Turkey is the real winner of Putin’s war in Ukraine

In 1568, Russian Tsar Ivan the Terrible led his armies into battle against the Ottoman Empire for the first time. Over the 500 years that followed, the two great powers would fight no fewer than a dozen bloody wars, leaving countless dead and giving the Russians control over vast swathes of land from Crimea to the Caucasus. Now, half a millennium later, with Moscow distracted by its increasingly catastrophic invasion of Ukraine, its old rival Turkey is taking advantage of the Kremlin’s self-made crisis to roll back the clock.

At a jubilant rally last week, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that “the Century of Turkey” is dawning, pledging to lead his country to greatness once again after decades of relative decline. Having made little secret of his admiration for the Ottoman’s strength, regional dominance and traditional Islamic values, he seems intent on following in their footsteps. 

However, Erdoğan faces a critical re-election battle early next year amid a worsening economic crisis that has seen inflation skyrocket to 85.5% and the price of food and basic goods rise far faster than wages. Looking abroad for answers to problems back home, Turkey is asserting itself across Eastern Europe and Central Asia as part of efforts to secure energy supplies, cheap imports and strengthen its hand. That means parking its tanks squarely in Russia’s sphere of influence.

In northern Syria, Turkish troops are preparing for a new offensive against Kurdish fighters as part of a bid to secure territory on which to rehouse tens of thousands of refugees who came to their country fleeing civil war. The plan has put Ankara at odds with Moscow, which supports the brutal government of Bashar Al-Assad and is loathe to see another outside power treading on its turf. However, already over-extended with its ‘special operation,’ there seems to be little the Kremlin can do but issue warnings.

Likewise, in the Caucasus, Erdoğan has backed his close ally Azerbaijan in its escalating conflict with neighbouring Armenia, which is a member of the Moscow-led CSTO military alliance. When Azerbaijani rockets and shells, many provided by Ankara, began raining down on the former Soviet Republic in September, Armenia called on Russia to intervene. With the Kremlin unwilling to become embroiled in yet another conflict in its back yard, those requests have fallen on deaf ears, and its peacekeepers in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh have been unable to stop Azerbaijani advances.

Meanwhile in Libya, once the heart of Ottoman North Africa, Turkey and Russia have long been competing for influence, and were on different sides of yet another civil war. Now though, the Moscow-backed rebels have all but given up and the Kremlin’s influence is on the wane, while Ankara reaps the benefits with much-needed deals on oil and gas.

But, while Turkey is moving in to fill the vacuum left by a Russia that can no longer juggle all of its interests, Erdoğan has carefully avoided alienating Vladimir Putin. Since the start of the war in Ukraine, the Turkish president has expertly played both sides to get what he wants. On the one hand, Turkey has shipped dozens of its advanced Bayraktar TB-2 attack drones to its close partner, Kyiv, where they have been used to destroy long columns of Russian armour. On the other, it has refused to impose sanctions on Russia, drawing in cash and assets from oligarchs and tourists alike, and doubling imports of its embargoed oil.

Nowhere is the shift in power dynamics more obvious than in the Black Sea, where Turkey has brokered a deal enabling Ukraine to export grain to the world despite a Russian blockade of its ports. When Moscow threatened to pull out of the agreement following last week’s drone strike on its warships, a call from Erdoğan was enough to get Putin back in line, evidently reluctant to alienate his occasional ally. Meanwhile, Turkey also stands accused of buying stolen Ukrainian grain at a discount from the Russians in an effort to bring down rising food prices.

When Putin gave the order for the tanks to start rolling in February, he made it clear he wanted to restore the glory days of the Soviet Union as a great power. But, with his troops bogged down and facing a string of defeats, another empire is on the rise, and it’s stealing his seat at the table.

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