries should ‘not underestimate’ Russia.

Opposition victory does not change approach to trade

If the opposition does win, the most important change will probably be that the defence industry cooperation will no longer be on the cards, and that Turkey will refrain from justifying certain Russian actions.

Plus the cooperation on regional crises is not as pressing as it used to be and, given the current opposition does not have an antagonistic relation with the Assad regime as the Erdogan government does, it probably would not need Moscow as an intermediary with Damascus. However the opposition might still need to engage with Russia when it comes to discussing the future of the Turkish military presence in northern Syria with the regime.

An opposition government would likely continue with Turkey’s balancing act on the Ukraine war, but the content of this policy would be different and would likely exclude cooperation with Russia in the defence industry. Ankara would also become more vocal and critical in its language on the invasion itself, aligning more with the Western narrative.

But whoever comes to power in Turkey, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Ukraine would see more non-contentious aspects of bilateral relations – such as trade, energy, and tourism – return to the fore and gain more importance, at least from Moscow’s point of view.

With international sanctions in place, Moscow values its economic, energy, and tourism links with Turkey even more than before. Putin has repeatedly said Moscow is keen to further enhance trade ties with Ankara, and he agreed with Erdoğan to increase their bilateral trade – currently worth $62 billion per year – at a meeting in August 2022.

With international sanctions in place, Moscow values its economic, energy, and tourism links with Turkey even more than before

Turkey can benefit from Russia’s isolation in multiple ways, by attracting Russian money – Russians are among the top international buyers of property in Turkey – and by Turkish companies increasing their presence in the Russian market as other international companies leave the country.

Such close business ties have generated concerns and consternation in the West about Russian sanction-circumvention, prompting the US and European countries to ramp up the pressure on Ankara so Moscow does not use Turkey in this way. This pressure appears to be working as Ankara recently halted the transit of sanctioned goods to Russia.

If the opposition comes to power, Ankara is still unlikely to impose economic sanctions of its own on Russia. But it would more strictly comply with the international sanctions, reducing Moscow’s prospects for sanction-circumvention through Turkey.

Turkey’s next leader will continue building Moscow ties 2nd part

Russians still form the largest group of tourists in Turkey, and Ankara wants this to remain the case. There has reportedly been a search for a new payment system to make it easier for Russian tourists and, for a period in 2022, Turkish banks accepted the Russian Mir payment system to facilitate trade and tourism more smoothly.

But international pressure, especially from the US, saw first Turkey’s private and then public banks withdrew from that scheme. It is yet to be seen whether Ankara and Moscow find a new payment system and, if they do, how long it lasts. In the case of an opposition victory, Ankara would probably refrain from creating such an alternative system.

What is certain is that whoever wins the election will strive to keep economic relations intact, and therefore it is unlikely Turkey will be actively joining the international sanctions – instead it will continue trying to capitalize on the Russian isolation and the departure of international business from the Russian market as much as possible.