Turkey’s Authoritarian President Is Using the War in Ukraine to Tighten His Control

For years, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pursued a harsh crackdown against Kurds and dissidents in the name of anti-terrorism. Now he’s using his role in NATO to launder his image and entrench his rule at home.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a meeting on the final day of the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain, 2022. (Valeria Mongelli / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

On Friday, April 22, as Turkey’s finance minister, Nurettin Nebati, brushed elbows with financiers in New York, and as foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu planned a trip to visit his US counterpart in Washington, Osman Kavala gave the final statement in a trial that would determine whether he spends the rest of his life in prison.

Seated on a white plastic chair in a pink isolation cell, Kavala addressed hundreds of journalists, lawyers, diplomats, and human rights advocates. He looked reserved, if gaunt, not fully betraying the four and a half years he has spent behind bars, largely in pretrial detention. He was measured in his defense, if disparaging of the proceedings. He said that he “[did] not expect [his statement] to have any impact on the judgment,” calling the trial “completely deformed,” and his detention an “act of deprivation of liberty by abuse of power.” Human rights organizations and governments around the world agree.

As president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with UN Secretary-General António Guterres in Ankara the following Monday, Kavala was sentenced to aggravated life imprisonment on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. Seven other defendants — Mücella Yapıcı, Çiğdem Mater, Hakan Altınay, Mine Özerden, Can Atalay, Yiğit Ali Ekmekçi, and Tayfun Kahraman — were each sentenced to eighteen years in prison. As Erdoğan and Guterres announced their planned cooperation, Tayfun Kahraman tearfully said goodbye to his toddler daughter in the hallways of Istanbul’s heavy penal court.

Especially since the 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent crackdown, Western states have rhetorically condemned Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian policies. However, the Russian-Ukrainian war and Turkey’s strategic importance to it have exposed the hollowness of this rhetoric. Even as government abuses continue in Turkey, it is being lauded as a critical player in ending Russia’s invasion.

This courting of Turkey continued at this week’s NATO summit in Madrid, where Turkey’s Western counterparts met with Erdoğan, hoping that he would drop his veto on Sweden and Finland joining the pact. Just two days after the violent arrest of 361 people during a Pride march, Erdoğan secured long-sought concessions, such as Finnish and Swedish cooperation in the so-called “fight against terrorism.”

This rapprochement with Erdoğan and his government has also continued as Turkey has strengthened its alliances with supposed adversaries of the West — and the international human rights community. Despite European and American sanctions, Turkey continues to import the vast majority of its gas from Russia, with no indication that it is willing to halt these imports. Further, as economic disaster looms, Erdoğan and his government have inched closer to Saudi Arabia and its Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known to have been involved in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Taken together, these show a Turkey edging closer to authoritarian states and signaling crackdowns on opposition and dissent in the lead-up to next year’s planned election, while simultaneously benefitting from the diplomatic embrace of NATO and Western states. This apparent contradiction exposes, above all else, Western states’ acceptance of authoritarianism and human rights abuses when it is strategically and diplomatically beneficial.

Repressing Dissent

Until Russia invaded Ukraine, Turkey’s relations with Washington, Europe, and other Western allies were strained. Thousands were jailed on charges of terrorism or insulting the president, dozens of journalists were behind bars, and prominent opposition politicians and members of civil society were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. Of particular concern to Turkey’s NATO allies was the imprisonment of Selahattin Demirtaş — former cochair of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party — and Osman Kavala, a wealthy, left-wing philanthropist known for founding intercultural organization Anadolu Kültür. Both men were swept up during the postcoup state of emergency, and both were kept imprisoned through trials on multiple unrelated charges. Their imprisonment inspired condemnation from Washington and EU capitals — the Council of Europe has begun infringement proceedings for Kavala’s ongoing detention and voted to condemn the jailing of Demirtaş.

Kavala had been detained and formally arrested in fall 2017 for allegedly planning the 2013 Gezi Park protests. A businessman born to a wealthy family in Paris, Kavala made his name as a champion for groups historically maligned in Turkey, like Armenians, Kurds, and Alevis. His foundation, now run by Asena Günal, funded art and culture projects, concentrated in eastern, largely Kurdish areas.

