Before travelling to Moscow last week, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stopped over in Ankara to meet Tayyip Erdogan and praise the Turkish leader’s diplomatic efforts to end the war in Ukraine.
Less than two hours after the two shook hands, a big part of the goodwill that Ankara has engendered in the West through its unique role as mediator between warring parties was undone, undermining Turkey’s chances of capitalising on thawing ties.
The turning point came when an Istanbul court sentenced a philanthropist, Osman Kavala, to life in jail for his role in anti-government protests in 2013, in defiance of Western calls to free him in a closely-watched case many see as politically motivated.
One Western diplomat who watched with surprise as the headlines landed on his phone on April 25 said the ruling underscored how Erdogan’s government “cannot be trusted on some issues”, despite having scored political points over Ukraine.
Another envoy called the verdict the “worst-case scenario“.
Eight diplomats told Reuters that the ruling was a blow to Turkey’s ambitions to heal frayed economic and political ties with Western countries while also remaining close to Moscow – Erdogan opposes the sanctions against it.
It also chilled Western hopes of rapprochement, they said.
It is a reversal for Turkey, which is alone in having hosted wartime talks between Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers and peace negotiators. Ankara wants the West to prepare for the end of the war, including the gradual lifting of sanctions, and for restrictions on its own defence industry to be lifted.
It also wants more cooperation with its NATO allies, including the United States, France and Italy, and to alleviate existing tensions with the West in the run-up to elections amid mounting economic woes.
Wariness of boosting Erdogan ahead of 2023 elections that recent polls suggest he could lose have also undermined chances of meaningful trade or investment deals, including progress updating a European Union customs union, several of the diplomats said.
Erdogan and officials say the war has made allies realise Turkey’s geopolitical importance and that Ankara’s balanced policy on Ukraine was welcomed, even admired. The diplomats interviewed shared that assessment.
The West understands Turkey’s position on sanctions and Ankara will not become a haven to evade them, Turkish officials add.
At the weekend, Erdogan’s spokesman and chief foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin made a surprise visit to Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He later said he discussed ways to end the war.
If Russia’s attacks on Ukraine last through the summer, Turkey, with the second-biggest military in NATO, will likely come under increasing pressure from Washington and Brussels to boost its support for Ukraine, the diplomats said.
It has already sent armed drones to Kyiv, blocked some Russian naval passage to the Black Sea and barred Russian flights to and from Syria.
Turkey’s stance of facilitating negotiations and opposing sanctions on Moscow on principle “can only last so long,” said a third diplomat.
A shift towards Ukraine in the conflict could prompt Russia to punish Turkey’s economy by cutting heavy tourist and energy flows, or both, the person said, underlining how opportunity could turn to crisis for Ankara.
Soaring energy costs due to the war have already exacerbated Turkey’s currency crisis and sent inflation to 61%, complicating Erdogan’s prospects in the mid-2023 election.
Some analysts said the Kavala ruling, by courts some critics believe are influenced by Erdogan, served to warn the opposition ahead of the vote. The president may have been emboldened by diplomatic cover the war afforded him, they added.
“Erdogan does not want to be excluded by the West but he wants it to accept him as he is: as a strong man of Turkey,” said Birol Baskan, non-resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.
Throughout the second of Erdogan’s two decades in power, Western leaders have criticised Turkey’s crackdown on rights and dissent. Germany summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Berlin over the Kavala verdict, which Washington also called “unjust”, prompting Ankara to summon the German ambassador in response.
Turkey says its courts are independent and that it is taking steps to improve rule of law, but also dismisses domestic and international criticism of its judiciary as interference in its internal affairs.
Turkey’s stance on the war, including allowing flights from Moscow, has made it a top destination for Russian citizens, funds and even sanctioned assets such as oligarchs’ yachts.
Three Western diplomats said this could prompt the United States or Europe to adopt “secondary sanctions” against those doing business with Moscow.
“We are asking Ankara to enforce our sanctions. If it becomes clear they are being broken, secondary sanctions would be likely,” one of the envoys said.
Another potential strain is Turkey’s desire, shared by the United Nations, to end the fighting in Ukraine immediately and return as much as possible to a world in which Ankara balances its Western and Russian relations.
The United States and some other countries instead want the war to end under the right terms. U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said last week that Washington wants to see Moscow “weakened” so that it cannot invade again.
Still, Turkey is expected to rethink its relationship with Russia.
Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 defences prompted U.S. sanctions on Turkey in 2020 and chilled ties.
Yet its request for 40 U.S.-made F-16 fighters last year combined with cooperation over Ukraine could pave the way for a compromise on Washington’s demand that Turkey abandon the S-400s, three diplomats said.
They said stepped up talks over possibly buying French-Italian Eurosam’s SAMP-T missile defences also reflected a new and more focused NATO cooperation.