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Turkey’s Neutrality on Ukraine Is Coming at a High Price

Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, left, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, stand on stage during the inauguration ceremony for the TurkStream natural gas pipeline, operated by Gazprom PJSC and Botas AS, in Istanbul, Turkey, on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020. TurkStream is set to carry Russian gas under the Black Sea to Turkey and supply several countries in southeast Europe once fully operational, just as U.S. sanctions stall another Gazprom PJSC export line. (Bloomberg)

Last summer, after years of open hostility, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emmanuel Macron called a “verbal ceasefire.”  Now, the Turkish and French presidents are in direct communication as each tries to intercede with Vladimir Putin to broker an end to the war in Ukraine.

The would-be peacemakers have made no headway with the Russian president, however. Having punctured Macron’s pride by ignoring his importunities against the invasion, Putin has been somewhat more indulgent of Erdogan’s presumptions as a mediator in the conflict.

But while he sent negotiators to peace talks in Istanbul, the Russian leader is showing no interest in ending the war. The negotiations came to an abrupt halt after last week’s revelations of atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians in Bucha. Turkey is clinging to hope talks will resume.

Putin’s demeaning of Macron might yet be a factor in the Frenchman’s chances of re-election later this month: It has dented his claim to have put France at the center of European affairs, which is a major plank of his campaign. Erdogan doesn’t need to face Turkish voters for another year, so a failure to broker peace carries no immediate political peril. But there are geopolitical and economic costs he can’t afford to ignore.

The longer the war drags on, the harder it will be to sustain Turkey’s carefully calibrated neutrality. Erdogan’s calculation at the start of the conflict was that he could use his friendship with Putin as leverage with the West. NATO, he reckoned, would be simultaneously anxious to keep him in the Western camp and glad to use him as a backchannel to communicate with his “dear friend” in Moscow. They might even forgive his previous trespasses, such as his purchase of Russian missile-defense systems over NATO objections, which have earned Turkey the suspicion of its allies as well as American sanctions.

Erdogan also hoped that Ukraine’s successful use of Turkish military drones against the Russian invaders would help overcome the perception that he was on the side of the bad guys in the conflict. He has openly called for NATO to end arms embargoes against his country. The U.S. and other members of the alliance have rightly been noncommittal on this. If the Turkish leader wants the privileges that come with NATO membership, then he must join the consensus. If he doesn’t, Erdogan will find himself pushed farther into the margins of the alliance, even as the Turkish economy sinks deeper into a hole.

As NATO closes ranks against Russia — even Germany has abandoned its pacifist posture — patience with Turkey’s claims of neutrality is wearing thin. Erdogan’s refusal to join the Western alliance in imposing stiff sanctions on Moscow is harder to justify amid the mounting evidence of Russian war crimes. And at a time when Switzerland is going along with those sanctions, it is not a good look for Ankara that Putin’s oligarch cronies are using Turkey to park their superyachts and suitcases full of cash.

Nor will Russians paying berthing fees and buying luxury apartments adequately defray the cost the war is imposing on the Turkish economy. Inflation is at a 20-year high: Consumer prices rose an annual 61.1% in March, up from 54.4% in February. 

Investors can hardly have failed to notice. At the start of April, S&P Global Ratings cut Turkey’s local currency credit rating to B+, four levels below investment grade, citing the impact of soaring energy prices from Russia’s war in Ukraine. “The fallout [of the conflict], including rising food and energy prices, will further weaken Turkey’s already tenuous balance of payments and exacerbate inflation,” S&P said in a statement. “The latter is on course to average 55% in 2022, the highest level of all the sovereigns we rate.”

And even if Erdogan is disinclined to impose sanctions on Moscow, the measures are complicating major Russian projects in Turkey. The construction of a $20 billion nuclear power plant, for instance, has run into trouble because the Russian builder, state-controlled Rosatom Corp., is having difficulty sourcing equipment from other countries.

Since his chances of persuading Putin to make peace are slim to none, Erdogan might welcome his phone calls with Macron. Having once encouraged the French president to have his head examined, the Turkish leader may be grateful to have his sympathetic ear.

More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Yes, Russians Know What Their Military Is Doing in Ukraine: Leonid Bershidsky

Macron Knows Inflation Is Le Pen’s Best Weapon: Lionel Laurent

Bucha’s Atrocities Are Not Russia’s First. They Must Be the Last: Clara Ferreira Marques

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. A former editor in chief of the Hindustan Times, he was managing editor of Quartz and Time magazine’s international editor.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion

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