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Turkey plays a tough balancing act as it strengthens ties with Russia

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As the U.S. and other Western countries imposed sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, one ally has kept business going. Turkey, which is a member of NATO, has more than doubled its trade with Russia in 2022, compared to the year before, and that has created breathing room for Russia's squeezed economy. NPR's Fatma Tanis reports on what Turkey has gotten out of it.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: To understand modern Turkish-Russian economic ties, one has to go back 30 years to the fall of the Soviet Union, says Turkey's former trade attache to Moscow, Aydin Sezer.

AYDIN SEZER: (Speaking Turkish) - shuttle trade.

TANIS: That's when an informal exchange of goods known as shuttle trade began. Travelers would carry goods back and forth and sell them on the streets. But the relationship took another huge leap since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Turkish businesses swooped in to fill the void left by Western companies setting new trade records. Today, Turkey is in the top three of Russia's global trade partners. It's kept a neutral stance in the war or you could say plays both sides. It supplies Ukraine with drones, weapons, armored vehicles but keeps doing business with Russia.

IBRAHIM KALIN: Imposing sanctions on Russia at this point will penalize Turkish economy rather than the Russian economy because of gas dependency that we have with them.

TANIS: That's Ibrahim Kalin, chief adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. There are other economic ties as well. Millions of travelers from Russia visit Turkey's Mediterranean beaches every year, bringing significant cash flow. The war has also changed the dynamics between the leaders of the two countries, says former Turkish trade attache Aydin Sezer.

SEZER: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: Before the war began, the relationship between the two nations and their leaders, Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin, was on and off. Turkey could stand to benefit from a weaker Russia. They are on opposing sides of several regional conflicts, and their forces have even clashed in Syria. When Turkey first sent weapons to Ukraine, Russia banned flights to Turkey in response, briefly blocking all tourist travel at the height of the season.

SEZER: (Speaking Turkish).

TANIS: Sezer says the only thing that prevented more serious battlefield clashes was that Erdogan and Putin saw their economies could help each other. And now, with Turkey increasing its imports from Russia by more than 200%, Sezer says the balance has tipped.

SEZER: (Through interpreter) Putin, at the moment, is seriously reliant on Turkey and Erdogan. And we've seen that there's nothing he won't do to keep Erdogan happy. It's like every day, Putin takes a new carrot out of his head.

TANIS: But analysts say Erdogan is also reliant on money from Russia to keep the economy going as he faces election in the upcoming year. The NATO member's close ties with Russia has made the U.S. and European countries uneasy. U.S. Treasury and State Department officials make regular trips to Turkey to speak with officials as well as businessmen, warning of penalties if they help Russia evade Western sanctions. Gonul Tol, the director of Middle East Institute's Turkey program, says it's a fine line for Erdogan to walk.

GONUL TOL: He needs Putin, and he will not jeopardize that close partnership that he has cultivated over the years. But that does not mean that he will throw away Turkey's partnership with the Western world.

TANIS: In fact, Tol says, some lawmakers in Washington see Turkey potentially playing a different role here, as it did in the Cold War.

TOL: It's becoming increasingly clear that if you want to curb Russian influence, Turkey plays an important role there.

TANIS: Turkey used its influence to convince Russia to let Ukrainian grain be exported again to the world, negotiated several prisoner exchanges and has so far managed to prop up its economy. But as the war keeps going, it's unclear how long Turkey can continue its balancing act without risking its ties with the West. Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.