Don’t Look Now, but Putin Is Eyeing a Slice of Turkey

At Ankara’s invitation, the Russian strongman may inaugurate a new nuclear plant this month.

Mikhail Metzel/pool via AP
President Putin speaks during a video address at Moscow December 20, 2022. Mikhail Metzel/pool via AP

One of the legacies of Vladimir Putin will be that he made the enduring riddle of Russia far less ambiguous — one aspect of it, anyway. In a foreign policy announcement last week that surprised no one, Mr. Putin said that “the Russian Federation intends to eliminate the worldwide dominance of the United States and other unfriendly countries.” For Moscow, hostile nations include those that imposed sanctions on Russia as a response to Mr. Putin’s war on Ukraine. They do not include NATO member Turkey.

While Moscow has no apparent designs on Turkish territory — not presently, anyway — there are other ways of carving up a bird. One is through strategic investment. Russia’s state nuclear energy company, Rosatom, is putting the finishing touches on a nuclear power plant that it has been building at Akkuyu in southern Turkey. The $20 billion contract for the four-reactor power plant went to TSM Enerji, a consortium owned by three Russia-based companies.

There is nothing secret about the Akkuyu plant, which when fully operational will supply a tenth of Turkey’s electricity and coincidentally (or not) is located due north of Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. Last week President Erdogan said it was likely President Putin will visit Turkey on April 27 for the power plant’s inauguration. Should that happen, it will be the first time that Mr. Putin, who is now the subject of an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court, sets foot in a NATO-member country since his invasion of Ukraine  last year. 

That fact does not seem to trouble Mr. Erdogan much. The Turkish president, who is in the midst of an unexpectedly challenging political campaign ahead of a general election next month, has told Mr. Putin that Turkey does not recognize Russia’s land grabs in Ukraine, and specifically does not recognize the two Russian-backed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine. 

Yet Turkey is also opposed to sanctions against Russia. That finger-in-the-eye of the West stance was on display from the earliest weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, when Russian oligarchs like Roman Abramovich, who were no longer welcome in most of Europe, found safe harbor for their superyachts in Turkish ports.

In an interview with a Turkish reporter last month, Mr. Erdogan reiterated that he would not let Turkey become entangled in hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, even though his repeated offers to mediate do presuppose some level of engagement.

Playing a double game is entirely predictable for a country that straddles two continents and that shares a sea border with Russia. In fact, that Black Sea border is about to become even lighter than it already is. Starting May 1, regular ferry service is scheduled to resume between the Turkish city of Trabzon, on the south Black Sea coast, and Sochi in Russia, on the sea’s northern coast. The ferry service has not been in operation since 2014, the year Russia seized and subsequently annexed the Crimean peninsula.

According to a recent study, Sochi, which was host city for the 2014 Winter Olympics, has some of the world’s highest housing prices. Apartment prices are reportedly higher only in Hong Kong and Monaco. As long as travel bans remain in place for most Russians, the popularity of the Black Sea resort city will likely only increase. 

Yet the resumption of ferries between Turkey and Sochi points to a growing soft integration of regional economic networks. The ferry will carry up to 300 people and 200 cars per trip, with room for six buses and a dozen freight containers. 

America does not have a very large seat at this table. On one level, the growing cooperation between Moscow and Ankara mirrors that between Beijing and Athens. The Chinese shipping giant Cosco took the majority share in the Greek port of Piraeus in 2016, handing Beijing entrée to one of the biggest commercial hubs in the Eastern Mediterranean. 

That questionable deal came through at a time when Greece was reeling from a debt crisis. Some sources have told this correspondent that Communist China was not everyone’s first choice for a majority stakeholder position, but without other credible bidders for the concession Greece had to make a move.

Russian’s multibillion-dollar investment in Turkey’s new nuclear power plant shows that Moscow means business despite the economic drag of the war in Ukraine. What Turkey may not be aware of is something that a commerce secretary under President Trump, Wilbur Ross, once warned about with respect to Communist China and Greece: namely, that those kinds of infiltrations can amount to Trojan horses. 

The ancient city of Troy, of course, is located in present-day Turkey. 

Moscow has already switched out the European markets for its energy it lost in favor of Communist China and India. The Kremlin’s newly stated goal of “eliminating” American “dominance” means that instrumentalizing antipathy toward the West will happen in all forms and everywhere, from pulling out of New Start to grabbing American reporters on the job under the guise of alleged espionage. On the day-to-day level it means leveraging the strategic ambiguity of neighbors like Turkey for commercial gain and to bolster global influence. Such a gain can only be America’s loss. 

The New York Sun

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