Kavala was a supporter of the anti-government protests at Gezi Park; sparked by plans to build a shopping mall in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, they ballooned into a movement against police violence and crackdowns by Erdoğan’s government. For a month, protesters set up a camp — reminiscent of the Occupy protests — in Taksim Square, where, participants say, they formed a “self-sufficient” community. Kavala, who grew up nearby, brought chairs and pastries for the protesters; many people from surrounding neighborhoods did the same.

After Kavala’s arrest in November 2017, he was held in pretrial detention until February 2020, when he was cleared of those charges and freed — albeit only momentarily, not even making it out of Silivri Prison. He was immediately rearrested on charges of plotting the 2016 coup attempt along with American academic Henri Barkey, and again subjected to pretrial detention. The Gezi case was then reopened in May 2021.

Kavala became the calling card for Western governments trying to point to Turkey’s “backslide.” Especially after Joe Biden’s election, Washington and its allies announced the return of a “human rights” doctrine that presented the United States as a world leader in this regard, despite its own ongoing abuses. Kavala’s case was brought before Congress and discussed widely in US and European civil society; the campaign culminated in an October 2021 statement in which ambassadors to Turkey from ten countries demanded his release.

Erdoğan accused the dissident ambassadors of violating Turkey’s sovereignty and threatened to declare them persona non grata. The ten envoys were summoned to the foreign ministry in Ankara, where a closed-door meeting resulted in the United States, Canada, and other nations who signed the statement issuing declarations on Twitter saying that they would respect Turkey’s sovereignty as per international norms. The statement, and Kavala’s detention, faded from international headlines.


Ever since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War and the rise in refugee numbers heading to Europe via Turkey, Erdoğan has been able to use the threat of opening Turkish borders to fend off criticism of his abuses. Yet it was the Russian-Ukraine conflict that gave him remarkable new leverage, even as he faces dire economic straits and a difficult electoral test.

In the lead-up to the February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey emerged as a critical factor in any potential conflict, not least given its position along the Bosphorus. The waterway, controlled by Turkey under the Montreux Convention, is the only means of accessing the critical Black Sea ports of Odessa and Mariupol — later key targets of the Russian siege — from the Mediterranean. As a fleet of Russian warships headed from the Baltic around Europe and inched toward the Bosphorus, all eyes were on Turkey’s reaction.

Turkey let the ships pass without ceremony on February 8, saying that it had no right to bar seacraft from returning to their home ports. On February 23, Erdoğan told Vladimir Putin in a phone call that Turkey recognized the importance of Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence. The incident, and the conflicting rhetoric, signaled the role Turkey would come to play in the coming months — avoiding animus with NATO allies, while doing everything in its power to avoid antagonizing Russia.

Turkey is deeply tied to both belligerent states. The two countries together comprise over one-third of Turkey’s annual tourists — roughly 7 million from Russia and 1.5 million from Ukraine in 2019 — and it relies on trade with both countries. Turkey and Ukraine jointly develop Bayraktar TB2 drones, themselves critical to the fight against Russia, and Turkey also depends on Kiev for jet-engine know-how and development. Turkey imported $861 million of grain supplies from Ukraine in 2021, while over 40 percent of its gas needs were met by Russia. Amid an economic crisis and historic levels of inflation already driving up energy and food prices, a Turkish government facing elections in 2023 was reluctant to sacrifice either relationship.

Instead, Erdoğan’s government tried to leverage these conflicting ties to play a peacemaker role. In early February, he offered to mediate between presidents Zelensky and Putin, as one of the only leaders in the world able to speak with both. Then, on March 10, he hosted peace talks between the countries’ foreign ministers in Antalya — a city known for welcoming Ukrainian and Russian tourists. While the talks resulted in little progress, Erdoğan’s role persisted. On March 29, he hosted the “Istanbul Talks” in historic Dolmabahçe Palace, attended by critical representatives of both sides including Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich. While the talks had few results, the optics were critical for Erdoğan. They presented Turkey as a critical intermediary, a key global player after five years of being sidelined.

European leaders poured into the country to meet with Erdoğan, discussing both the war and relations with Turkey more broadly. German chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Turkey on March 14 to discuss the Ukraine conflict with Erdoğan, and the two agreed to better “differences” in bilateral relations. Scholz said he and Erdoğan were in “complete agreement” on the need for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis and that despite their “differences,” the two countries would work to expand trade and diplomatic relations. A week later, Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte visited Ankara for the first time in four years, speaking of a “special relationship” between the two countries after he met with Erdoğan. Admitting that relations had been strained, Rutte, like Scholz, said that the relationship needed to continue despite the factors — including well-documented human rights abuses — that led to its earlier breakdown.

