Turkey’s neutrality on Ukraine comes at a high price – Bobby Ghosh

While French President Emmanuel Macron, facing an immediate election, has more at risk than his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who does not have to face the voters for another year, the Ukraine conflict dragging on does pose a threat to Erdoğan’s balancing act, columnist Bobby Ghosh wrote in an article for Bloomberg on Saturday.

Erdoğan sought to use his relationship with Russia’s Vladimir Putin as leverage in its relations with Turkey’s western allies, but he must join NATO’s consensus regarding Ukraine if he wants “the privileges that come with NATO membership”, Ghosh said.

“Erdoğan’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,” the columnist said. “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.”

A full version of the article follows below:

Last summer, after years of open hostility, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan 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 Erdoğan’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 centre of European affairs, which is a major plank of his campaign. Erdoğan 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. Erdoğan’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-defence systems over NATO objections, which have earned Turkey the suspicion of its allies as well as American sanctions.

Erdoğan 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 United States 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, Erdoğan 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. Erdoğan’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 Erdoğan 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.

(The original version of the article can be found here.)

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