Ukraine conflict offers Turkey reset with Washington

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Turkey’s robust stance towards Russia over its invasion of Ukraine is becoming an impetus to improve relations with the United States, a NATO ally.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unequivocally condemned the invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, despite Moscow’s criticism, Ankara has been selling Turkish-made drones that continue to take a deadly toll on Russian forces. Ankara also blocked access to the Black Sea for most Russian warships. Washington commended all of these steps.

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior member of the European Council, said Turkey‘s stance presented an opportunity for a fresh start in US-Turkish relations.

“It certainly introduced a level of stability and commitment that wasn’t there before the Ukraine war,” Aydintasbas said. “The policy of the Biden government appeared to be one of social distancing, a kind of cold shoulder towards Erdogan, based on Turkey’s authoritarian pull and also because there were so many outstanding issues in the bilateral relationship.”

Framework for better bindings

Senior American diplomats have made several visits to Turkey since the Ukraine conflict began, with a framework announced last month to intensify ties.

Relations between NATO allies are deeply strained, particularly over Erdogan’s close relationship with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

FILE – First parts of a Russian S-400 anti-missile system are unloaded from a Russian aircraft July 12, 2019 near Ankara, Turkey.

Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles triggered American sanctions preventing Turkey from buying fighter jets. Ankara is seeking to ease sanctions on purchases of American F-16 fighter jets, Aydintasbas said.

“Turkish officials I spoke to [with] believe that you must give us something to continue bilateral cooperation,” Aydintasbas said. “So, F-16s [sales] fulfill this purpose. The Turkish Air Force is already running this F-16. There are many. But in recent years, due to existing sanctions, they have been unable to service or find spare parts and replenish their fleet. I think F-16 is a good formula for both sides.”

Analysts say Ankara is increasingly concerned about its aging jet fighters as its neighbor and rival Greece works to revamp its defense forces.

Erdogan raised the fighter jet purchase in talks with US President Joe Biden.

Obstacles in the US Congress

But Aaron Stein, research director at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a research organization in the US, warned that defense sales are facing a serious obstacle.

“There is still cause for pessimism regarding Congressional support for arms sales to Turkey,” Stein said. “Key members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, [Robert] Menendez and [James] Risch, both of whom have only recently come out on record saying things like F-16 sales will be unlikely, if not impossible, unless Turkey transitions out of the S-400.

“Now things could change. The Biden administration could put significant pressure on these senators, but we’ll see.”

Erdogan rules out withdrawing Russian S-400 missiles. Resolving the impasse is expected to be high on Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s agenda when he visits Washington for talks with Foreign Minister Antony Blinken next month.

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