Meanwhile, Turkey was preparing to sentence one of its most prominent civil society members to life imprisonment, jail opposition politicians, and cement its ties with a country, Saudi Arabia, known for its total — fatal — intolerance of dissent.

Change at Home?

Three days before the Gezi Park case reached its final hearing, Asena Günal was tentatively hopeful. She looked at the economy, at the flow of foreign leaders visiting Turkey, and the state of domestic affairs.

“Osman [Kavala] doesn’t do anything for them anymore,” she said, “There is no point in keeping him in prison for such a long time. What is the use of it? It doesn’t give an advantage to Erdoğan, either for his local propaganda nor for his international relations.”

She said Kavala himself was hopeful he would be released. Some thought he would be sentenced, but that the years he already spent behind bars would count toward it. Others thought he might be released altogether, given the European court ruling.

“The choice is either he walks free or gets life in prison. What choice is that for this kind of crime?” Günal said.

Günal’s tentative optimism reflected that of the country in a moment when many perhaps thought Erdoğan might right one of the more egregious violations of his tenure. Perhaps, as foreign leaders shuttled through the country and Turkey presented itself as a great mediator, domestic politics might change, too.

That hope was misplaced. During Kavala’s trial, it was obvious how far Erdoğan has molded the judiciary to his advantage. The day after the defendants, including Kavala, made their final statements, it was revealed that one of the three judges overseeing the trial had been approved as a parliamentary candidate for Erdoğan’s AKP party. In front of a room packed with international human rights advocates, journalists, and foreign representatives, the seven defendants accused of masterminding the Gezi Park protests outlined proof to the contrary. Some weren’t in the country. Others said they had brought food or chairs. Others described how the movement was organic, growing out of an environmental protest and blooming into one about police violence and government corruption. Seventy-two-year-old Mücella Yapıcı was so angry as she spoke that she shook, reaching intermittently to dab at her face and mouth with a handkerchief.

Their defense was all to no avail.

Despite Günal’s — and Kavala’s — hope that the trial might result in acquittal, all seven defendants were found guilty. Kavala was sentenced to an aggravated life sentence — meaning solitary confinement — while the others were sentenced to eighteen years each. One of the defendants, Çiğdem Mater, had been in exile but flew from Berlin to be at the final hearing in a show of solidarity. She is now in a Turkish prison.

The convictions are a worrying harbinger of the year ahead of planned elections, in which Erdoğan is expected to face formidable opposition. The period of the Ukraine war has also seen the government launch a trial against We Will Stop Femicide, a platform which aims to count and raise awareness of the murder of women in Turkey. Over two decades of AKP rule, femicides have skyrocketed; the opposition highlights this as evidence of the ruling party’s misogynistic policies. The platform has led mass protests since its founding in 2012 and especially since Turkey’s 2021 withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on violence against women; this April the platform reported that prosecutors are now seeking to shut it down for “immorality.”

A year before planned elections, the government is also using the judiciary to target opposition politicians. On May 12, opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) Istanbul chair Canan Kaftancıoğlu was convicted of insulting the president and sentenced to four and a half years in prison. The charges stem from tweets Kaftancıoğlu published in 2014. Kaftancıoğlu is widely credited with securing the CHP victory in Istanbul in 2019’s local elections. The mayor she helped bring to power, Ekrem İmamoğlu, widely considered a possible presidential candidate, will also be tried on charges of insulting members of the Supreme Election Council (YSK) in September.

Saudi Ties

Erdoğan has demonstrated his willingness not only to use the judicial system to imprison his critics, but also to cooperate closely with foreign governments known for their abuses — and their wealth. Turkey faces its highest levels of inflation in over twenty years and the Central Bank is depleting its reserves in order to stabilize the lira against foreign currencies. The government is desperate for funding — and willing to ignore violent rights abuses in order to secure money from countries like Saudi Arabia.

