As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine ground on last month, President Vladimir Putin joined his Turkish counterpart, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, via video link to celebrate the loading of fuel into the NATO member state’s first civilian nuclear project.
Built by the state-controlled Russian nuclear corporation Rosatom, the massive, $20 billion Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant perhaps best symbolizes the flourishing bilateral energy and economic ties the two leaders forged during their two decades in power as president or prime minister of their respective countries.
Putin’s virtual participation in the grand ceremony may have been driven less by a domestic need to demonstrate Moscow’s sway abroad than to support a fellow authoritarian leader in need.
The April 27 event came less than three weeks before Turkey’s May 14 presidential election, Erdogan’s toughest challenge ever at the ballot box. Amid deep economic woes, polls have indicated he is trailing Kemal Kilicdaroglu, head of the center-left Republican People’s Party (CHP).
Putin offered a thinly veiled hint of his preferred outcome in an election that will have repercussions for Moscow, Kyiv, Washington, and Brussels.
“The construction of the first nuclear power plant in Turkey and…the creation of a new, advanced, high–tech industry from scratch is another convincing example of how much you, President Erdogan, are doing for your country, for the growth of its economy, for all Turkish citizens,” Putin said during the live stream broadcast across Turkey. “I want to say it clearly: You are able to set ambitious goals and confidently move toward their implementation.”
Putin’s flattery was just the latest sign of his support for Erdogan, 69, whose authoritarian rule and anti-Western rhetoric have served Moscow’s interests by undermining unity in NATO and undercutting sweeping Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.
Last summer, Russia transferred billions of dollars to Rosatom’s Turkish unit for future construction work well ahead of schedule, a move experts say was aimed at propping up Turkey’s troubled currency.
Putin’s investment in Erdogan could fall flat if Kilicdaroglu, 74, a former bureaucrat who ran the country’s social security agency, comes out on top.
Kilicdaroglu has said he will seek to rebuild relations with Europe and the United States that Erdogan undermined through his political repression and foreign intervention in places like Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. That could, among other things, open the door to the quick incorporation of Sweden into NATO, a move Russia has strongly opposed.
“Erdogan’s defeat would not be good for Putin,” said Mark Katz, a professor of political science at George Mason University who focuses on Russia’s relations with the Middle East. “Putin will have little choice but to court Kilicdaroglu if he is the winner. He will have to accept Kilicdaroglu moving closer to the West to some degree in order to dissuade him from moving even closer to it.”
Washington and Brussels have been troubled by the rise of strongmen like Erdogan and Putin since the start of the century, as pluralistic progress achieved in the decade following the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe has been eroded. Erdogan’s defeat would show that democratic forces around the world continue to be “robust,” says Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
“It would be a blow to that kind of global, populist authoritarianism of which Putin is obviously a leader,” said Cook, who cautions that Turkish democracy would still not be out of the woods following the weakening of institutions under Erdogan.
Putin has probably met with Erdogan more frequently than he has with any other foreign leader outside the former Soviet Union. Since Erdogan became prime minister in 2003, during Putin’s first presidential term, the two have developed a good working relationship some describe as a “bromance.”
Putin and Erdogan have been deeply at odds at times — in 2015, Putin said the downing of a Russian warplane by Turkish fighter jets near the Syrian-Turkish border was a “stab in the back” — and have taken opposite sides on several key foreign policy issues, most notably Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Ankara continues to supply lethal drones to Kyiv. But they are bound by a shared opposition to what they call a Western-dominated global order and a shared disdain for some of the values championed widely in the West.
“They both see themselves as [leaders of] aggrieved great powers not respected sufficiently, and they both have grievances against the West. That’s where Erdogan and Putin found each other,” Katz said. “Whatever differences existed between them, as long as Erdogan was anti-Western, that was the main thing for Putin.”
Opinion polls have given Kilicdaroglu, who is backed by a diverse, six-party alliance, a slight lead over Erdogan. If none of the three candidates receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held on May 28.
While serving in the 2000s as prime minister — then the most powerful office in Turkey — Erdogan enjoyed widespread popularity as the economy boomed. However, his star has fallen as surging inflation and falling living standards in recent years take their toll on many voters.
