As Russia’s war in Ukraine drags on, Turkey’s role expands

Istanbul, Turkey – Turkey’s influence in the Ukraine war is growing again.

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In recent weeks, Ankara helped save the grain export deal after Russia suddenly withdrew from the agreement, threatening the world’s food supply.

After four days of telephone diplomacy between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, as well as other officials on both sides, Moscow announced on November 2 that it was rejoining the pact originally brokered by Turkey and the United Nations in July.

“He [Putin] doesn’t agree to open this grain corridor through others. But with me, when I call … straight away he opened the grain corridor,” Erdogan said in an interview with broadcaster ATV on the day of Russia’s U-turn.

Early in the war, Ankara hosted negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian officials in Istanbul and Antalya.

And on Monday, the heads of the American and Russian foreign intelligence services – the CIA’s Bill Burns and Sergey Nariskin of the SVR – met in Ankara to discuss “threats against international security, starting with the use of nuclear weapons”, Erdogan’s office said.

© Provided by Al Jazeera Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan [File: Sputnik/Alexander Demyanchuk/Pool via Reuters]

Since February 24, Ankara has carefully balanced relations with both sides in the war.

Turkey has supplied Ukraine with vital weaponry, such as the much-vaunted Bayraktar drones, but also equipment including Kirpi armoured troop carriers and body armour. Last month the first of four Ada-class corvettes built for Ukraine was launched at an Istanbul shipyard.

As guardian of the Black Sea entrance, Turkey closed its straits to military vessels within days of the war starting, preventing Moscow from reinforcing its fleet.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has maintained regular contact with Putin and, in keeping with Turkey’s policy of only following UN Security Council-approved sanctions, has kept up economic ties as the West turned its back on Russia.

Trade between the Black Sea neighbours has blossomed over the last nine months.

Turkey’s exports to Russia leapt 86 percent last month to $1.15bn while imports from Russia more than doubled to $5.03bn, according to official Turkish figures.

Sun-seeking Russians – as well as yacht-owning oligarchs – have been flocking to Turkey’s beaches this year, with 3.8 million arriving in the first nine months, the second-largest national group after Germans.

© Provided by Al Jazeera Valeria Harmash, a Ukrainian living in Istanbul, says it is painful to see Russians ‘living like they don’t care’ about the war, while in Turkey [Andy Wilks/Al Jazeera]

For Ukrainians in Turkey, however, sharing Istanbul’s shops and restaurants with Russian tourists and draft dodgers has rubbed salt in the wound.

“It’s very difficult because they started the war and then they run away from Russia and enjoy their lives in places like Turkey,” said Valeria Harmash, a 28-year-old from Kharkiv, whose brother and uncle are on the front line.

“It’s very painful for me – their people, their president destroyed the lives of my family and friends, but I see Russians in Zara, Starbucks and Mango living like they don’t care. I can see it in their faces when they see my Ukraine badge that they don’t feel any sorrow.”

© Provided by Al Jazeera INTERACTIVE_UKRAINE_RUSSIA_GRAIN_DEAL_HANNA_INTERACTIVE_UKRAINT_RUSSIA_GRAIN_DEAL.jpg

Tourism and other foreign income have proved vital as Erdogan faces Turkey’s worst economic crisis under his 20-year rule and difficult elections next year.

Access to Russian energy has meant Turkey is not facing the same level of price increases seen elsewhere in Europe.

Natural gas from Russia filled 45 percent of Turkey’s needs last year and Ankara has reportedly asked for its payments to be deferred to 2024.

Meanwhile, Putin has floated the idea of Turkey becoming a hub for the sale of Russian gas to the European market.

Large sums of mostly untraceable foreign cash have also flowed into Turkey – $24.9bn between January and September, according to Central Bank figures released on Friday, more than double the same period in 2021 – and have helped prop up its growing current account deficit.

“I think it is now beyond reasonable doubt that these … inflows are predominately Russian money flows, with Putin now firmly pinning his colours to Erdogan’s mast to ensure his re-election,” said Timothy Ash, an associate fellow at Chatham House’s Russia and Eurasia programme.

The Central Bank did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment at the time of publishing.

However, in a Financial Times interview last month, Finance Minister Nureddin Nebati said tourism revenue made up a significant chunk of the unaccounted income, since Russians use cash because sanctions have excluded them from the financial system. He said all the funds were legitimate even though the origins of such cash deposits are impossible to trace.

Mithat Rende, a former Turkish ambassador to Qatar with expertise in energy negotiations, described Putin’s gas hub suggestion as an attempt “to drive a wedge between Turkey and the West and also upset the solidarity between European countries”.

Questions have been raised about the viability of such a hub, given Europe’s desire to wean itself off Russian gas and the additional infrastructure needed.

“If Putin would like to make a gesture towards Turkey, or towards his friend, the president, it’s not by declaring his willingness to make Turkey an energy hub. It’s to postpone the [gas] payments,” Rende added.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, pointed to the arrival of reported Russian capital as a factor in Erdogan’s recent rally in the polls.

“Compared to last June, all major polls suggest Erdogan has consolidated his supporters,” he said. “I think this is more as a result of capital inflows to Turkey during the summer. It was a very good tourism season. Russian money came to Turkey and unemployment decreased a little and the currency more or less stabilised.”

Erdogan’s role in the grain deal – Putin congratulated him as a champion of the world’s poorer countries as he returned to the agreement – has undoubtedly raised the Turkish president’s international standing as he has steadfastly sought mediation between the warring sides.

And Russia, which has deepened its ties with countries such as China, India and Turkey as it has been frozen out by the West, is increasingly reliant on Ankara as a window to the Western world – a position that has raised concerns about sanctions-busting in Washington.

Turkey’s gains due to the war can also be seen in its relationship with its NATO allies and the West, in general.

Swedish and Finnish efforts to join the Atlantic alliance have been blocked by Turkey as it sought concessions from the Nordic states, calling for a crackdown on those it deemed “terrorists” sheltering in the two countries. The new Swedish government has indicated its shifting position over the Kurdish-Syrian YPG, due to the group’s ties to Kurdish rebels who have fought the Turkish state for the last 38 years.

Although Washington has denied a link to the Nordic NATO expansion, Ankara is moving closer to reaching a deal with the US on updating its fleet of F-16 fighter jets.

Erdogan’s balanced approach has generally met with public approval in Turkey.

“It’s right that we don’t get too closely involved in this war,” said Omer Avci, an Istanbul shopkeeper.

“The Russian occupation is terrible but President Erdogan is the one working for peace while the West does nothing. We need peace in the region for ourselves as well as the world.”

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