In Other News – Turkey Navigates and Shapes a New Geopolitical Order – 8/18/2022

August 18, 2022

As the war in Ukraine continues, Turkey is both navigating, and shaping, a new geopolitical order. Earlier today, UN Secretary General Guterres and Turkish President Erdogan met in western Ukraine with President Zelenskyy to discuss the ongoing economic and security impact of the war. It will be Erdogan’s first visit to Ukraine since February, and he’ll be looking for ways to increase and secure Ukrainian grain exports from Black Sea ports after initial agreements were signed in Istanbul in late July. Erdogan, who previously met with Putin in southern Russia on the same issues, is in a unique position to serve as a regional broker. Notably, about one year ago we saw how Turkey was also vying to play mediator in Kabul, and although Qatar was ultimately better positioned for the role, Turkey has since maintained global relevance as the only NATO member with a diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.

Turkey is now drawing upon this experience to calibrate its relationships with NATO, Russia, and associated allies. These relationships are often quite transactional, and Erdogan likely assumes that by making himself an indispensable go-between in Ukraine he might gain greater leeway to purchase Russian military equipment without sanctions and to act on his own accord in Syria. So far, Erdogan is doing a decent job of the balancing act, trying to appease the West by acting as a mediator and equipping Ukraine’s army with drones, while simultaneously expanding trade with Russia. But it’s a difficult position to maintain, and his diplomatic policies will be heavily informed by domestic concerns.

Indeed, while Erdogan is guided by numerous priorities, including limiting refugees and upholding his role as a global statesman, he’s really trying to pump up the Turkish economy before next year’s elections. Just today, in a move derided by many financial analysts, Turkey’s central bank surprisingly cut the benchmark rate despite soaring inflation. Since 2021, Turkey has been suffering from an ongoing currency crisis that’s led to financial instability, and Ankara has recently looked to Russia for economic relief. There’s been an uptick in Turkish-Russian trade since February, and five Turkish banks are even reportedly adopting Russia’s Mir payments system. European countries also recognize Turkey’s role as an export base for sending non-sanctioned goods to Russia, a position that forces Ankara to balance potential economic gain with the risk of facilitating sanctions evasion.

But Turkey isn’t limiting its economic outreach to Russia. In the past few months Erdogan has made overtures to Saudi and the UAE, and this week Ankara reestablished critical diplomatic relations with Israel for the first time in four years. Both Tel Aviv and Ankara expressed a mutual desire to increase economic ties, but they likely also recognize the strength in unity as states in proximity to Russia or Russian forces. And while international attention has been understandably focused on Putin’s deepening relationship with China, Turkey is also looking further east and is reportedly pursuing closer relations with Beijing and regional alliances like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Indeed, Turkey’s relationship with China has been evolving over the past several years and could serve to offer both Beijing and Ankara leverage on the global stage regardless of what happens next in Ukraine.