Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday.

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hailed his country’s “special relationship” with Russian leader Vladimir Putin, speaking to CNN during an interview that aired Friday.

“We are not at a point where we would impose sanctions on Russia as the West has done. We are not bound by the West’s sanctions,” Erdogan told the network. “We are a strong state and we have a positive relationship with Russia.”

“Russia and Turkey need each other in all possible areas,” Erdogan said.

He added that the UN-Turkey-brokered Black Sea Grain Corridor Initiative, in which he played a key role helping unlock crucial Ukrainian grain exports blocked by Russia’s invasion, “was possible because of our special relationship with President Putin.”

“The West is not leading a very balanced approach. You need a balanced approach to a country like Russia, which would have been a much happier approach,” he said.

The powerful Turkish leader’s closeness to Putin, despite his NATO membership, has made many Western leaders and diplomats nervous.

The comments came ahead of Turkey’s presidential vote, the second round of a highly charged and tense race held on May 28 as neither Erdogan nor his rival Kemal Kilicdaroglu won more than 50% of the vote in the first round.

Erdogan finished ahead by a few points in the first poll, leaning on his image as a strong nationalist leader pushing back against Western dominance, despite Turkey being a member of NATO. Kilicdaroglu, meanwhile, has promised to strengthen Turkey’s ties with the West and NATO. Turkey is home to the alliance’s second largest military after the United States and has 50 American tactical nuclear warheads.

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Erdogan has played a mediating role between Ukraine and Russia since the start of the war, sending aid and weapons to Ukraine and brokering prisoner exchanges, but has also significantly expanded his trade ties with Russia.

His decision not to follow Western calls to sanction Russia has served Turkey’s economy well so far; its trade with Russia doubled to $68.19 billion in 2022 from $34.73 billion in 2021, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute. Russian tourists and expatriates, including billionaire oligarchs who escaped sanctions, have poured into the country as their ability to travel has been severely curtailed.

Earlier in 2023, Putin waived the cost of Russian gas exports to Turkey, a move widely seen as an attempt to help Erdogan’s electoral chances.

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Turkey’s imports from Russia nearly doubled last year to $58.85 billion, pushing Russia ahead of China as Turkey’s top trading partner. Turkey is now the destination for 7% of Russian exports, up from 2% in 2021.

Erdogan is also accused of obstructing NATO expansion with his refusal to approve the membership of Sweden, which applied to join the bloc in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Accepting a new country into the alliance requires the unanimous approval of its existing members. Turkey accepted Finland’s membership in March after lengthy negotiations, but is holding out against Sweden because of Ankara’s belief that Stockholm supports terrorist groups that have harmed Turkey. Whether Erdogan will give in to Sweden if he wins the election on May 28 is an open question.