The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Erdogan is struggling with Biden. Now he has to make good with Putin.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin meet in Sochi, Russia, on Sept. 29. (Vladimir Smirnov, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arrived in New York last week, he must have felt on top the world. His first book, “A Fairer World is Possible,” was out, featuring an avuncular-looking Erdogan on its cover. It was displayed on a giant screen in Times Square. Trucks with LED-lights featuring his book drove around Manhattan, while Erdogan, with no irony, talked about injustices of the world system at the U.N. General Assembly. He inaugurated the Turkish House, a new high-rise across from the United Nations headquarters, and spoke at a business forum, waxing lyrical about the “strategic alliance” between Turkey and the “complete agreement” between him and President Biden to overcome bilateral issues.

When asked on CBS’s “Face the Nation” of Biden’s earlier reference to him as an “autocrat,” Erdogan said he did not understand what Biden meant.

But sometime between his arrival and his departure, Erdogan’s mood must have changed. On his last day in New York, a visibly upset Erdogan complained that the course of Turkish-U.S. relations “does not bode well” and said, “I have never experienced this situation with any U.S. leader before,” of his personal rapport with Biden. He also said Turkey could purchase a new batch of the famous S-400 Russian missile systems from Moscow, prompting State Department and congressional leaders to warn of a new set of sanctions on Turkey.

Erdogan seems to have been angry at not getting a meeting with Biden — even though there were very few bilaterals among heads of state at the General Assembly this year because of the pandemic. With dwindling voter support and a dire economic scene at home, the Turkish president must have been eager to project an image of global leadership for domestic audiences, hoping it would impress some of his disenchanted voters. Despite the fanfare about the book, the New York trip certainly did not help that cause.

But another reason Erdogan so badly wanted to meet with Biden must have been to bolster his hand as he goes into tough negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week. The Turkish leader believes Turkey is neither part of the transatlantic community nor Eurasia, neither East nor West, but a resurgent power in its own right. He doesn’t want to be a Russian vassal, but he doesn’t trust the West either. Angling for a role in the great power competition, he has skillfully played Russia against the United States and vice versa, all the while increasing Turkey’s footprint in places such as Libya, Syria and the Caucasus.

But this gambit is getting more difficult, as his domestic standing looks weaker and his balancing act resembles a roller coaster. Ankara made a series of strategic errors over the past few years, including ending the peace process with the Kurds, alienating Europeans, abandoning Western norms and purchasing Russian missile systems, which ended up derailing relations with Washington and got Turkey kicked out of the F-35 program for new-generation fighter jets. In Syria, Turkey has helped increase Russia’s footprint at the expense of United States — only to find that Moscow ultimately wants the Syrian regime to gain control of the country and will not shy away from pushing a million refugees toward the Turkish border, as it did in Idlib last year.

When Erdogan met with Putin in Sochi on Wednesday, he probably had big favors to ask and not much to offer. Top of his agenda was trying to dissuade the Russian leader from backing another Syrian offensive in Idlib. With millions of Syrians who fled the regime on its borders, and millions more already inside Turkey, Erdogan is worried a new influx would bring his political downfall.

The second is making sure the Russian gas contracts that are up for renewal will not cause massive price hikes at home. That, too, is ultimately critical to Erdogan’s political survival.

The meeting between Erdogan and Putin lasted nearly three hours, and it’s hard to know what Turkey got out of it. But what is clear is that Erdogan’s traditional balancing act is no longer working, and Putin is the one in a position of strength, able to pressure Turkey economically and in Syria. If Erdogan had not alienated his NATO partners, or if he did not face a critical majority at home, no doubt he would have found it easier to push back against Putin.

But alas. Winter is coming and the Russians are turning up the heat in Idlib and raising the price of heat in Turkey. Right now, the world probably does not seem very fair to the Turkish leader. And more than anyone, he may have himself to blame for that.