Erdoğan and Ukraine in Context

Many pundits have come forth to offer their views on what goals are motivating President Erdoğan's actions regarding Ukraine and the threats it faces from Russia. 

Certainly, Erdoğan hopes that his support for Ukraine will buy him some goodwill in the West. To some extent, this has already happened, as the voices of outrage about his attitude towards women's rights, press freedom, and supplying lethal military equipment to Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, and others are somewhat muted in recent days, though not completely silenced. And the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) is unlikely to shift its legal opinions because Erdoğan presents himself as a defender of the democratic institutions in Ukraine. Nor are the Armenians and Israelis likely to be completely taken in by his entreaties for better relations – they will be cautious. Yet, there is a deeper and older context to Erdoğan's efforts.

As much as his rival on the north shore of the Black Sea, Erdoğan wants to be treated as the leader of a seriously powerful nation, one that deserves a seat at the table with the adults. Switching teams in the premier league is always preferable to relegation to the second tier. His missteps in managing the outbreak of Covid and his disastrous decisions for the economy threatened to undermine all his efforts to raise Turkey to the top tier of nations in the world. Prestige matters to him, and one way to get it is the delivery of sophisticated and effective weapons, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, aka Drones, that remind others that Turkey deserves a place around the table with other major players. 

Most important, President Erdoğan sees himself as the heir of the Ottoman Sultans. He wishes to emulate their successful efforts to make their Turkish tribe into a consequential political power, indeed the pre-eminent consequential power in southeastern Europe for several centuries. Without repudiating the efforts of Mustapha Kemal, father of the secular Turkish Republic, Erdoğan wishes to revitalize the admiration of Turks for the past glories of the Ottoman Empire – those presidential honour guards in the livery of former Ottoman soldiers provide a potent visual symbol of Erdoğan's interest in returning Turkey to a position of influence in southeastern Europe and along the shores of the Black Sea. 

Today, Erdoğan would like to extend Turkish influence well beyond the shoreline, as did the Ottomans, and not only in the Balkans. Over time, the sway and influence of the Sublime Porte, even at times suzerainty, was felt in Sofia, Bucharest, Odesa, Sevastopol, Kyiv, and Cracow. Turkey's support for Ukrainians against Russians now is not unlike Ottoman support for Zaporozhian Cossacks against the Polish Commonwealth centuries ago. The alignment of powers for and against the Ukrainians may have shifted a bit, but the sometimes dormant Ottoman/Turkish interest in extending its influence across the Black Sea is easily awakened. The current Ukrainian-Russian situation presents an opportunity for the Turkish leadership to remind its fellow littoral nations that it cannot be ignored, and could even help in time of need, for the proper consideration. 

Finally, there are the material and immaterial benefits to be gained by supporting the desperate Ukrainians. Money from the sale of Bayraktar UAVs will not solve Turkey's economic problems, but it helps Erdoğan sell the electorate on his claims of Turkey's status in the top tier of nations. Likewise, the extra-judicial arrest and deportation of a whistleblower will not deliver a crushing blow to those documenting the double-dealing of Turkish Intelligence in Syria, but Erdoğan will spin it as evidence that other nations respect Turkey and its strong leaders. 

And, that is the most important motivation for Erdoğan's actions. Who shall lead Turkey as it celebrates the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Republic? Some technocratically competent but unexciting politician or a strong leader pushing Turkey up a treacherous slope to the top tier of nations? Erdoğan is staking out his position as that Turkish leader willing to risk the wrath of NATO Allies (including the US), of Russia, of the EU to secure Turkey's rightful place among the leading nations of the world. Surely such man deserves to be re-elected President again, and again, and….

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