Turkey’s neutrality on Ukraine is expensive

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Last summer, after years of open hostility, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Emmanuel Macron called for a “verbal ceasefire”. Now the Turkish and French presidents are in direct communication as each tries to intercede with Vladimir Putin to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine.

However, would-be peacemakers have made no headway with the Russian president. After undermining Macron’s pride by ignoring his importunities against the invasion, Putin has been a little more lenient towards Erdogan’s presumptions as a mediator in the conflict.

But while he has sent negotiators for peace talks in Istanbul, the Russian leader shows no interest in ending the war. Negotiations were abruptly halted after revelations last week about atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians in Bucha. Turkey clings to the hope that the talks resume.

Putin’s debasement of Macron could still be a factor in the Frenchman’s re-election chances later this month: it has undermined his claim to have put France at the center of European affairs, which is a major part of his campaign. Erdogan does not need to face Turkish voters for a year, so a failure to broker peace carries no immediate political peril. But there are geopolitical and economic costs that he cannot afford to ignore.

The longer the war drags on, the harder it will be to maintain Turkey’s carefully calibrated neutrality. Erdogan’s calculation at the start of the conflict was that he could use his friendship with Putin as leverage with the West. NATO, he felt, would be both keen to keep him in the Western camp and happy to use him as a secondary channel to communicate with his “dear friend” in Moscow. They might even forgive him for his previous intrusions, such as his purchase of Russian missile defense systems over NATO objections, which earned Turkey suspicion from its allies as well as US sanctions.

Erdogan also hoped that Ukraine’s successful use of Turkish military drones against Russian invaders would help overcome the perception that he was on the side of the bad guys in the conflict. He openly called on NATO to end arms embargoes against his country. The United States and other members of the alliance have rightly been evasive about this. If the Turkish leader wants the privileges that come with NATO membership, then he must join the consensus. If he doesn’t, Erdogan will find himself pushed further into the margins of the alliance, even as Turkey’s economy sinks deeper into a hole.

As NATO closes ranks against Russia – even Germany has abandoned its pacifist posture – patience with Turkey’s claims of neutrality is running out. Erdogan’s refusal to join the Western alliance in imposing tough sanctions on Moscow is harder to justify amid mounting evidence of Russian war crimes. And at a time when Switzerland accepts these sanctions, it is not a good idea for Ankara that the cronies of Putin’s oligarch use Turkey to park their superyachts and their suitcases full of money.

Russians who pay berthing fees and buy luxury apartments will also not adequately cover the cost the war imposes on the Turkish economy. Inflation is at its highest level in 20 years: consumer prices rose 61.1% in March, compared to 54.4% in February.

Investors can hardly have failed to notice this. In early April, S&P Global Ratings downgraded Turkey’s local currency credit rating to B+, four levels below investment grade, citing the impact of soaring energy prices following the war in Russia in Ukraine. “The consequences [of the conflict], including rising food and energy prices, will further weaken Turkey’s already precarious balance of payments and exacerbate inflation,” S&P said in a statement. “The latter is on track to average 55% in 2022, the highest level of any sovereign we rate.”

And even if Erdogan is not inclined to impose sanctions on Moscow, the measures complicate Russian grand plans in Turkey. The construction of a $20 billion nuclear power plant, for example, has run into difficulties because the Russian builder, state-controlled Rosatom Corp., is struggling to source equipment from other countries. .

As his chances of persuading Putin to make peace are slim, Erdogan may welcome his phone calls with Macron. After once encouraging the French president to have his head examined, the Turkish leader can be grateful to have his listening ear.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

Yes, the Russians know what their military is doing in Ukraine: Leonid Bershidsky

Macron knows inflation is Le Pen’s best weapon: Lionel Laurent

Bucha’s atrocities are not the first in Russia. They must be the last: Clara Ferreira Marques

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering foreign affairs. A former editor of the Hindustan Times, he was the international editorial editor of Quartz and Time magazine.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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