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Opinion

Erdogan and Putin battle it out for control of the Black Sea

Tussle adds to growing list of places where the veteran strongmen are squaring off

| Turkey
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attend a joint news conference in Istanbul on Apr. 10: they reaffirmed their strategic partnership.   © Reuters

Andrew North is a journalist based in Tbilisi and a regular commentator on Asian affairs. He has reported widely from South Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's military buildup on Ukraine's border has incited a complex power struggle with Turkey over the Black Sea that will ripple across Central Asia.

And just as he did last year in the Caucasus, Turkey's mercurial President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is matching words with hard power -- sending Ukraine additional missile-firing drones.

Russia says the 80,000-strong force it deployed to the edge of Ukraine's Donbas region was just an exercise, but Putin also appears to have been trying to gain leverage with Washington. It seems to have worked, with U.S. President Joe Biden offering a summit meeting with the man he recently called a "killer."

But it was Turkey's Erdogan who took the most concrete action in response to Russia's saber-rattling -- perhaps better described these days as tank-rumbling -- by inviting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to Istanbul earlier this month to reaffirm their strategic partnership.

For Erdogan, the issue is ensuring that Russia does not expand its Black Sea influence following its seizure of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. Crimea has a dominant position jutting out into the middle of the giant inland sea and Moscow has bolstered its surface and submarine fleet there, as well as installing S-400 surface-to-air missiles capable of hitting aircraft flying along most of Turkey's Black Sea coastline.

Erdogan is also pressing ahead with a $12.5 billion plan for a new waterway linking the Black Sea with the Mediterranean as an alternative to the Bosporus. The so-called Istanbul Canal would relieve pressure on the increasingly clogged Bosporus, increase Turkey's freight revenues, and give it greater naval flexibility.

While international coverage of the conflict has faded, Moscow has never stopped backing separatists in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region as a means of unsettling Kyiv and blocking its push to join Western institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union.

The irony, of course, is that there's no love lost between Erdogan and his NATO allies, not least over the fact that he too has bought Russia's S-400 missile system. That didn't help Turkey's case in trying to stop Biden from going ahead with this weekend's decision to formally declare the 1915 mass killing of Armenians under the Ottoman Turks a "genocide." But on Ukraine, Turkey and the West are on the same side.

It is the same playbook Erdogan used successfully last year in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, matching vocal support for Azerbaijan with balance-shifting weaponry on the battlefield, such as its Bayraktar TB2 combat drones. There, too, Russia was on the other side, backing Armenia, though showing far less interest than it does in Ukraine.

A military truck carries a Bayraktar TB2 combat drone at the parade held to celebrate the Azerbaijani army's victory in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in December 2020 in Baku.   © Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkey has committed to supplying Ukraine with more of the drones that proved so decisive for Azerbaijan. Russian-backed separatists do not have the same capability, giving Ukrainian forces a major potential advantage. Ankara has also signed a deal to sell Ukraine four stealth warships, helping to boost its Black Sea naval capacity.

The Kremlin, predictably annoyed, followed a tried-and-tested template by rolling out Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to blame Ukraine for the rise in tensions, while condemning Turkey for facilitating what he called Kyiv's "militaristic" tendencies. Moscow has also suspended most flights to Turkey, ruining the holiday plans of at least 500,000 Russians.

The Black Sea tussle adds to a growing list of places where the two veteran strongmen have been squaring off. Ankara has been trying to deepen its influence in the resource-rich and Turkic-language speaking states of Central Asia, butting up against Russian interests in a region that, like Ukraine, Moscow regards as its backyard. They have also backed opposing sides in the wars in Syria and Libya.

Turkey has been assiduous in using soft power with its companies and diplomats extending their presence and influence, in addition to 20 new embassies across Asia. It is also keeping a hard-power presence in Afghanistan even after U.S.-led NATO troops leave this September, as part of a separate deal it has done with Kabul to keep some forces there.

But while Turkey may have the second-biggest military in NATO after the U.S., going up against Russia over Ukraine is a huge gamble. It comes amid growing economic strain, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, and dissent over Erdogan's strategic approach.

An influential group of former Turkish navy officers and diplomats recently denounced the Istanbul canal project, saying it threatened existing arrangements controlling access to the Bosporus by other nations. Flexing its authoritarian muscle, the government reacted by arresting 10 former admirals who signed the statement, accusing them of mounting a quasi-coup.

On that count, Putin would probably agree. While there may be much that divides the two leaders, Erdogan is known to be grateful to his Russian counterpart for his rapid backing during a failed Turkish military coup in 2016. Support from the West was notably lacking by comparison.

But modern geopolitics is more than ever an a la carte menu, with choices that both complement and conflict. And this time around, the West is more than happy to have Turkey's strongman on its side as it wrestles with his bigger rival across the Black Sea.

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