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Revisiting Putin’s praise of Erdogan in light of him violating the Azovstal Deal

Updated: Mar 15

On the one hand, President Erdogan did indeed do what he sincerely thought was good for his country, but only as part of a zero-sum choice that he was “forced” to make under pressure.

The Russian leader hadn’t expected his proud counterpart to discredit himself and was sure that he’d never worsen ties with one partner just for the vague promise of improving them with another. President Putin was wrong, but so too were President Erdogan’s own supporters who thought that he had more self-respect than this.

Nobody Should Be Surprised By Turkiye Violating The Azovstal Deal” since most observers took it for granted that those fascist militants would probably be released prior to the end of the NATO-Russian proxy war in Ukraine the moment that they were sent to that West Asian country.

Nevertheless, this development must have still been deeply disappointing to President Putin, who’d previously praised his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s personal integrity. Here’s what he said in December 2020:

“We have different, occasionally opposing views on certain matters with President Erdogan. But he keeps his word like a real man. He does not wag his tail. If he thinks something is good for his country, he goes for it. This is about predictability. It is important to know whom you are dealing with.”

President Putin still felt the same way nearly two years later in October 2022:

“President Erdogan is a consistent and reliable partner. This is probably his most important trait, that he is a reliable partner...We know that if we have covered a difficult path and it is difficult to come to an agreement, but we reached it nevertheless, we can rest assured that it will be implemented.”

Shortly afterwards in early December, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel admitted that her public support of the Minsk Accords was just a ruse for buying time to rearm Ukraine ahead of its planned reconquest of Donbass.

President Putin had hitherto trusted her to keep her word just as much as he trusted President Erdogan, which is why he was also deeply disappointed by her admission. As he put it during a press conference in December 2022:

Frankly speaking, I did not expect to hear this from the former Federal Chancellor because I always thought that the leaders of the Federal Republic of Germany were sincere with us... Apparently, we got our bearings too late, frankly.”

As was assessed here at the end of that month, Russia’s grand strategy up until the start of its special operation was to reach a deal with the US over Ukraine that would peacefully resolve their security dilemma and thus enable his country to serve as an economic bridge between the EU and China.

This was doomed to fail in retrospect because President Putin – who’s neither the monster, madman, nor mastermind that he’s caricatured as – wishfully projected his rational worldview onto the West. He failed to realize until it was too late that they were all irredeemable liberal-globalists who’d eagerly sacrifice their objective national interests in order to advance their radical ideology.

This explains why they were able to hoodwink him for so long. Despite belatedly coming to terms with this reality, President Putin still remained convinced that his Turkish counterpart was different, both because he’s a non-Western leader and also because he’s had several high-profile disagreements with the West.

Truth be told, President Erdogan is indeed different from Biden and Merkel since he isn’t a liberal-globalist like they are, but that just makes it all the more disappointing that he didn’t keep his word on the Azovstal deal like President Putin expected.

Although his release of those fascist militants is being presented by Turkish media as a ‘goodwill gesture’ of sorts after Zelensky’s latest visit, the case can be made that it was actually part of a larger deal aimed at pushing through a rapprochement with the West.

A few days afterwards, President Erdogan agreed to support Sweden’s NATO bid in exchange for it “actively support[ing] efforts to reinvigorate Türkiye’s EU accession process, including modernisation of the EU-Türkiye Customs Union and visa liberalisation” per their press statement.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan then said that Biden supports the sale of F-16s to Turkiye without “caveats or conditions”, both developments of which help improve troubled Turkish-Western ties.

President Erdogan therefore acted in partial accordance with what his Russian counterpart expected of him with respect to doing what he thinks is good for his country, though this was at the expense of the Turkish leader violating the Azovstal deal with President Putin.

Furthermore, he took tangible actions in releasing those fascist militants and supporting Sweden’s NATO bid in exchange for vague promises that progress will be made on improving socio-economic ties with the EU and military ones with the US.

That’s not to suggest that neither the EU nor the US will keep their word since it’s in their interests to do so in order for him not to become resentful after looking like a fool before his people if he gets played and therefore spiking the chances that Turkiye might pivot eastward with a vengeance.

Rather, it’s simply to point out that the quid pro quo thus far is lopsided because tangible actions were made in exchange for vague promises. Such a tradeoff wasn’t expected from someone as President Erdogan.

This observation lends credence to the suspicion voiced by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov that Turkiye was “forced” to do this in the run-up to the NATO summit, though he also added that “a breach of an agreement flatters no one.”

It won’t affect their countries’ gas hub plans or other forms of “mutually beneficial trade and economic cooperation”, he reassured everyone, but Russia “will certainly be taking into account the current situation while concluding future agreements in various spheres.”

The genuine goodwill that Turkiye had previously engendered among Russian policymakers is evaporating as proven by Chair of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security Viktor Bondarev warning that it’s now at risk of being regarded as “unfriendly” after this scandal.

He also said that “Certainly, national security and national interest have the priority. But even under serious Western pressure one should preserve their face, as Hungarian leader Viktor Orban demonstrated repeatedly.”

This reaction was entirely predictable too so there’s no way that President Erdogan was caught off guard by it, thus meaning that he still violated the Azovstal deal despite knowing the consequences it would have for his personal relationship with President Putin and the way that Turkiye is regarded by Russia.

With this in mind, it might very well have been the case that he was “forced” into a zero-sum choice by NATO in the run-up to its summit to choose between Russia and the West.

It can only be speculated what the consequences of him refusing to enter into this quid pro quo with them could have been, but they were apparently serious enough for President Erdogan to conclude that his country’s national interests are better served by complying than defying.

That’s not an excuse for what he did, but an explanation that’s being posited in a well-intended attempt to make sense of him behaving in a way that’s completely contrary to what President Putin expected.

President Erdogan correctly calculated that President Putin is too rational to suspend “mutually beneficial trade and economic cooperation” in response, though he also knew at the same time that violating the Azovstal deal would likely limit their future cooperation exactly as Peskov implied.

Even so, he gambled that this consequence was worth the chance of improving ties with the West and relieving its associated pressure upon Turkiye despite their quid pro quo thus far being lopsided.

He probably wouldn’t have accepted these proverbial ‘carrots’ unless his country was threatened to be thrashed with a bunch of ‘sticks’ since agreeing to this deal required him discrediting his hard-earned reputation as someone who “keeps his word like a real man” and likely limiting future ties with Russia. Returning to President Putin’s praise of his Turkish counterpart, it can therefore be said that he was partially correct but also partially wrong.

On the one hand, President Erdogan did indeed do what he sincerely thought was good for his country, but only as part of a zero-sum choice that he was “forced” to make under pressure.

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