Turkey’s role in negotiations around Russia’s war in Ukraine has provided Ankara with extraordinary visibility on the global stage. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in particular has benefited from the prestige that came with his helping broker a 120-day extension of the July 2022 Black Sea grain deal, which took effect on November 18, 2022. Turkey’s growing role in the conflict became obvious in the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s sudden decision in October to pull out of the deal, which he quickly reversed following talks with Erdoğan. Russia’s approach has left the long-term prospects of the grain deal uncertain. By using the export issue as leverage against heavy western sanctions on Russia, Putin has signaled that the matter will remain on the negotiation table for the foreseeable future. Strikingly, however, Putin asserted that Russia will not block Ukrainian grain exports to Turkey, even if it decides to retreat from the deal. Such favorable statements from the Kremlin have put the Turkish government in a highly advantageous position.
The politics between Turkey and Russia surrounding grain have several facets. First, both countries carefully craft a public image of being on the side of poorer nations that are being affected by the current global food crisis. Criticizing western countries for what they claim is unfair access to grain routes at the expense of the Global South, Putin and Erdoğan have launched a campaign for grain donations to African countries. Second, negotiations over the grain corridor have exposed a growing strategic partnership between Erdoğan and Putin. The longevity of sanctions over the Ukraine war will increase Russia’s financial dependency on Turkey. Meanwhile, the Turkish economy is in dire need of cash from Russia. Third, Putin’s support for Erdoğan’s success in Turkey’s 2023 presidential elections is a critical factor in Ankara-Moscow relations, including those around the grain deal. Unlike western political leaders, Putin is a shrewd chess player working to shape his rivals’ domestic affairs through strategic decisions.
A Matter of Life and Death
Since July 2022, when the United Nations and Turkey brokered the grain deal with Russia, Ukraine has been able to export about 11 million tons of wheat, corn, sunflower oil, barley, and other commodities, thereby mitigating the threat of famine that 47 million people in import-dependent countries are facing due to the war’s disruption of food shipments.
UN data indicates that the grain deal has not fully restored Ukraine’s exports to the level at which they were before the Russian invasion. However, it did potentially double the country’s food exports. According to the UN, the deal has already prevented roughly 100 million people around the world from falling into extreme poverty. And UN Secretary-General António Guterres has said that given Ukraine’s critical role in the global food supply chain, without a grain deal in effect, “the current crisis of affordability will turn into a crisis of availability.” Although the recent four-month extension has ameliorated these concerns, future negotiations over the deal will remain a high-stakes political game.
The MENA region is especially vulnerable to threats to food security, given that many countries are heavily dependent on Ukrainian and Russian wheat and fertilizer exports. Before the war in Ukraine, Yemen—the Arab world’s most impoverished country, in which three-quarters of the population is in need of humanitarian assistance—was importing nearly half of its wheat from Ukraine and Russia. Other countries that were hit hard by the impact of the Ukraine war include Nigeria, Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Lebanon.
As the world’s largest importer of wheat, Egypt is facing a major challenge, especially since it imports about 85 percent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Egyptian authorities have taken steps to diversify sources for wheat imports and have developed plans to increase levels of self-sufficiency. Lebanon, whose national grain reserves received a devastating blow in the 2020 Beirut Port explosion, is also vulnerable since the country imports 60 percent of its wheat from Ukraine. Tunisia suffers from similar concerns, relying on Ukraine for 50 percent of its wheat. Hikes in Tunisia’s food prices, together with the International Monetary Fund’s insistence that Tunisia impose austerity measures, will severely test the controversial presidency of Kais Saied. The grain supply crisis is reminiscent of the importance of bread to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, and may cause mass grievances and instability in Tunisia and the larger MENA region.
When analyzing the politics of grain exports, it is important to note the use of anti-western discourse that highlights the plight of the poor.
When analyzing the politics of grain exports, it is important to note the use of anti-western discourse that highlights the plight of the poor. Russia has criticized the deal by arguing that wheat and other food exports do not reach the neediest countries. Rather, the Kremlin argues that the deal serves as a payday for Moscow’s European foes. This depiction is a half-truth. As UN officials point out, although facilitating Ukraine exports is not a food aid program, it does hold a humanitarian benefit by reducing prices and calming market volatility.
Given Turkey’s interests in the Horn of Africa, Erdoğan seized this opportunity to support Putin’s assertions regarding the world’s poor. The Turkish president’s abovementioned launch of a food aid campaign with Russian cooperation, along with Russia’s reported promise to send food and fertilizers to the “poorest countries” for free if the Ukraine grain deal expires, demonstrates the use of rhetoric that seeks to challenge the West via a humanitarian discourse. Coverage of Erdogan helping poor nations will bolster his image at home as a revisionist global leader, potentially giving him a much-needed boost ahead of the country’s upcoming elections.
Putin Supports “Turkish Exceptionalism”
Putin’s praise for the Turkish president’s efforts in “ensuring the interest of the poorest countries” came alongside additional good news for Ankara. Following blasts that damaged the Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea, Putin proposed that Turkey build a gas hub as part of an alternative supply route to Europe. Erdoğan was quick to announce that Turkey is ready to establish an international gas distribution center for Europe and that “there will be no waiting” to implement the plan. Although Putin believes that many Europeans would want to sign contracts, French President Emmanuel Macron labeled the attempt as nonsensical, an understandable position considering that Europe aims to become energy independent regarding Russian gas.
