Türkiye is testing Russia’s red lines by rapprochement with the West

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The past few months have witnessed many indications that Turkish-Russian relations have entered a new phase of fluctuation, after a period of close rapprochement at the beginnings of and before the Russian war against Ukraine.

Since winning a second term with difficulty in the presidential elections held last May, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan tends to focus on strengthening his country’s relations with the West.

On the other hand, Moscow dealt calmly with Türkiye’s approval of Sweden’s accession to NATO, and Türkiye’s transfer of five Ukrainian leaders whom Russia had captured and handed over to Ankara to Kiev, then Erdoğan’s statements in support of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, although this membership is a red line for Russia.

Russian analyst and writer Ruslan Suleimanov, who specializes in Middle East issues, says in an analysis published on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace website that Moscow is currently not in a position to allow its relations with Ankara to deteriorate, and it’s also important for the latter to avoid this deterioration in order to continue to benefit from playing the mediating role between Russia and the West.

At the same time, Erdogan’s shift towards the West is due to internal factors, foremost of which is a severe economic crisis that imposes the need for foreign investments that can only be obtained from the West.

It can be said that Türkiye now, after the elections, is facing reality.

The Turkish currency continues its rapid decline against the dollar, losing about 30% of its value within one month after the presidential elections.

In June, consumer prices increased by 38% over the same month last year.

Suleymanov, chief correspondent for the Russian TASS news agency in the Middle East and former director of its bureau in Cairo, says that Erdoğan realizes that his internal measures won’t be sufficient to achieve comprehensive stability for the Turkish economy, which relies heavily on foreign investments.

Türkiye is in dire need of an influx of foreign funds, and the largest investors in Türkiye are still from Western countries, especially the Netherlands, the United States and Britain, which together represent about 30% of the total foreign investments in Türkiye.

At the same time, a large part of Turkish exports go to the West.

Despite the record growth of trade with Moscow, Russia still represents 3.7% of Türkiye’s total exports.

Under these circumstances, Erdoğan realized his need to turn towards the West in order to stabilize his country’s economy.

At the same time, severing ties with Russia, which last year became Türkiye’s biggest importer, isn’t an option.

Besides the economic problems, Erdoğan must deal with the local elections scheduled for March next year.

In order to regain control of major cities such as Ankara and Istanbul from the opposition, Erdoğan will have to win over pro-Western urban voters to his side.

After the presidential elections, Erdoğan reopened the issue of his country’s accession to the European Union, and even demanded opening the way for this membership in exchange for Ankara’s approval of Sweden’s accession to NATO.

In fact, Türkiye’s approval of Sweden’s accession to NATO was not a big surprise for the Kremlin, as confirmed by its spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who said, “Türkiye is committed to its obligations… This wasn’t a secret for us, we never looked at it with rose-tinted glasses”.

Perhaps the most painful move for Moscow was Türkiye’s handing over of the five Ukrainian leaders to their country on the sidelines of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s recent visit to Istanbul.

Russia had captured the five leaders of the Ukrainian Azov Battalion and then transferred them to Türkiye with assurances that they wouldn’t be returned to Ukraine before the war ended.

The Kremlin believes that the Turkish behavior is an end to the existing agreement.

However, Erdoğan says that Russia will be angry at first, but it will look at the situation positively when it knows some details.

By turning towards the West, the Turkish president is essentially testing Moscow’s new red lines, and Russia’s readiness to respond to any Turkish position at a time when it is facing a Ukrainian counter-attack and seeking to recover from the repercussions of the Wagner armed group’s rebellion?

Suleymanov believes that the handover of the Azov Ukrainian leaders to their country appears to have been a Turkish attempt to pressure Russia to renew the Ukrainian grain export agreement, which expired on July 17.

This agreement, which was made by Türkiye, allows ships carrying Ukrainian grain to leave the port of Odessa in Ukraine without any Russian threat.

Despite the Russian leadership’s refusal to extend the agreement, in light of the transformations that Russian-Turkish relations are undergoing, the two countries may reach an alternative agreement.

In the two crises of NATO expansion and the Ukrainian leaders handing over their state, the cautious reaction showed that Russia is currently not in a position to escalate tensions with Türkiye, which remains the only real mediator between Moscow and both Kiev and the West, in addition to being one of its main economic partners.

For his part, Erdoğan doesn’t forget the support he received from Moscow during his election campaign, as it agreed, for example, to postpone payments of $20 billion owed by Ankara for its purchases of Russian gas.

Erdoğan also doesn’t forget the close economic relations between the two countries, as well as his ability to exert pressure on his NATO partners with the help of Russia.

In conclusion, both countries understand the importance of avoiding any escalation in tension between them and the need to keep any differences under control.

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