Erdogan and Putin: A codependent relationship?

Erdogan and Putin: A codependent relationship?
A+ A-
As Turkey’s economic crisis has made Putin a valuable partner for Erdogan, the Ukrainian crisis has made Turkey's partnership more crucial for Putin.

With both leaders facing problems, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin need each other more than ever. Erdogan needs the economic benefits Turkey gets from Russia as the next election approaches and Putin needs the only NATO member country leader he can speak with to stay in power.

In her article in al-Monitor, titled “Why Russia’s Vladimir Putin is rooting for Turkey’s Erdogan,” Amberin Zaman summarized the relationship between Erdogan and Putin.

Why Erdogan Needs Putin

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in his two decades of rule, is facing his biggest challenge yet. The rising inflation, the decaying currency, and resentment toward Syrian refugees led to Erdogan performing poorly in the opinion polls of the upcoming 2023 election.

The polls suggest that, if the elections were held today, Erdogan would lose the run-off round of the presidential elections, and his party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) would lose the majority in the parliament.

Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and author of “Turkey Under Erdogan. How a Country Turned from Democracy and the West" said: “Erdogan is, all said and done, an electoral politician. He needs to win votes to stay afloat.” The possibility of Erdogan losing is unsettling for Putin.

Russia is crucial for the Turkish economy, exports to Russia from Turkey skyrocketed. The Financial Times reported that in July alone, the value of exports to Russia increased by 75%. Rosatom, the Russian state owned company which is building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, had sent around $5 billion to its Turkish subsidiary. For a short term, the cash helped to fill Turkey’s foreign currency reserves. According to Aydin Sezer, a former Turkish Treasury official who served in Moscow, this was a gesture of support to Erdogan.

Russia also said that they could buy currencies of “friendly countries”. This would be important for the value of the Turkish Lira which lost 80% of its value in the last five years.

Turkey owes its leverage to Russia stumbling and continued Ukrainian gains would lead to Erdogan finessing his balancing act, but his main strategy is not going to change. He will try to capitalize on short term benefits while trying to offset his lost leverage with the West, said Nicholas Danforth, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy.

“Given how ruthlessly pragmatic Erdogan is, it’s a question of ‘what’s in it for me.’” says Mark Galeotti, a London-based lecturer.

Sezer says that a new operation against Kurds in Syria would help Erdogan in the polls. But Russia resists Erdogan’s requests since Russia is also growing dependent on Iran. Iran opposes Turkish plans and the last thing Iran wants is Turkey to grow its footprint on Syria.

Why Putin Needs Erdogan

Turkey’s refusal to join the Western sanctions against Russia is crucial for Putin, despite senior US officials' criticism toward Turkey, Turkish skies are open to Russian carriers and the doors are open to hundreds of thousands of Russians and their money.

Chris Miller, a professor who specializes in Russian affairs said that even though Erdogan presents himself as a friend of both Ukraine and Russia, his efforts during the war are more favorable to Russia.

On the Ukrainian grain deal, Sezer said that if Russians were negotiating themselves, they would not have reached a deal as good as the current one. “Whichever way you look at things, it’s clear Putin wants Erdogan to stay,” Sezer told Al-Monitor.

Erdogan’s pro-Russian attitude became clearer with his statement in Belgrade during a joint news conference with Serbia’s President Aleksandar Vucic. Erdogan said that he does not find the West’s attitude toward Russia right and that their policies are based on provocation. He warned the West not to underestimate Russia. On the natural gas issue between Europe and Russia, Erdogan said: "Europe is actually reaping what it sowed."

Miller said that the rift between the West and Turkey benefits Russia and that this rift is growing with Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 systems and the ejection of Turkey from the F-35 program.

“You are able to pursue normal relations with Turkey at a time when you are unable to pursue normal relations with any other country that is part of the West or the Euro-Atlantic system. (...) the Russians would rather not gamble with someone else coming to power,” Miller said.

According to Sezer, for Russia, Erdogan is a decisive man who can cut through all the red tape and with whom business can be done. Russian oligarchs with close ties to Putin entered the Turkish market in a big way, for example Lukoil’s investments in Turkey have reportedly reached $1 billion, including 600 fuel stations.

Galeotti said that Putin wants to see Erdogan in power not because he has a particular thing about Erdogan, but because he is the best option for him.