Strained Western Relations
His star in the West has also fallen as he rolled back democracy, undermined freedom of the press, weakened government institutions like the courts, and pursued what analysts call an “aggressive,” independent foreign policy, including closer ties with Putin, all leading to deeply strained relations with Washington and Brussels.
Following a 2016 coup attempt that he blamed on a U.S.-based cleric, Erdogan reached an agreement with Putin to purchase a Russian S-400 antiaircraft missile system, triggering U.S. defense industry sanctions.
The United States opposed the $2.5 billion deal, fearing the Russian platform would potentially allow Moscow to collect intelligence on its F-35 fighter, which Turkey ordered and was also helping to construct.
Erdogan may have underestimated the willingness of the United States to impose the defense sanctions and felt he couldn’t simply walk away from the S-400 without damaging his reputation, experts say.
Erdogan has also tangled with European Union members in recent years. He has clashed with France over Turkish intervention in Libya and with Greece and Cyprus over energy deposits and maritime borders in the Eastern Mediterranean.
More recently, Erdogan held up efforts by Sweden and Finland to join NATO following the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, accusing the Nordic countries of housing Kurdish “terrorist organizations.” Turkey approved Finland’s NATO membership at the end of March but continues to block Sweden’s entry.
Kilicdaroglu has promised to restore the rule of law in Turkey, return the country to a parliamentary form of government, and resolve the issue with the United States over the S-400. Analysts expect him to quickly back Sweden’s NATO membership.
For all the frustration he has caused in the West, Erdogan has been instrumental in getting Moscow and Kyiv to agree to a deal allowing Ukraine to export grain through the Black Sea. Russia blocked Ukraine’s ports in an attempt to strangle its economy, driving up global grain prices.
An Erdogan defeat at the ballot box could raise questions about the longer-term sustainability of the agreement, Cook says. The deal is set to expire just days after the May 14 election. “It’s going to be more difficult to maintain this grain deal because part of it has to do with a Putin-Erdogan thing, and the measure of trust that they’ve established with each other,” he said. “When we’re talking about strongmen, I think we tend to underestimate the personal chemistry among them.”
Kilicdaroglu is described as a soft-spoken technocrat who lacks Erdogan’s charisma.
Erdogan has been walking a tightrope since Russia invaded Ukraine, calling Moscow’s aggression “unacceptable” and supplying Ukraine with lethal drones while continuing to do business with Moscow. Turkey has also been a key conduit for sanctioned Western goods destined for Russia.
Even if Kilicdaroglu is victorious, Turkey will continue to balance Ukrainian and Russian interests, including resisting Western sanctions on Moscow, analysts say.
Part of the reason is Turkey’s ailing economy and high dependence on Russian energy and investment. The economy is suffering from its steepest bout of inflation in decades, making it very susceptible to an outside shock, such as another surge in energy prices.
Turkey receives about 45 percent of its natural gas and significant amounts of oil and coal from Russia. Its emerging civil nuclear industry will also be dependent on Russia to fuel the power plants.
Putin cut energy flows to the EU last year after it imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia, causing a surge in prices.
The Western sanctions have made Turkey a more attractive destination for Russian tourists and businesses, who are bringing needed cash and investment to the country, and trade between the two countries surged following their imposition.
No ‘Rainbows And Unicorns’
While Kilicdaroglu would focus on Europe in the immediate aftermath of an election victory, he will not leave Putin hanging for long, says Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “Sooner or later he would reach out to Putin that they are not planning to jeopardize Russia’s interest in Turkey. The key question is how Putin would respond to that,” she said.
Even if ties with Russia remain robust under Kilicdaroglu, any progress on restoring the rule of law would still be very important for mending the current “dysfunctional” relations with the United States, Aydintasbas says.
“That is something that overnight removes some of the irritants in the bilateral relationship,” she said. But she adds that some will remain, buffeted by anti-American and anti-NATO sentiment in the country, tempering the prospects for significantly improved bilateral relations under a new leader in Ankara.
Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, concurs. “I just don’t think it’s going to be rainbows and unicorns for the United States and Turkey after the election, no matter what the outcome is,” he said.