Can Turkey turn Ukraine shock into an advantage?

Truly, there is an opportunity in every crisis, if policy makers adopt a long-term approach and play their cards.  It is the hallmark of Erdogan to approach every major geopolitical development in Turkey’s neighborhood with an eye on “profit” or national interests.  As the war in Ukraine rages with numerous and significant spillovers to Turkish economy, Erdogan now appears focused on using diplomacy to steal a victory from the jaws of defeat. His job is not easy.


“Turkey’s provision of armed drones to Ukraine, which have been instrumental in the conflict against Russian forces.


Erdogan may be hoping that the enhanced profile will redound to his political advantage”, reports al Monitor.


Erdogan: Turkey will leave its mark on 21st century


“Turkey’s diplomatic isolation was the focus of excited punditry in recent years,” writes Amberin Zaman in the al Monitor news report cited above, “but today, Ankara is running out of red carpet as a deluge of foreign dignitaries knock at its door.”


Recent knockers include NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis — all as a result of Turkey’s critical role, geographically and diplomatically, in the Russia-Ukraine crisis.


Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s latest U-turn  in global and regional diplomacy is connected to both a dire economy, made worse by the Russia-Ukraine war, and elections in June 2023, where he and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will face a more united and determined opposition.


Following Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s hosting of his Ukrainian and Russian counterparts, Dmytro Kuleba and Sergey Lavrov, in the southern town of Antalya on March 10, Erdogan is playing a tough diplomatic hand about as well as it can be played.


While Turkey is a NATO member, Erdogan has also cultivated a solid working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, despite differences over Syria and, especially now, Turkey’s provision of armed drones to Ukraine, which have been instrumental in the conflict against Russian forces.


Erdogan may be hoping that the enhanced profile will redound to his political advantage.


“Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began nearly three weeks ago, there has been a newfound optimism among the AKP ranks,” writes Pinar Tremblay. “No one can deny that the invasion will cost Turkey, as it will lead to revenue losses from tourism to agriculture. However, AKP elites also see this as a God-sent opportunity to sweep the 2023 elections.”


Helping the ‘unfortunate people’


Ukraine Crisis Could Cost Turkey $30 Billion | Real Turkey




Erdogan pledged this week that “unfortunate people” who have sought shelter in Turkey would not be sent back to their war-torn countries, reports Nazlan Ertan, “simultaneously attacking the opposition’s anti-migrant rhetoric and signaling to the Western allies that he would not ‘weaponize’ the refugee issue.”

There are already over 20,000 Ukrainian refuges in Turkey, which hosts one of the largest refugee communities globally, including 4 million Syrians, 193,000 of whom have been granted Turkish citizenship, Ertan reports.


While the attitude of voters towards new refugees is yet to be assessed by opinion polls, there is vast consensus (90-95% of participants that Syrian refugees are not welcome.


Turnaround in ties with Israel


Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, like Erdogan, has taken on an outsized diplomatic role to try to mediate an end to the Russia-Ukraine war.


In the past, such a contest would have pushed Erdogan to a kind of one-upmanship, given the mostly miserable state of Israel-Turkey ties over the past decade.


“Jerusalem and Ankara are even believed to be coordinating their moves,” regarding Russia-Ukraine mediation, scoops Ben Caspit. “This reversal stems from the major detente in their relationship since last summer, which peaked with the visit March 9 by President Isaac Herzog to Ankara and Istanbul. Erdogan pulled out all the stops in welcoming Herzog, publicly abandoning the comfort zone from which he used Israel as a punching bag whenever the need arose to firm up his political base. Judging by his statements, he is focusing, instead, on his country’s strategic geopolitical interests in light of major regional and international developments. In this arena, Ankara’s positions are far closer to Jerusalem these days than they are too many other capitals.”


Turkey and Israel have appointed a high-level team to “iron out difference,” Caspit reports, although the prospect of Israeli natural gas going through Turkey, which Erdogan would prefer, is unlikely. The current plan is for Israel to work though Egypt for gas exports.


No easy path for gas via Turkey


While the export of Israeli natural gas though Turkey is a long shot at best, Ankara is also exploring other exporters to position Turkey as an energy hub.


The European Union needs an alternative to Russia, on which it depends for 40% of its gas imports.


There has been some speculation that Turkey could be the bridge for an alternative route for Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and the Iraqi Kurdistan Region to bring gas to Europe, but in  each case, there are more questions than answers, such as the absence of rule of law in Turkey. As well, there are strong suspicions in US and EU policy circles that Erdogan may turn any economic favors into another clampdown on the opposition at home.  Given how the world condemned Putin’s murderous behavior in Ukraine,  providing finance and long-term purchase contracts to Turkey for gas may have high reputational costs.



Meet the Person Who Can Beat Erdogan: Kemal Kilicdaroglu | Real Turkey

It’s the economy … and it’s getting worse


For Erdogan, it’s ultimately all about staying in power, with general elections 15 months away, in June 2023.


Turkey’s economic crisis is his greatest political liability, and it is likely to get worse.


“Economic instability has only grown since Erdogan assumed sweeping executive powers in 2018,” explains Mustafa Sonmez. “Inflation stands out as the gravest problem, having soared to 54.4% in February. The fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made matters worse, with Turkey’s risk premium surging to the region of 600 basis points. The current account deficit has already reached $20 billion this year and is bound to grow further. The nation’s external debts maturing over the next 12 months total about $174 billion. All those factors could plunge the embattled Turkish lira into a fresh tailspin.”



This is the point where Erdogan strategists misread the public mood.  In the past, when prosperity was the prevailing theme, voters were ready to buy into promises of long-term welfare-enhancing projects (as costly as they may be to their wallets) and overblown foreign victories, such as  standing firm against “imperialistic” intervention in domestic politics by US or EU.


Since the beginning of 2022, all opinion polls conclude that the predominant preoccupation of the voters has been dealing with rising costs of living and unemployment. None of Erdogan’s diplomatic maneuvers angling new investments in Turkey can solve the main concern of voters.


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Published By: Atilla Yeşilada

GlobalSource Partners’ Turkey Country Analyst Atilla Yesilada is the country’s leading political analyst and commentator. He is known throughout the finance and political science world for his thorough and outspoken coverage of Turkey’s political and financial developments. In addition to his extensive writing schedule, he is often called upon to provide his political expertise on major radio and television channels. Based in Istanbul, Atilla is co-founder of the information platform Istanbul Analytics and is one of GlobalSource’s local partners in Turkey. In addition to his consulting work and speaking engagements throughout the US, Europe and the Middle East, he writes regular columns for Turkey’s leading financial websites VATAN and and has contributed to the financial daily Referans and the liberal daily Radikal.