Since Russia invaded Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has stood apart from his NATO allies, keeping cozy relations with President Vladimir V. Putin, making demands of his Western allies and using wartime diplomacy to raise his own stature.
Now the Kremlin has undercut him, pulling out of the grain deal that Mr. Erdogan helped broker, which had raised the Turkish president’s international stature and helped stabilize global food prices. The Russian withdrawal came just days after the Turkish leader met warmly with President Biden and said that Ukraine deserved “NATO membership with no doubt,” a view that crosses the reddest of Mr. Putin’s red lines.
Russian officials have asserted that the decision to pull out of the grain agreement, which allowed exports from Ukraine through the Black Sea, was about a failure to uphold the side of the deal that benefits Russia — easing sanctions on its own agricultural exports. They also warned that the Russian military would regard any ship bound for Ukraine to be a potential carrier of military cargo.
But another consequence of the decision has been to create another twist in the complex relationship between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin. Analysts say the two have come to rely on each other over the course of the war.
They have long had close ties, despite conflicts in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. After the invasion of Ukraine, Turkey preserved its economic and diplomatic links with Russia, positioning itself as a primary negotiator between Moscow, Kyiv and the West.
The Turkish president has often described Mr. Putin as “my friend,” and insisted that he can still make diplomacy with Russia work. On Friday, Mr. Erdogan told reporters that Russia wanted the grain corridor to remain, “but has some expectations from Western countries, and they need to take action.” And he said he would discuss the issue with Mr. Putin on the phone and when they meet next month.
How has Mr. Erdogan frustrated Russia?
After months of stalling and making demands of allies, Mr. Erdogan this month agreed to Sweden’s bid to join NATO, and in March he dropped his objection to Finland’s entry into the alliance. Mr. Putin bitterly opposed any NATO expansion, particularly so close to Russian soil.
“Those eroded Erdogan’s quality of a reliable, honest broker,” said a Turkish foreign policy analyst, Ilhan Uzgel. “Now Putin considers the grain deal as a bargaining chip with the West, without involving Erdogan.”
Analysts have suggested that Mr. Erdogan’s recent gestures at rapprochement toward the West might have angered Mr. Putin. This month, Turkey hosted President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine and returned five Ukrainian commanders of the Azov Regiment to Ukraine, prompting Russia to accuse Turkey of breaking an agreement to keep the men there until the end of the war.
Russia has bombed Ukrainian port cities three days this week, particularly targeting grain shipment facilities, and warned that attempts to get past its naval blockade in the Black Sea might be seen as an act of war.
The Russian attacks may signal that the Kremlin doesn’t want the grain deal to be revived, or to be used as foundation for peace or cease-fire talks, according to Serhat Guvenc, an international relations professor at Kadir Has University. He said the violence may also signal that Mr. Erdogan has lost some of his diplomatic cachet.
“But this doesn’t mean Erdogan became diplomatically irrelevant,” Mr. Guvenc added.
Mr. Erdogan has served as a line of communication between Mr. Putin and leaders in Europe and the United States, and Turkey and Russia have benefited from each other economically over the last 17 months of war.
Turkey has refused to impose sanctions on Russia as the United States and European Union have done, Mr. Guvenc said. Facing its own economic problems, Turkey has expanded trade ties with Russia since the war began, stepping up Turkish exports and buying cheap Russian natural gas. And keeping good relations with Moscow, analysts said, helps Mr. Erdogan to maintain a balance of power in the Black Sea.
Can Turkey regain influence?
If he wants to play a mediating role for peace or cease-fire talks — or simply to regain some leverage, Mr. Erdogan just has to find another opportunity, Mr. Guvenc said.
And Turkey remains important to NATO allies and other Western institutions because of Mr. Erdogan’s continued relations with Mr. Putin, said Evren Balta, an international relations professor at Ozyegin University in Istanbul.
The grain deal could be resurrected, she said, and Mr. Erdogan may find new opportunities for bargaining before long.
Ms. Balta added that Russia and Turkey had some fundamental similarities in how their governments operated, including decision-making based on the needs of the moment.
She said that if Mr. Putin needed to talk to Mr. Erdogan, he would do that. If he needed to condemn him, he would do that, too. And both sides understand the dual nature of that relationship, she added, meaning, “Putin and Erdogan will keep talking.”