Istanbul – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke by phone on Friday with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to deepen relations. The talks are seen as likely contributing to growing concerns among some of Turkey’s NATO partners about its relationship with Moscow and where its loyalties lie.
The phone call was announced in a press release from Erdogan’s office.
It said the Turkish president reiterated his willingness to work for a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine. The call came after Erdogan’s three face-to-face meetings with Putin in recent months.
The Turkish leader’s efforts to deepen ties, including his refusal to enforce Western sanctions against Russia, have led to growing questions about Turkey’s commitment to its Western partners and NATO.
But Turkish presidential adviser Mesut Casin, who is also a professor at Yeditepe University in Istanbul, said such talks are normal between neighbors.
“Turkey is a NATO member and will continue to be, and this is very important for Turkey,” he said. “The NATO alliance is one thing and Turkey’s relationship with Russia is something else. They must be seen as two separate things. Russia is our neighbor and we need to maintain good ties. Turkey’s policy of neutrality towards Ukraine is beneficial to NATO.”
Ankara insists it also maintains close ties with Ukraine, to which it continues to supply military hardware, including drones. Such contacts with Moscow and Kyiv, Erdogan claims, enabled him to successfully help the United Nations broker a deal to allow Russian-blocked Ukrainian grain to reach world markets. That agreement will be renewed in November.
But Western concerns, particularly over deepening Turkish-Russian financial ties, are growing. Under threat of US secondary sanctions, Turkish banks pulled out of Russia’s Mir payment system last month. Moscow used the system to circumvent a ban on Russian use of international credit cards. But analysts say Ankara retains leverage over its Western allies, with Turkey’s permission needed to allow Sweden and Finland to join NATO. On Thursday, Erdogan renewed his threat on Thursday to block Sweden’s bid.
“As long as terrorist organizations demonstrate in Swedish streets and terrorists are present in their parliament, our attitude to the issue will not be positive,” the Turkish leader told reporters.
Erdogan accuses Stockholm of offering sanctuary to Kurdish separatists fighting the Turkish state and an organization Ankara blames for carrying out the failed military coup in 2016. Sweden denies the allegations. But some observers say Turkey’s stance is likely to only heighten questions about whether Ankara is doing Moscow’s bidding.
Asli Aydintasbas, a visiting scholar at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said the West will have to get used to a more assertive Turkey.
“The dynamic has changed,” she said. “Turkey no longer feels a strong and firm member of the Western camp or the NATO alliance. It is still NATO, but obviously also interested in having alternatives. And Turkey is also much more confident than it used to be.”
With Turkey geographically close to Russia, Ukraine and other hotspots such as Iran and Syria, observers say Erdogan is aware of his country’s strategic importance and Western allies’ need for its continued cooperation.