His diplomatic stunts appear more aimed to protect his business while the ball is precisely over the net than an actual peace-building process.
Day by day, the western media cry wolf: “They are arriving, they are at three meters, two, one”. Cutting corners, Bloomberg, the top of the class, has already staged the invasion: why not anticipate the news? In reality, in Ukraine, we are as in the first image of Woody Allen’s 2005 movie Match Point where the shot remains frozen in the exact moment when the tennis ball is over the net. This suspension time, full of risks and opportunities, attracts some characters searching for a leadership role under the international spotlight and, of course, an image boost at home. Easy to guess we are speaking of the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In the last weeks, he succeeded in defending the sale of lethal Turkish drones to the Ukrainians that are using them to terrorise Donbas and, at the same time, proposing himself as a peace mediator between Moscow and Kiev. Erdogan’s political identity card is irregular enough to give him some room for manoeuvre. But Turkey’s unpredictability, the chance to see the country in a soft version of non-alignment, stems more from its weakness and contradictions than from a position of strength that could support its credibility.
Although Ankara is the second-largest military force in Nato, after the U.S., it is buying the S-400 air defence system from Russia, rejecting the American Patriot. A little bit over rhetorically, someone in the country hailed the choice as a “country’s liberation from the West”. The gas import from Russia is crucial, and the economic ties include industrial, construction investments and tourism. Russian President Vladimir Putin has just accepted President Erdogan’s invitation to visit his country. The Turkish are expecting that the Kremlin will announce the date of his visit this month, after his return from the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Therefore, the relations with Moscow aren’t always good; sometimes, they are horrible. In Syria, Turkey downed a Russian Su-24 bomber in November 2015. Turkish weapons (the drones again) helped Azerbaijan blitz to retake Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia in the 2020 war. A strategic area for Russia. Ali Akbar Velayati, the international affairs adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Turkey is “adding fuel to the fire”. More recently, some reports suggested the Turkish secret services not so covert involvement in Kazaksthan’s violent upheaval on December’s beginning.
After many years of Bruxelles’ closed-door politics, the love and hate engagement with Europe is fading in resentment. So, in the last decade, the Asian soul of Turkey has grown dramatically at the expense of the European one.
The NATO links are still strong, but Ankara prefers to gather Asia’s Turkish populations under its Pan-Turkish flag than under America’s Global Police. The recent killing in Syria of the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, is also seen as an American message to its eastern NATO ally. In the words of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Turkey “turned the areas of northern Syria into a safe zone for Daesh leaders”.
Ankara disowned the statement of its sworn enemies but its initial choice to sit out the war against ISIS speaks volumes.
The relationship with Tel Aviv has seen the same zigzag. Israeli-Turkish relations have been tense, especially since the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in which IDF’s fire killed nine Turkish nationals. In May 2018, Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador in Ankara after deadly clashes between the Israeli Army and Palestinians on the Gaza border. The Turkish diplomatic counterpart had to leave Israel. For the last two years, Turkey has been trying to reactivate its ties with Israel. A few days ago, Erdogan announced an official visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog for mid-March. Pushed by its economic difficulties, Turkey may see normalisation with Israel to improve its economy and, at the same time, its political status in the Middle East and with the US. Especially in the new climate, real or not is too early to say, produced by the Abraham Accords, Ankara is betting on an economic opening to the Gulf countries.
Erdogan’s regard for Turkey’s geopolitical stance is conditioned partially by the wishful thinking of the pan-Turkish-New Ottoman ideology. Still, his action is more substantially guided by the urge to exit the deep Turkish economy’s crisis. Turkey’s annual inflation has just risen at nearly 49%, hitting a near 20-year high and further eroding people’s ability to buy even basic things like food. The Turkish Statistical Institute stated that the consumer price index increased by just over 11% in January from the previous month. According to the data, the yearly increase in food prices was more than 55%.
The Turkish opposition parties have repeatedly questioned the Statistical Institute’s independence and data. The independent Inflation Research Group put Turkey’s actual annual inflation at a stunning 114.87%. As financial hardship has spread, the crisis has prompted criticism of the president’s recent accumulation of authority, from appointing bank policymakers to university rectors to high court judges.
Ankara’s so-called “drones diplomacy” is easier to understand in this context. Its first success was in Libya in 2020. The Bayraktar TB2, purchased by Qatar and operated by Turkish personnel, helped the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) stop Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s assault on Tripoli. The drones are manufactured by Istanbul-based Baykar, owned by Erdogan’s son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar. Federico Borsari of the European Council on Foreign Relations noted that the Bayaktars had become a major asset: “Their most significant effects may be in the economic opportunities and political leverage they have provided Turkey”.
Further irritating Moscow, Turkey now is planning to build near Kiev a drones factory to produce the long-endurance Anka drone, made by Turkish Aerospace Industries.
Drones are not invincible; above all, their most significant advantage is comparatively low cost. Electronic countermeasures are one of the most used defences against them. Russia has the new Tor-M2 SAM; a lethal short-range air defence missile system developed expressly against drones. But in many cases, it is like “take a hammer to crack a nut”. General Oleg Salyukov, the commander of Russia’s ground forces, told Rossiyskaya Gazeta: “The cost of one guided air defence missile is way above the cost of a small-size drone. For this reason, a relatively inexpensive small missile is being developed for this system”.
President Erdogan’s peacekeeping attempt is welcome but challenging to pursue, not recognising the Russian incorporation of Crimea as legal (still, in 2008, he rushed to recognise Kosovo’s independence) and arming the Ukrainians to the teeth. More than everything, he seems not in a position to extract any concessions from NATO. His diplomatic stunts appear more aimed to protect his business while the ball is precisely over the net than an actual peace-building process.