Turkey’s balancing act between Russia and the West

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The flags of Turkey, NATO and Russia (from left to right). © Iurii Vlasenko / Shutterstock

A few days before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, the chief commentator of the Turkish daily Sabah, Mehmet Barlas, summarized his assessment of the situation with the sentence: “If we had to expect a war, President Erdogan would not have gone for one today four-day trip to Africa.” He added that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in constant contact with Russian Vladimir Putin.


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“All experts,” continued the self-confessed Erdogan supporter, agree that Washington is escalating the crisis in order to consolidate its dominance in Western Europe. With this, Barlas also echoed the general mood in Turkey. It’s fortunate, he said, that Russia’s president is far more sensible and smart than his American counterpart, Joe Biden.

The bond between Erdogan and Putin

This positive image of Putin’s and Erdogan’s familiarity with the Kremlin leader is no accident. Especially since the failed attempted coup in Turkey in 2016, Erdogan, with Putin’s help, has been able to position himself independently – and sometimes even against – the USA and Europe on key foreign policy issues.

In Syria and Azerbaijan, Ankara and Moscow it was possible to marginalize western actors. In Libya and in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey appears as a competitor or even opponent of the member states of the European Union.

Turkey’s flirtation with Moscow led to fears that Ankara might turn its back on Europe altogether. This contributed to the EU’s no-compromise stance towards Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus. It also led to a belated Washington response to Turkey’s takeover of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system with sanctions. Turkey does have experience with Putin as a cool strategist and ruthless power politician in conflicts like the one in Syria. But Erdogan always seemed to manage to avoid an escalation.

Despite all of Ankara’s tensions with Moscow, Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia has come a great deal closer to his goal of strategic autonomy for his country from the West. Turkey maneuvered adeptly between the frontlines of global rivalry and in just a few years was able to significantly expand its reach and influence.

In this seesaw policy, however, Turkey is clearly more confrontational towards western states than towards Russia. For years, the government press has painted a positive picture of Russia and a negative picture of the United States and Europe. This is not without an impact on public opinion in Turkey. Around a month before Russia attacked Ukraine, a narrow relative majority of 39 percent of respondents in a survey conducted by a well-known opinion research institute spoke in favor of foreign policy cooperation with Russia and China rather than with Europe and the USA.

In the first few days after Russia’s invasion, Ankara’s policy followed exactly the aforementioned pattern. Turkey condemned the attack but does not participate in sanctions against Russia. Turkey was the only NATO country to abstain from voting on the suspension of Russia’s representation rights in the Council of Europe, thereby keeping its airspace open to Russian aircraft.

The West pays particular attention to whether and how Turkey implements the Montreux Treaty. The 1936 treaty regulates the passage of warships through the Turkish Dardanelles and the Bosphorus Strait to the Black Sea. It limits the number, tonnage and length of stay of ships from non-coastal countries in the Black Sea. In the event of war, the convention stipulates that the waterways must be closed to ships belonging to the parties to the conflict and mandates Ankara to apply the provisions of the treaty

Ankara swings around

It took Turkey four days to classify the Russian invasion as a “war.” However, Ankara is still reluctant to officially block the waterways for ships belonging to the conflicting parties Russia and Ukraine, as stipulated in the treaty. Instead, Ankara is warning “all countries, Black Sea neighbors or not,” against sending warships through the strait.

This step is not aimed unilaterally at Moscow in the literal sense, but it also makes it more difficult for NATO ships to enter the Black Sea. According to the contract, however, the waterways may only be closed to warships from all countries if Ankara sees itself imminently threatened by war. Turkey has deliberately created an ambiguity and triangulated between the West and Russia.

At first almost imperceptibly, however, a trend reversal has now set in. There are four reasons for this. First, the West is showing a unity and determination not seen since the Cold War, and its sanctions are undermining Russia’s standing in the world. Second, Putin is losing his charisma as a successful statesman and reliable partner. Third, Ankara recognizes that Putin’s vision of a great Russian empire could provoke more wars. Fourth, the opponents are closing in ranks and it is becoming increasingly difficult for Turkey to continue its seesaw policy.

Strongly pro-Western tones have emerged from Ankara in recent weeks. Turkey will continue to support Ukraine in consultation with the West, the presidential spokesman said. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu now claims to have “in friendly” contradicted Russia’s request for warships to pass through the Bosphorus. President Erdogan also supports the admission of Ukraine into the European Union and Kosovo into NATO.

Moreover, Ankara does not contradict reports by Ukrainian diplomats that Turkey is supplying more armed drones and is training pilots to fly drones. On March 2, Turkey joined the vast majority of states in the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which called on Russia to “immediately, fully and unconditionally withdraw all its forces.” Two days later, during the extraordinary meeting of NATO foreign ministers, Turkey supported the deployment of the NATO Response Force to Ukraine’s neighboring countries.

It looks like Putin will not only bring long-lost unity to the EU, but also remind Turkey of the benefits of its Western ties. Western states should realize that only more unity among themselves and more determination will bring Turkey to reconnect with the West.

*[This article was originally published by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), which advises the German government and Bundestag on all questions relating to foreign and security policy.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policies.

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