Russian oligarchs are the primary enablers of President Vladimir Putin’s kleptocratic authoritarianism, but they aren’t the only ones. The activities of Turkish business magnate Ethem Sancak, one of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s closest political allies, demonstrate how Russia exerts influence even in NATO member states through business figures aligned with the Kremlin’s anti-Western worldview.
Sancak appeared on Russian news channel RBC earlier this month to argue that NATO is the main culprit in Ukraine, calling the transatlantic alliance a “cancerous tumor” in the Turkish body politic. He also echoed Kremlin talking points that presented NATO action against Russia as a threat to Turkey: “We will not join in the sanctions, because if Russia falls, Turkey would get divided. And if Turkey falls, the same goes for Russia.”
Sancak, a former member of the executive committee of Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP), spoke to RBC while visiting Moscow alongside members of Turkey’s Maoist-rooted Patriotic Party (VP), Erdoğan’s enemies-turned-tactical allies who share his agenda of pivoting Turkey toward China, Iran, and Russia. Fraternizing with Maoists may seem unusual for an oligarch, yet Sancak’s path to political Islam started in the 1970s with his youth activism among the ranks of Turkey’s Maoist movement.
During his undergraduate studies in business administration at Istanbul University, Sancak was a member of the Revolutionary Workers’ and Peasants’ Party of Turkey (TIIKP), for which he later served as provincial chair in Diyarbakir. His peers remarked on his enthusiasm for “transforming society” along Maoist lines. Sancak worked briefly as a journalist between 1976 and 1978 before moving into the pharmaceutical industry, climbing its ranks to become the chairman of the board of the Turkish Pharmaceutical Warehouses Association from 2004 to 2010.
Sancak’s fusion of business and politics reached a new level when he facilitated Erdoğan’s takeover of independent media outlets. In 2014, Sancak acquired half of the Turkish media conglomerate Star Media Group from its pro-secular owner. Sancak thereby came to control a national broadcaster, two national dailies, five magazines, and two radio channels. These outlets subsequently became not only government mouthpieces, but also key media for pushing anti-Western conspiracy theories. In a 2015 interview, Sancak stated his goal was to establish a “pro-Asia media” that would “break the influence of the Western media squeezing [Turkey] for the last 500 years with its vise-like grip.” Three years later, Sancak sold his media holdings to Hasan Yeşildağ, reportedly a mobster loyal to Erdoğan. Yeşildağ had been Erdoğan’s personal bodyguard when the latter served a 10-month prison sentence back in 1998.
Sancak also emerged as a key player in Erdoğan’s efforts to build an indigenous defense industry owned by his loyalists, as part of his ambitions to pursue a foreign and security policy less restricted by Turkey’s NATO allies. In 2014, one of Sancak’s companies became the only bidder in a public tender for the Turkish armored vehicle manufacturer BMC, which the Erdoğan government had expropriated from its pro-secular owner the year before. Sancak acquired his shares in BMC for $360 million, 20 percent below the firm’s market value. He sold them last year for $480 million, turning a very handsome profit.
Sancak had no qualms about replacing his Maoist worldview with Erdoğan’s brand of Islamism, two ideologies that resemble one another in their anti-Western stance. In a 2019 interview with an Islamist daily, Sancak stated, “For me, an upright Arab who clings to Islam is worth 50 Turks who sold their soul to the West.” A decade before, Sancak said, “Once upon a time, I was interested in Karl Marx and Mao, now I am in love with Tayyip Erdoğan.” Sancak, who went as far as describing his affection for Erdoğan as “divine love,” also warned in a 2019 interview that he would start opposing Erdoğan if he stops fighting the Americans and gives up the Russian S-400 air defense system.
Sancak also pushes a pro-Russia position on Syria. During a 2020 talk, he presented Syria as “a field where Asian forces challenge Atlantic forces.” Sancak then warned that the United States always tries to “dupe us” and Turkey should pick its strategic partner wisely and not fall for Washington’s trap.
Similarly, Sancak does his best to smooth out potential tensions between Moscow and Ankara, and thereby sustain the Erdoğan government’s fence-sitting between NATO and Russia. When a Turkish company’s sale of Bayraktar TB-2 drones to Ukraine became a sore spot between Ankara and Moscow, Sancak argued on RBC, the Russian news channel, “[Turkey] did not know that Bayraktar drones would be used in this way while selling them.” This echoes the comments Turkey’s Deputy Foreign Minister Yavuz Selim Kiran made when he stated that Ankara did not provide these drones to Kyiv as military aid, saying, “They are products Ukraine purchased from a private company.”
As the Erdoğan government continues to straddle the NATO and Russia positions in the Ukraine war, public figures like Sancak who push out Kremlin talking points and help maintain cordial relations between Russia and Turkey could prove to be as valuable to Putin as his own loyal oligarchs.
As Erdoğan remains committed to opposing any sanctions against Russia, the appeal of Turkey as a permissive jurisdiction could attract Russian oligarchs not only toward carrying their businesses and wealth to Turkey but also toward joining forces with Turkey’s pro-Russia tycoons. The Ukraine war is yet another reminder that pushing back against Putin’s hegemonic ambitions requires going beyond the sanctioning of Russian oligarchs by implementing anti-corruption measures that also target the kleptocratic networks worldwide that facilitate the Kremlin’s influence operations in the West.
Aykan Erdemir is senior director of the Turkey program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish parliament. Twitter: @aykan_erdemir
Kursat Gok is a graduate student at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a research intern for the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.