The dust is now settling from the abortive ‘coup’ attempt undertaken by Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the paramilitary Wagner Group, against his nominal ally and Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was a curious 24 hours for all observers of the ongoing conflict occasioned by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with Prigozhin’s race toward Moscow prompting widespread speculation about the internal crisis of leadership in Russia, whether the breakdown of relations between Putin and Prigozhin could shake the former’s grip on power, and the ramifications of any internal escalation in Russia on the conflict in Ukraine.
But the geopolitical ramifications of the crisis, which came to a sudden conclusion with the eleventh-hour announcement that Prigozhin’s notoriously brutal fighting force would be transferred to Belarus under the auspices of Belarusian President and Putin ally Alexander Lukashenko, should also be considered. For Lukashenko was not the only ally Putin turned to in his hour of need. The Russian President was busy on the phone that day, reaching out to other members of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) including Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev – and also to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Readers will have little difficulty in spotting the odd man out. On that call list, Erdoğan stands alone as the leader of a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) state. Though far smaller in manpower, strength and influence, the CSTO enables Russia to extend and increase its influence in post-Soviet states, thereby serving as a regional counterweight to the US-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Alliance, which is heavily backing Ukraine in a conflict which has brought East and West into their most intense confrontation since the fall of the Soviet Union.
Any actual coup attempted or achieved by Wagner, who have achieved notoriety for both their efficiency as a fighting force in Ukraine and for brutal war crimes committed across multiple spheres of conflict in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe, would be a catastrophe. And there is nothing wrong, on the face of it, with attempts to broker a negotiated settlement that would spare citizen’s lives. But Erdoğan’s reported reassurance to Putin that he stood behind the Russian leader in his hour of need serves as a timely reminder that the Turkish president cannot be trusted to seek anything other than his own country’s advancement vis-a-vis any confrontation between Russia and NATO.
Indeed, it’s known that the Kazakh President – who recently relied on the CSTO to assist him in preventing a potential internal threat to his rule by deploying 2500 troops on the streets of Kazakhstan – has been drifting away from Russia following the invasion of Ukraine, for example refusing to recognize two Russian-backed breakaway republics. When called upon by Putin during the recent coup, Tokayev reportedly demurred to help, describing the crisis as an internal issue for Russia to resolve.
But Erdoğan has long reaped the benefits of both his strategic alignment as the head of NATO’s second-largest army, and a man with Putin’s ear. This time, it was another autocrat who proved ready to spring into the breach and curry favour with Moscow by playing host to Prigozhin and his men, preventing the immediate threat of civil war while raising the spectre of further hostilities across Eastern Europe. But Erdoğan has long shown himself ready to accommodate Putin’s needs, coming to mutually-beneficial accommodations in spheres where both seek influence, acquiring the Russian-made S-400 missile defence system to the anger of Washington, and taking a decidedly ambiguous role over the Russian invasion of Ukraine by refusing to join sanctions programmes, playing host to Russian oligarchs, and failing to adequately close off the Bosphorus to Russian shipping.
The coup made it clear that Europe can expect more seismic shockwaves spilling out from the conflict in Ukraine. Erdoğan’s call should remind the West that as Putin continues to seek friends in the region, he will always find a willing listener at the other end of the line in Ankara.