When journalist Jamal Khashoggi was brutally murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018, Erdoğan immediately spoke out about the killing. Turkish authorities released recordings allegedly taped inside the consulate, which Erdoğan called “appalling.” The eighteen people suspected of carrying out the murder were tried in Turkey in trials that verged on the obscene — Turkish prosecutors laid out in minute detail how Khashoggi was dismembered and cooked in a grill at the consulate, and Erdoğan called the murder a “serious threat to world order.” Thus, when the government announced in April that the trial would be completed in Saudi Arabia — near-guaranteeing the defendants’ acquittal — the apparent about-face came as a shock to some. However, a visit by Erdoğan to the kingdom just weeks later made the impetus for the government’s shift clear.

During Erdoğan’s visit on April 28, after three years of accusations against the Saudi crown prince, Khashoggi’s name was not mentioned once. The two countries glossed over the reasons for the previous rift and instead discussed the importance of expanding Turkish-Saudi trade ties.

“The crisis, the rift between Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Turkey, originated in the Arab Spring, then it gained its own momentum, but lost that momentum over time,” said Birol Başkan, an expert on Turkey-Gulf relations, “Now it’s lost its meaning.”

Facing an economy in crisis and a potentially difficult election, Erdoğan abandoned the investigation into the murder and the trial in exchange for trade ties he hopes will bolster the floundering Turkish economy.

“Erdogan is not concerned with principles or ethical values. He has always been a very pragmatic figure,” said Günal.

All told, the four months since Russia invaded Ukraine have shaped a concerning domestic political situation in Turkey. Emboldened by the international community’s acceptance, and pursuing ever-closer ties with powers like Saudi Arabia and Russia, President Erdoğan’s government heads into next year’s election with multiple abuses and crackdowns on its shoulders. This period has also illuminated the utter emptiness of Western human rights policy: when an authoritarian state is strategically useful, the urgency of recognizing abuses disappears.

Hardening Autocracy

The US State Department declared that it was “deeply troubled and disappointed” by Kavala’s conviction, and that his imprisonment was “inconsistent with respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.” Shortly thereafter, the administration released a condemning report on Turkish human rights. The president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe — of which Turkey is a founding member and which has initiated sanctions proceedings against Erdoğan’s government for violating a European Court of Human Rights decision calling for Kavala’s release — similarly expressed “deep disappointment.” Yet in practical terms, Turkey faced no further punishment.

“The European attitude about human rights violations here was never that strong,” said Günal, citing little action beyond reports and condemnations. “I don’t think [the Turkish government] needs Osman Kavala to please Europe at the moment.”

This is a situation reminiscent of 2015, at the height of the Syrian war and the influx of refugees to Europe. As Erdoğan waged a violent war on the Kurdish population, killing thousands and leaving bodies in the street, the international community remained silent so long as Turkey held refugees in Turkey. The consolidation of power that began with that war was then cemented by the 2016 coup attempt and the subsequent state of emergency and constitutional referendum. Because Erdoğan held the “refugee card,” he was able to transform Turkey’s government into a one-man system under his rule in less than three years, with the international community responding with little more than platitudes. Now, with the Ukraine war and Turkey’s strategic importance to it, as well as the trump card he played in threats to veto Swedish and Finnish NATO membership, Erdoğan and his government could go even further.

The degree to which Turkey will attempt to use its newfound proximity to its Western allies to further crackdown on dissent is clear in the list of extradition requests President Erdogan’s government made to Finland and Sweden prior to this week’s Madrid NATO summit. According to front-page news by pro-government daily Hürriyet published on June 27, the list of alleged terrorists Turkey claims the Nordic countries are harboring includes Ragıp Zarakolu, a seventy-three-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee, journalist, and human rights activist. Turkey accuses him over terrorism for a speech he made condemning its treatment of its Kurdish population. Similar charges have been levied against Günal, her colleagues, and opposition politicians like Selahattin Demirtaş.

Details of what Turkey, Finland, and Sweden’s security cooperation will look like are sparse. But these concessions could have dire consequences for the Kurdish and dissident community in these Nordic states as well as for anti-government figures still living in Turkey. Erdoğan’s office said it “got what it wanted” from the two countries; they agreed to “extend their full support” to Turkey’s fight against terrorism, to not cooperate with Syrian Kurdish forces (PYD/YPG), which Turkey considers indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and to enter into an unspecified “terrorist” extradition agreement with Erdoğan’s government. This, if Turkey’s list is accepted, could include writers and activists like Zarakolu.

“It’s hard to predict what the next year will look like. What will be better for him, to be softer or harsher?” Günal asked, rhetorically, “Where on the scale of autocracy will he fall? But it will certainly continue to be an autocracy.”