The Russia-Turkey gas plan rests on the assumption of “Turkish exceptionalism,” which basically holds that Turkey can always have its cake and eat it too. Having declined to join the project of western sanctions, Turkey is now the only path to Europe for Russian companies. Beyond transmitting natural gas, Turkish officials have expressed their desire to blend Russian gas with that from sources such as Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Iran, and to therefore, “emerge as a gas hub where multiple sources of gas are traded and sold by private entities.” To develop this project, Turkey wants to gain resale rights for Russian gas. Energy experts are skeptical about such plans, which is understandable because European countries will likely comply with the EU’s anti-Russia energy plan, and because Turkey’s plan appears to be a sneaky approach to help Putin’s regime evade western sanctions.
Having declined to join the project of western sanctions, Turkey is now the only path to Europe for Russian companies. Beyond transmitting natural gas, Turkish officials have expressed their desire to blend Russian gas with that from sources such as Azerbaijan, Iraq, and Iran.
In fact, Turkey’s power to convince Russia to make a U-turn on the grain deal is inseparable from gas cooperation plans between Ankara and Moscow. A close look at the trajectory of events reveals the changing dynamics in the two countries’ bilateral relations. Before invading Ukraine, Russia had the upper hand in relations with Turkey due to the Turkish government’s struggle to stop its currency collapse, and due to its troubled relations with the United States and Europe over geopolitical disputes and its policies toward the Syrian Kurds. At the time, Turkey was not even among Russia’s top 10 trading partners, and its financial dependence on Moscow was therefore negligible.
In a remarkable reversal, Turkey has gained an upper hand, largely by exploiting Russia’s failures in the Ukraine war. Now, Turkey is set to become one of Russia’s top three trading partners, replacing Germany and lagging behind only China and Belarus. Analysts point out that Russia’s tech sector now depends on Turkey for equipment maintenance and other manufacturing processes, and that Turkey is also becoming a new hub for deliveries of tech goods from Europe. Meanwhile, there may be more going on than meets the eye when it comes to the two countries’ bilateral financial transactions. According to the Financial Times, a record $28 billion dollars of uncertain origins has flooded into Turkey in the past year, which the Turkish Central Bank categorized as “net errors and omissions.” Although Turkey’s Finance Minister has claimed that some of these cash flows are legitimate spending from Russian tourists, the extraordinary amount of money involved raises serious doubts.
It is reasonable to expect that Putin will try to help Erdoğan make it through the election season without incident, much as he supported the campaign of former US President Donald Trump.
Putin’s increasing dependence on Erdoğan is also a factor behind the two leaders’ closer cooperation. It is hard to predict what Russia can expect if Erdoğan loses in Turkey’s upcoming elections. Attitudes toward Russia among Turkey’s opposition leaders are remarkably diverse, and thorny issues such as purchases of Russian S-400 air defense systems will be subject to heavy debate. It is no secret that Putin finds Erdoğan’s strongman style favorable, and that Putin also perceives the Turkish government’s drift from NATO as a major win. It is therefore reasonable to expect that Putin will try to help Erdoğan make it through the election season without incident, much as he supported the campaign of former US President Donald Trump. Whether by tolerating Erdoğan’s plan for a military operation in northern Syria or by accommodating the Turkish leader’s role in future rounds of negotiations over additional grain deal extensions, Putin is certain to remain cognizant of the impact his decisions will have on Erdoğan’s approval ratings ahead of the June 2023 Turkish presidential and parliamentary elections.
Washington Prefers Compartmentalization
For the Biden administration, the renewal of the grain deal was a notable success. But despite US officials’ praise for Turkish mediation efforts, Washington is adopting a skeptical position regarding the Erdoğan-Putin negotiations. The US State Department contested Russia and Turkey’s gas hub plans by urging its western allies to take steps to diversify their energy sources and to thereby reduce reliance on Russia. Washington also repeated its warning to Turkey that it should avoid becoming “a safe haven for illicit Russian assets or transactions.”
Washington would prefer to compartmentalize future grain deals, separating them from Erdoğan and Putin’s cozy cooperation. But this is not feasible, in part because of another unprecedented opportunity that came Turkey’s way with the Ukraine war, namely Sweden and Finland’s demand to join NATO, over which Turkey, as a NATO member, holds veto power. Despite the fact that there is no sign that Erdoğan plans to block these countries’ membership bids, he has clearly indicated his willingness to exploit the situation, and has made a list of demands in return for approving the application.
Despite the fact that there is no sign that Erdoğan plans to block Sweden and Finland’s membership bids, he has clearly indicated his willingness to exploit the situation, and has made a list of demands in return for approving the application.
Some of Turkey’s problematic demands—such as the repatriation of an exiled Turkish journalist—were interpreted as part of Erdoğan’s pursuit of domestic wins before the elections. However, the Turkish government’s efforts to stall the NATO approval process signal that it aims to use its veto power as leverage in its F-16 negotiations with Washington. Once again, following his recent meeting with President Biden at the recent G20 summit in Indonesia, Erdoğan expressed his hope that he will be able to secure the purchase of F-16 fighter jets.
By playing both sides of the Ukraine war, Turkey has come out a realpolitik winner in the past year. Erdoğan’s provision of a lifeline to Putin, however, is still risky business. If Turkey becomes a magnet for dark money and repeats its mistakes in helping Iran evade sanctions, the consequences will be severe, and will be especially devastating for the Turkish economy in the long-term.
Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Elena Larina