• Batuhan Üsküp

Is Turkey Still A Sui Generis Ally For The West?

Photo credit: https://ecfr.eu/article/necessary-friends-turkeys-improving-relationship-with-the-west/

After joining NATO in 1952, Turkey became a regional actor acting within the framework of NATO security and defense comprehension. Throughout the Cold War Period, Turkey served as the most important outpost of NATO against the threat of the Soviet Union, pursuing common policies with its Western allies. The geopolitical significance of Turkey, which was formed with this understanding, has lost its value to a certain extent, due to the end of the bipolar world since the 1990s. After Russia's occupation of Ukraine in February 2022, the emerging regional security threats have increased Turkey's geopolitical significance again very positively within the Western alliance although there are still ongoing disputes such as the purchase of the S-400 defense system from Russia. “In this high-stake war for Turkey, Ankara wears many hats, balancing its role between its Western allies, putting more sanctions on its partner Russia in the East. (Dalay) From this point of view, the Ukraine war is closely related in terms of shaping and reviewing Turkey's foreign policy axis and alliance dynamics approaching Turkey from the West and the East.

Transatlantic-Turkish-Russian Triangle

Reviewing the first years of AKP rule since 2002, Turkey's relations with its Western allies were relatively positive. However, with the regional geopolitical balances that changed after the Arab Spring, Turkey's attitude towards Western allies started to change gradually. After the coup attempt on July 15, 2016, Turkey's axis was gradually drawn to the Eurasian line. Especially the US, but a pro-Russian attitude adorned with anti-Westernism in general, became visible in the public debates supported by Erdoğan and his coalition partners. Although the policies of the AKP government were not in this direction from the beginning, the institutionalization of authoritarianism in domestic politics, especially after the Gezi Park Protests, caused Turkey to be thrown into new pursuits in foreign policy as well.

The AKP’s early years should be seen as a continuation of İsmail Cem (Former MFA of Turkey)’s region-centered, pro-engagement strategy toward Russia and by extension Eurasia. In his seminal book Strategic Depth AKP foreign policy guru Ahmet Davutoğlu introduced the term ‘Afro-Eurasia’ which conveniently situated Turkey at the center of multiple regions rather than at the edge of Europe and awarded it a more functional role as a country located at the intersection of a number of civilizations. (Kınıklıoğlu 2022)

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took part in a ceremony marking the completion of the TurkStream gas pipeline’s offshore section, Istanbul, Turkey 19 November 2018 From Wikimedia Commons

The authoritarian policies, which have been increasingly applied by the AKP government in the last decade, have pushed Turkey away from the EU and its western allies while pushing it into Russia's lap. However, Turkey has increased its dependence on Russia in terms of military, energy security, and economic and commercial relations. Turkey also has great commercial and economic relations with Ukraine. The outbreak of this war also brings opportunities and threats for Turkey. According to Eurasia and Turkey analyst Dimitar Bechev[1], “Ankara’s delicate balancing act between its two partners is becoming much more difficult to sustain as the fighting intensifies and the West ratchets up pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin. As a part of NATO and a regional heavyweight, Turkey is under great pressure to finally pick a side.”[2] It is now quite clear that this is the most important turning point after the political crisis that followed the Russian plane that Turkey shot down on the Syrian border in 2014.

Today, the Turkish economy has weakened more than in 2014, and this crisis continues to affect the Turkish economy extremely in a negative way before it can recover the losses brought by the pandemic. Although Ankara's diplomatic moves have relieved its hand for the moment, it seems that the West's non-compliance with the sanctions policies will increase the pressure again in the coming days.

Mediation Initiatives for Peace

As the important economic partner and Southern neighbor of the two warring countries, Turkey took the initiative by leading the way for the ceasefire talks to begin and for the parties to sit at the reconciliation table. As was the case with past Russian regional incursions, Ankara embraces the NATO position rhetorically while rejecting sanctions on Russia, although with some additional wrinkles this time, such as armed drone sales to Ukraine and the closing of the Turkish Straits. (Makovsky 2022) Although the Antalya Summit, which was held for the negotiation phase, and the subsequent meetings attended by the foreign ministers, did not yield any definite results. On the contrary, these meetings did strengthen Erdogan's hand before his Western allies and increased Turkey's geopolitical importance. Alternatively, President Erdogan, who has been making diplomatic maneuvers with the Gulf countries and Israel, with which Turkey is at odds, in order to heal the wounds of the economic crisis, tried to strengthen his hand. However, it is possible to say that Turkey is in a dilemma by not complying with the West’s sanctions regime imposed on Russia, and that Erdogan will eventually be mistaken in his calculations. According to Turkey analyst Cengiz Candar, “The war in Ukraine, which pushed him toward adopting a more pro-Western stand incipiently, will eventually dictate a dilemma for Erdogan: Knowing he cannot survive in the West as a Turkish version of Putin after the game-changing war in Ukraine, he must make radical domestic and foreign policy decisions.”[3]

While Turkey is a safe harbor for Ukrainian and Russian refugees, the country also continues to be an exempt place for Russian oligarchs from the sanctions regime. Although this situation is being ignored for now in Turkey's relations with both the EU and the US, it seems that Turkey will have to submit to sanctions in the coming days. “It spotlit once again the significance of Turkey’s membership in NATO and other Western organizations and the risks linked to Turkey potentially breaking off its relations with them; NATO has become more valuable for Turkey and vice versa.”[4] But overall Turkey emphasizing its commitment to the NATO alliance and maintaining its position also provides opportunities for Turkey to enter the EU and a possible democratization route in the future. Although it does not seem possible for Turkey to become a member of the EU in a short time, this crisis opens an important window of opportunity for the country to return to this route. Because the most important way to get rid of civil authoritarianism in domestic politics is through the upcoming general elections. It is likely that the Ukraine War can prove itself as a turning point for Turkey to return from its Eurasianism initiatives.