Turkey and Russia make for an odd pair. Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, host to a large U.S. military base, and jealous of its Black Sea prerogatives; Russia, on guard against Western encroachment and deeply humiliated by European gains and U.S. global dominance.
Still, leaders of both countries have shared a gnawing resentment of their treatment by the West. Turkey was deemed a candidate member of the EU in 1999 and then watched 10 former communist countries join as its own application languished. Russia was not even in the queue, but virtually all of its neighbors have been wooed by both the EU and NATO. Fiona Hill and Omer Taspinar deemed this shared partnership the “Axis of the Excluded” in 2006.
At various times this relationship produced substantial gains. When Russian forces invaded Georgia in 2008 and resected parts of that country into two statelets, Turkish authorities blocked the U.S. Navy from sending ships through the Turkish Straits, enforcing a right granted by the 1936 treaty of Montreux.
From 2016 to 2022, Turkish-Russian trade grew fivefold to the point where Russia became Turkey’s largest trading partner. Russia supplied the new Turkstream pipeline with gas destined for Europe, helping Turkey become an “energy hub” and allowing Russian exports to bypass Ukraine. Russian tourists flocked to resorts in Antalya and Izmir; more than five million did so in 2021.
The Russian-Turkish relationship is backstopped by deeply personal ties between Recep Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin. After the Turkish air force shot down a Russian jet in 2015 and Putin imposed economic sanctions, the Turkish president made a pilgrimage to Moscow to apologize, and economic ties resumed.
While Russian-Turkish relations blossomed, tensions grew with the United States. There have been many issues, including American support for Kurds fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but the low point came with the 2017 agreement by Turkey to buy and install Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.
The deal produced worries about NATO’s defense in a key global area and provoked sanctions by the U.S. The sale of newer F-16 aircraft was blocked, and Turkey was excluded from the new F-35 fighter program.
As a centrally located “middle power” in a dangerous and changing neighborhood, Turkey must be nimble in its policies. The end of the Cold War decreased its strategic value as U.S. priorities shifted toward Asia. At the same time, the growing power of an expanding European Union attracted Ankara.
At first this had Erdoğan’s blessing, but steady movement away from democratic rule set the country back and the EU membership process stalled. After a crackdown following the 2016 coup attempt, negotiations were suspended along with those on revising a customs union that Turkey has long criticized as unequal.
While the European Parliament has passed several resolutions criticizing Turkish practices on human rights and the erosion of democratic institutions, ties with Moscow come with no such judgments.
They also act as a reminder to Washington and Brussels that Ankara has alternatives.
Among those is a rising China. Turkey’s size, strategic location and links to Europe make it attractive to Chinese investment and an active consumer of Chinese products. China is now the largest provider of imports to Turkey (and the leading source of its trade deficit). Investments have multiplied and include Kumport, Turkey’s third largest port. For a time, Erdoğan was careful to mute criticism of China’s suppression of its Turkic-speaking Uighur population.
Turkey’s ability to balance all of these pressures has been tested by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Ankara has not supported Western sanctions and, along with China, provides a crucial outlet for the export of Russian oil and gas. At the same time, Turkey blocked the Black Sea to Russian warships in 2022 and successfully brokered the Black Sea Grain Initiative that, until recently, allowed export of Ukrainian grain and agricultural products.
Less well advertised is Turkey’s provision of key war materiel to Ukraine, including drones. Earlier this month, Turkey allowed the repatriation of five commanders of Ukraine’s Azov Battalion, leaders in the defense of the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. They had been remanded to Turkey in a prisoner exchange with Russia but were allowed to return home, to Moscow’s annoyance.
The war has contributed to a sharp challenge to the power and status of these two of Ankara’s friends. China’s slowed economic and population growth, unbalanced international accounts and crippling Covid lockdown have disrupted trade and investment.
Bullying associated with China’s flagging Belt and Road Initiative and, most of all, its support for the Russian invasion, have produced the most negative international views of that country in years. Russia’s failures are obvious and include the murderous and disastrous war in Ukraine, a stagnant and sanctioned economy, huge intellectual and capital flight and, most recently, a rebellion of mercenaries that featured an almost unopposed march toward Moscow.
A wounded and weakened Putin could sure use a stalwart friend. Today, that is not Recep Erdogan.
For more than a year, Ankara had been blocking Sweden’s NATO membership, pressing it to suppress the activities of what it sees as Kurdish terrorists. Then, just before the NATO summit in Vilnius, Turkish objections were abruptly dropped and Sweden’s membership virtually assured. At a stroke, NATO gained control of almost the entire Baltic littoral, greatly improving its strategic position and ability to defend the Baltic members and the European far north. Another of Putin’s nightmares just came to life.
In return for its acquiescence, Turkey will be allowed to buy the newer American F-16 jets. Sweden amended its constitution and change its laws and, as a bonus, agreed to support Turkey’s aspirations to join the EU. The value of such promises remains to be seen — the U.S. arms sales will still need congressional approval — and serious progress with the EU seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, this agreement reflects the change in Turkey’s global calculus. Ever nimble and facing a changing global balance of power, Turkey did what’s best for Turkey.
These actions reflect the foreign policy sentiments of no less an authority than former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (and before him, British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston) who said, “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”
As in Washington, so in Ankara. Stalwart friends will just have to understand.
This article was originally published by the The Hill.
The views and opinions expressed above are the author’s and do not reflect those of the Free Turkish Press.