Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s “U-turn” on Sweden’s accession to NATO during the alliance summit in Vilnius has prompted a flurry of Western commentary on how Turkey may be pivoting away from Russia and returning to the Western fold. “How long can [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s ‘special relationship’ with Erdogan last?” asked the Lowy Institute. “Russia’s war might have a new casualty: The Putin-Erdogan bond,” opined The Washington Post. Not everyone agrees.
The Kremlin will certainly not have been too pleased by the images of Erdogan and President Joe Biden all smiles during their more than an hour-long meeting. Biden hailed the Turkish leader for his “courage, leadership and diplomacy” after Erdogan said he would tell the Turkish parliament to ratify Sweden’s membership. Biden even posted a video on his official Twitter feed singing the Turkish strongman’s praises. Erdogan called Biden “a dear friend.”
Russia was already riled by Erdogan’s warm embrace of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during his first trip to Turkey since his country’s occupation by Russian forces.
It didn’t help that Zelenskyy flew back home with five former Azov commanders who had fought in the battle over Mariupol, part of a prisoner swap brokered by Ankara. The move went against “the terms of existing agreements — these persons were supposed to stay on the territory of [Turkey],” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov fumed.
Days later, Ukraine announced that construction had started on a manufacturing plant for Turkey’s fabled Bayraktar drones that proved critical in the defense of Kyiv during the opening days of the conflict. Erdogan said in a joint news conference with Zelenskyy in Vilnius that “there was no doubt that Ukraine deserves NATO membership.”
In April, bowing to US pressure, Turkey halted the transit of sanctioned goods to Russia.
Viktor Bondarev, chairman of the Committee on Defense and Security in the upper house of Russia’s parliament, complained that Turkey was turning into an “unfriendly country” after “a series of provocative decisions.”
Olga Skabeyeva, a prominent presenter on state-run Rossiya-1, had harsher words. She suggested that Russia could respond to “Turkish investors” with “missiles so that they cannot build such a plant in Ukraine.”
In truth, none of this amounts to a pivot away from Russia any more than it does to a reset with the West. It’s just the latest retuning of Erdogan’s unique balancing act in which the Turkish leader navigates Ankara’s relationships in ways that he believes best benefit Turkey’s interests and above all his own political survival. Turkey’s flailing economy remains Erdogan’s top headache ahead of municipal elections that are scheduled to be held in March 2024.
The facade of improved relations with the West is meant to draw back Western investors even as thousands of political prisoners languish in Turkish prisons in defiance of European Court of Human Rights rulings that are binding for Ankara.
They include Metin Topuz, a Turkish national who worked as a liaison between the Drug Enforcement Administration and Turkish police at the US Consulate in Istanbul for years, and who has been locked up since 2017 and sentenced to nine years for supposedly supporting rogue elements in the army who unsuccessfully sought to overthrow Erdogan in 2016.
“When it takes a Herculean, US-led effort to get Turkey to do something most NATO allies don’t think twice about, I wouldn’t call that a reset. I’d call it the status quo,” said Aaron Stein, the chief content officer at Metamorphic Media who has written extensively on US-Turkish ties. Stein was alluding to months of back-channel diplomacy led by the State Department to persuade Erdogan to drop his objections to Sweden’s accession and for Congress to waive its own on F-16 sales to Turkey.
It took less than a day for Erdogan to say that the Turkish parliament would probably be unable to ratify Sweden’s accession before it goes into recess next week, no matter that he has the authority to extend parliament’s session. Erdogan wants firm guarantees that Congress will allow the sale of F-16 fighter jets before signing off fully on Sweden. The Biden administration is pushing hard to get there and likely will.
This is a shortened version of an article originally published by Al Monitor. Click here to read the full version.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.