Reporting by Tamara Qiblawi and Ezel Sarios, in the CNN Middle East newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter (click here)
(CNN) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in an exclusive interview ahead of next week’s presidential run-off that Turkey has a “special” and growing relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite mounting pressure on Ankara to help bolster Western sanctions against Moscow.
Erdogan said in an interview with Becky Anderson on CNN: “We have not reached a stage where we impose sanctions on Russia as the West did. We are not bound by Western sanctions.” He added, “We are a strong country and we have a positive relationship with Russia.” He continued, saying, “Russia and Turkey need to each other in every possible way.
Erdogan appears to be the frontrunner in the Turkish presidential race, which heads into a runoff on May 28. He and his main rival, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, have fallen out on a number of foreign policy issues, including diplomacy with the West and Russia.
Kilicdaroglu has vowed to mend years of strained diplomacy with the West.
He also said that he would not seek to emulate Erdoğan’s relationship with Putin that is driven by personal matters, and instead reset Ankara’s relationship with Moscow to be “state-driven.”
But in the days leading up to the first round of the presidential race on May 14, Kilicdaroglu hardened his tone toward the Kremlin, accusing it of meddling in Turkey’s elections and threatening to sever relations between the two countries.
“Dear Russian friends, you are behind the montages, conspiracies, deep fakes and tapes that were exposed in this country yesterday,” he said on Twitter.
“If you want our friendship to continue after May 15, take your hands off the Turkish state,” Kilicdaroglu added.
By contrast, Erdogan has doubled down on his relationship with Putin – and he believes the West should follow suit. “The West is not leading a very balanced approach,” he told CNN. “You need a balanced approach towards a country like Russia, which could have been a much more successful approach.”
He accused his rival of seeking to “separate” Türkiye from Russia.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Turkish man has emerged as a key decision-maker, adopting a decisive balance between the two sides, widely known as “pro-Ukrainian neutrality.”
He helped broker a major agreement known as the Black Sea Grain Transport Initiative, which freed millions of tons of wheat trapped in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, averting a global hunger crisis. The agreement was extended for another two months on Wednesday, a day before it expires.
“This was made possible because of our special relationship with President Putin,” he told CNN, referring to the grain deal.
The volume of Russian-Turkish trade reaches $62 billion annually. Earlier this year, Putin waived Turkish gas payments to Russia in a move he believes helps boost Erdogan’s chances in the elections.
Erdoğan also helped secure an exchange of prisoners of war between Ukraine and Russia, in addition to hosting some freed Ukrainian prisoners of war in Turkey, and supplying weapons to Kiev. His close ties to Putin continue to worry his Western allies.
‘Not ready for Sweden’
In his interview with CNN, Erdogan addressed another flashpoint in Turkey’s tensions with the West: Sweden’s accession to NATO. Turkey – NATO’s second largest army – has banned Stockholm from the alliance, accusing it of harboring militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
“As long as Sweden continues to allow branches of terrorist groups in Turkey to roam freely in Sweden, in the streets of Stockholm, we cannot look positively at Sweden’s membership in NATO,” Erdogan said.
He added, “We are not ready for Sweden now…because a NATO country should have a strong position when it comes to fighting terrorism.”
Sweden has rejected Turkey’s repeated requests to extradite individuals Ankara describes as terrorists, arguing that the case can only be decided by Swedish courts.
Erdogan also criticized US President Joe Biden for calling him an “autocrat” in his 2020 campaign for the White House. “Is a dictator running a runoff?” he asked.
The 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey is a prominent issue in this election. Kilicdaroglu promised to deport the Syrian refugees.
The third-place candidate in the race, Sinan Ogan, an ultra-nationalist, said he would support the candidate with the toughest refugee policy.
This appears to have prompted Kilicdaroglu to take a hard line on refugees in his campaign videos. Meanwhile, Erdoğan told CNN that he will not bow to Oğan’s wishes.
“I’m not someone who likes to negotiate that way,” he added, responding to speculation about Ogan emerging as kingmaker in the run-off. “The people are going to be the kingmakers.”
Erdoğan rejected opposition calls for a mass deportation of refugees, saying he would instead “encourage” the return of some one million refugees to Syria. He said Turkey was building infrastructure and homes in the parts of the war-torn country it controls to facilitate their repatriation.