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Erdoğan’s tightrope act: In the conflict on Ukraine, Turkey is moving cautiously toward the West

Point of View, 09.03.2022 Research Areas

In recent years, Turkish President Erdoğan has cooperated closely with his Russian counterpart, Putin. Should Turkey now reorient itself due to the brutal war against Ukraine, the West can learn an important lesson from this, says Günter Seufert.

Only a few days before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the chief commentator of the Turkish daily Sabah, Mehmet Barlas, summed up his assessment of the situation with the sentence, “If we had to reckon with a war, President Erdoğan would not have left today for a four-day trip to Africa.” He added that the Turkish president is in constant contact with Russia’s President Putin. “All experts,” the avowed Erdoğan supporter continued, agreed that Washington was escalating the crisis to solidify its dominance in Western Europe. With that, Barlas also echoed the general mood in the country. It is fortunate, he said, that Russia’s president is so much more reasonable and wiser than his American counterpart.

The bond between Erdoğan and Putin

Such a positive image of Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s familiarity with the Kremlin leader is no accident: Particularly since the failed coup attempt of 2016, with Putin’s help, Erdoğan has been able to position himself independently of – and sometimes even against – the United States and Europe on key foreign policy issues. In Syria and Azerbaijan, Ankara and Moscow succeeded in marginalizing Western actors. In Libya and the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey acts as a competitor or even adversary to EU member states. Ankara’s flirtation with Moscow and concerns that Turkey might turn away from Europe altogether had contributed significantly to Brussels’ kid-glove approach to Ankara in the eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus and Washington’s belated reaction to the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system with sanctions. It is true, Ankara had experienced Putin as a cool strategist and ruthless power politician in the conflicts with Moscow. But Erdoğan always seemed to succeed in avoiding escalation.

Despite all of Ankara’s conflicts with Moscow, Erdoğan’s rapprochement with Russia has brought him much closer to his goal of strategic autonomy for his country from the West. Turkey skillfully maneuvered between the fronts of global rivalry and was thus able to considerably expand its scope and influence in just a few years. In this seesaw policy, however, Turkey is behaving much more confrontationally toward Western states than toward Russia. For years, the government press has painted a positive picture of Russia and a negative one of the United States and Europe. This is not without effect on public opinion: About a month before Russia attacked Ukraine, in a poll carried out by a renowned opinion research institute, a narrow relative majority of 39 percent of respondents favored foreign policy cooperation with Russia and China over cooperation with Europe and the United States.

In the first days after the attack, Ankara’s policy followed exactly the aforementioned pattern. Turkey did condemn the attack. However, it is not participating in sanctions against Russia. In the vote on suspending Russia’s representation rights in the Council of Europe, Turkey was the only European NATO state to abstain and, as such, is keeping its airspace open to Russian aircraft.

The West is paying particular attention to whether and how Turkey implements the Treaty of Montreux. The 1936 treaty regulates the passage of warships through Turkey’s Dardanelles and Bosporus straits into the Black Sea. It limits the number, tonnage, and duration of stay of ships from non-littoral states in the Black Sea. In the event of war, the convention stipulates that the waterways must be closed to ships of the parties to the conflict, and it entrusts Ankara with the application of the treaty’s regulations

Ankara swings around

It took Turkey four days to classify the Russian invasion as “war.” However, Ankara is still reluctant to officially close the waterways – as the treaty stipulates – to ships of parties to the conflict, Russia and Ukraine. Instead, Ankara is warning “all countries, Black Sea riparian or not,” against sending warships through the straits. In the literal sense, this step is not directed unilaterally against Moscow, but it also makes it more difficult for NATO ships to sail into the Black Sea. According to the treaty, however, the waterways may only be closed to warships of all countries if Ankara considers itself directly threatened by war. Consciously creating ambiguity, Turkey has triangulated between the West and Russia

Almost imperceptibly at first, however, a reversal has set in, and there are reasons for this. First, the West is showing unity and resolve unseen since the Cold War, and its sanctions are undermining Russia’s standing in the world. Second, Putin is losing his charisma as a successful statesman and reliable partner. Third, Ankara realizes that Putin’s vision of a great Russian empire could provoke more wars. And fourth, the ranks of the adversaries are closing: It is becoming more difficult for Turkey to continue its dearly held seesaw policy.

Thus, strongly pro-Western tones have been coming out of Ankara in recent days. Turkey will continue to support Ukraine in consultation with the West, according to the president’s spokesman. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu now claims to have contradicted Russia’s wishes for the passage of warships through the Bosporus “in all friendship” days ago. And President Erdoğan is in favor of admitting Ukraine to the EU and Kosovo to NATO. Moreover, Ankara is not contradicting reports by Ukrainian diplomats that Turkey is supplying more armed drones and training drone pilots. On the 2nd of March, Turkey joined the vast majority of states in the UN General Assembly’s condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that asks Russia to “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces”. Two days later, during the extraordinary meeting of NATO’s foreign ministers, Ankara supported the deployment of NATO’s Response Force to NATO countries neighboring Ukraine.

It looks like Putin is not only bringing long-lost unity to the EU but also reminding Ankara of the benefits of its Western ties. Western states should realize that only more unity among themselves and more determination will make Ankara re-engage with the West.