Turkish Islamists, especially Neo-Ottomans, have historically hated Russia -- both Czarist and Soviet. Similarly, Russians and Soviets have never been great fans of the Turks -- both Ottoman and republican. Today, however, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with a big foot in NATO, is exhibiting a pro-Russian tilt never seen before, and at a time when Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen as an existential threat to Western interests. What is the secret behind this sudden marriage?
For Putin, Erdoğan's friendship is growing ever more important -- and vice versa.
Turkey has refused to join Western sanctions against Russia over Ukraine, thereby throwing a lifeline to Putin. Turkish skies remain open to Russian airlines and its doors open to hundreds of thousands of Russians and their money. Turkish exports to Russia are surging. In July alone, exports to Russia shot up by a dizzying 75 percent year-on-year.
Russia's state-run Rosatom, which is building Turkey's first nuclear power plant, has sent about $5 billion to its Turkish subsidiary, the first in a series of such transfers. Russian cash helped plug the growing hole in Turkey's foreign currency reserves -- at a time when Erdoğan needs foreign money for the country's ailing economy before the presidential and parliamentary elections this June.
Some analysts see the Rosatom-Akkuyu-dollar bonds triangle as a Turkish-Russian scheme to open a parking space for Russian funds in Turkey. They think, for example, the increase in the Turkish central bank's foreign currency and gold reserves — $108 billion on August 4, up from $98.9 billion on July 26 -- had to do with Russian money flowing to Turkey.
Bloomberg reported that "mystery capital flows" into Turkey had reached "new highs allowing policymakers to boost foreign reserves despite a growing trade deficit and weak demand for lira assets." Bloomberg's source remains unclear.
In March, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that Russian oligarchs were welcome in Turkey. In October, the Financial Times reported that between January and August 2021, a record $28 billion from unclear origins had flowed into Turkey. Turkish investigative journalist Aytuğ Özçolak listed a few of the Russian oligarchs who have business interests, investment and funds in Turkey as Leonid Mikhelson, Vagit Alekperov, Vladimir Lisin, Vladimir Potanin, Alexey Mordashov and Mikhail Fridman.
According to Marc Pierini, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and a former EU Ambassador to Ankara, the number of Russian expatriates in Turkey, as well as their real estate investments and financial transfers to Turkish banks, have grown substantially. Moreover, Pierini wrote, there is a suspicion that Russia is trying to circumvent some of the effects of Western sanctions via Turkey, in particular through the acquisition of stakes in Turkish oil businesses, as joint companies help to blur oil trade.
Pierini further noted:
"The Kremlin's policy is highly pragmatic: knowing that Turkey's partners in NATO are keen to keep it in the North Atlantic Alliance and Ankara has every interest in staying within NATO, Putin's goal remains anchoring Erdoğan more and more to Russia through a vast mesh of mutually beneficial operations in the fields of defense, energy, trade, and finance.
"By doing this, Putin is comforting an embattled incumbent president and is openly bolstering Erdoğan's position in the upcoming elections. More than the Turkish president abandoning his traditional Western partners, the world is witnessing the Russian president using Turkey for his own benefits."
Jokes in Ankara's political grapevine describe Putin as "head of the Erdoğan Party's Moscow provincial branch." Whichever indicator one looks at, Putin wants Erdoğan to stay in power. He would rather not gamble with someone else as Turkey's new leader. After all, Erdoğan's potential rivals pledge to reinstate Turkey's strong bonds with Western countries.
The Erdoğan-Putin bond has two main pillars. One is pragmatism: They both strategically, politically, and economically benefit. The other is ideological: They both hate the West.
Burak Bekdil is an Ankara-based political analyst and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.