The delicate role of Turkey in the war between Russia and Ukraine

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It should be easy. For weeks, Finland and Sweden telegraphed their decision to abandon decades of quasi-neutrality and join the NATO military alliance. The two Nordic countries have long had robust defense ties with the alliance, but the shock of the Russian invasion of Ukraine forced them to finally close the gap.

Sweden and Finland joining NATO would mark a historic shift: when the countries are officially on board, NATO’s borders with Russia will double overnight. The Baltic Sea, a zone of tacit competition with Russia, could effectively become a NATO-patrolled sea. And it will only underscore how much of a geopolitical blunder the conflict has become for Russian President Vladimir Putin: far from stemming NATO’s eastward expansion, his invasion has only deepened Russia’s isolation, upping the ante along the country’s western border and exerted immense pressure on Russia’s ailing economy.

But then Turkey entered the stage. On Wednesday, it used its prerogative as a NATO member to block the start of Finland and Sweden’s accession talks after the two countries formally submitted their bids. The reasons given mainly had to do with Ankara’s anger at Sweden over its diplomatic dealings with Kurdish rebel groups operating in Turkey and Syria, and the granting of asylum to members of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), which is controlled by both Turkey and the United States is viewed as a terrorist organization.

At a foreign ministers’ meeting last weekend, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu reportedly clashed with Swedish counterpart Ann Linde, who allegedly spoke out when she criticized her “feminist” foreign policy. “We were trying to understand what our Turkish colleague wanted — you know, really wanted,” a NATO diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters. “It was embarrasing.”

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As is his habitit is likely that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will use his influence at a moment of crisis to wring further concessions from the West. “We are one of the countries that most support the activities of the alliance, but that doesn’t mean that we will unconditionally say ‘yes’ to every proposal that is presented to us,” Erdogan told members of his political party in Ankara Wednesday. “The expansion of NATO makes sense for us in relation to the respect shown for our sensitivities.”

“NATO diplomats still widely believe that Turkey will eventually drop its objections and allow enlargement,” my colleagues reported. “But a process that was already expected to take months may be slower and more complicated than other Alliance members had hoped.”

On Thursday, President Biden received Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson in the rose garden and pledged “full, full, full United States support” for the two Nordic NATO bids. He said Finland and Sweden “meet all NATO requirements and then some”. In his remarks, Niinisto acknowledged Turkey’s position and said he was “open to discussing any Turkey’s concerns”.

Critics of Erdogan’s demagogic rule suggest his intransigence should now raise questions about Turkey’s place within the alliance. “NATO’s greatest strategic failure over the past two decades has been to downplay Putin’s malign intentions while underestimating its own members’ capacity for collective resolve,” wrote analysts Joe Lieberman and Mark D. Wallace on the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal . “The alliance runs the risk of repeating the same mistake with Erdogan.”

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Turkey’s president has been playing a complicated game since Russia began invading Ukraine. His government held initial rounds of diplomatic talks between Moscow and Kyiv, but those talks appear to have reached an impasse even as the war falters. Ankara has also resisted joining the Western sanctions regime against Russia and continues to import Russian oil. It has kept its doors open to Russian travelers and hopes to encourage sanctioned Russian oligarchs to pour their wealth into Turkey’s struggling economy.

At the same time, Turkey has a long-standing historic rivalry with Russia over the Black Sea, and approved the sale to Ukraine of a fleet of Bayraktar TB2 light drones, which have been used in prominent Ukrainian attacks on Russian targets and fueled Russian ire. Turkey’s drones have become a tool of diplomacy in other ways for Erdogan: his government has supplied them to a variety of countries in his neighborhood, and their effectiveness in the Ukraine war has sparked a glimmer of warmer relations with the West after years of bitterness. not least because of Turkey’s controversial purchase of Russian military systems in the past. Last month, the Biden administration gave its tacit approval to a possible sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.

“Erdogan’s strategy in Ukraine … is to give tacit military support to Kyiv even as he seeks to maintain diplomatic channels with Putin and economic profits from Russia,” wrote Soner Cagaptay and Rich Outzen in Foreign Affairs. They added that the Russian leader is “unlikely to start a fight with Turkey now, especially if Erdogan offers him and his oligarchs an economic lifeline”.

Of more pressing concern for Erdogan and his colleagues are the country’s mounting economic woes and political pressures ahead of next year’s elections, which could indeed be competitive. For them, the sooner the war finds a diplomatic end, the better – and the quicker the economic disruption caused by the conflict stabilizes.

“Senior Turkish officials are quietly concerned that the conflict is now turning into a NATO-Russia war and that the risk of escalation is growing, fueled by greater arms support for Ukraine and the lack of a negotiating framework,” wrote Asli Aydintasbas, senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “They are also disappointed by the West’s reluctance to back Turkey-brokered ceasefire talks. Senior Turkish officials have accused ‘some NATO countries’ of not wanting to end the war in order to harm Russia.”

According to recent polls, a larger majority of the Turkish public blames the United States and NATO – a bloc of which Turkey eventually is a member – for provoking the conflict than Russia. Part of this is due to years of anti-Western rhetoric in the country’s media, often spearheaded by Erdogan himself. But, as Merve Tahiroglu of the Project on Middle East Democracy noted, Erdogan’s many opponents also resent the cynicism of Western countries, some of whom quarrel with Erdogan over seeing Turkey as crucial to securing Ukraine’s victory.

“For many Turkish citizens, such Western efforts to cement ties with a hated Turkish autocrat — while no less trumpeting the cause of democracy in Ukraine — serve only to reinforce some of the key reasons why they go against Western intentions in the Distrust Turkey and, first and foremost, Ukraine,” Tahiroglu wrote.


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