Necessary friends: Turkey’s improving relationship with the West

Russia’s war on Ukraine has allowed Turkey to begin to rebuild its relationship with the West. Brussels and Ankara both need to make sacrifices to continue this process and protect their strategic interests.

(210406) — ANKARA, April 6, 2021 (Xinhua) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) meets with European Council President Charles Michel (L) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Ankara, Turkey, on April 6, 2021. Top officials of the European Union on Tuesday expressed readiness to work on concrete agenda with Turkey to push forward economy and migration cooperation between the two sides. (Photo by Mustafa Kaya/Xinhua)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) meets with European Council President Charles Michel (L) and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (R) in Ankara, Turkey, on April 6, 2021
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Turkey is one of the rare countries in the Black Sea region that has good relations with both Ukraine and Russia. From the outset of Russia’s war on Ukraine, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emphasised that Turkey does not want to choose between Russia and Ukraine. Erdogan is supporting Ukraine due to the Crimean Tatar connection and Ankara’s bilateral partnership with Kyiv – not to mention Turkey’s traditional instinct to balance Russian power in the Black Sea. Yet Ankara has developed a complicated web of interdependence with Moscow, primarily because it wants to gain strategic autonomy from the West.

Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones have had a major impact on the battlefield in Ukraine. In a largely symbolic move, Ankara has closed the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles to Russian warships. The strong personal relationship between Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, has endured many challenges in recent years. And Turkey is the only NATO member that has not closed its airspace to Russia or imposed economic sanctions on the country.

Putin’s all-out invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated Turkey’s strategic importance once again. Western capitals will need to work with Ankara on the conflict irrespective of their opinion of the Erdogan regime. Despite Erdogan’s problematic relationship with many European countries, he has leveraged the war in Ukraine rather well. Just days after the invasion, Western leaders were willing to all but forget Turkey’s democratic backsliding – and Erdogan became a leader with whom one could do business.

Turkey took the initiative early in the conflict by arranging talks between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers in Antalya. Since then, Erdogan has hosted a series of peace negotiations in Istanbul, thereby establishing himself as the only NATO leader who can facilitate such events. This should come as no surprise. Erdogan immediately saw the opportunity that the war presented for his regime. He has translated his mediation efforts into domestic political gains. Blessed with an opposition that has little understanding of or interest in foreign policy, Erdogan has made the most of his role as mediator-in-chief.

Ankara is also keen to mediate between the warring sides for reasons that go beyond domestic politics. Firstly, Turkey has little room for manoeuvre when it comes to sanctions. With just over a year until a crunch presidential election for Erdogan, the Turkish economy is in dire straits. Hyperinflation and large-scale unemployment have eroded Erdogan’s support among the middle class. The dismal state of the economy is the biggest challenge to Erdogan’s two decades of rule. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he is eager not to increase pressure on the economy by ending the Russian trade and tourism on which it depends. It is beneficial for him, then, that Ankara’s role as a mediator prevents it from joining Western sanctions – for now, at least.

Secondly, Russia’s invasion presents an opportunity to fix Turkey’s relationships with the European Union and NATO. Growing Russian aggression is as serious a concern for Turkey as it is for the EU. And the invasion of Ukraine could have significant foreign and security policy repercussions for Ankara – particularly if Russia conquers Ukraine’s coastal regions, severely undermining security in the Black Sea region.

Following Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, Moscow increased its influence in the region at Ankara’s expense. Russian control of Ukraine’s entire coastline would only accelerate this trend – perhaps allowing a dominant Russia to force Turkey to change the Montreux Convention, which Turkish diplomats regard as sacred for formalising Ankara’s control of the straits that link the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Furthermore, an emboldened Putin could threaten Poland and the Baltic states, forcing Turkey – as a member of NATO – to abandon its neutrality. Hence, Ankara has a genuine interest in facilitating a ceasefire that could lead to a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine.

Western capitals will need to work with Ankara on the conflict irrespective of their opinion of the Erdogan regime

Indeed, Turkey could improve its relations with the EU by engaging in defence cooperation with Poland, the Baltic states, and Ukraine. But it would be strategically wise for the West to allow Turkey-NATO relations to improve first. Ankara and Washington need to focus on rebuilding their confidence in each other. In this context, the United States’ approval of the sale of F-16 fighters to Turkey and NATO’s statements on Turkish support for Ukraine (despite the lifelines Ankara extends to Moscow) have helped sustain solidarity within the alliance.

That said, any European or US policymaker rebuilding relations with Turkey should be cognizant of next year’s presidential election. Given the nature of the nationalist coalition in Ankara, Erdogan may feel unable to move closer to the EU or NATO prior to securing another term. Yet Western support for Turkey in its mediation efforts and displays of solidarity with Ankara could set the stage for a more cooperative partnership after the vote. Should Erdogan lose the election, there could be a comprehensive reset between the EU and Turkey, leading to an upgrade of their customs union. In any case, strategic patience will be necessary.

As a NATO member, Turkey should be prepared to make sacrifices if the Russian invasion of Ukraine becomes even more destructive. Ankara cannot enjoy a free ride if the situation deteriorates amid a growing number of reports of rape, murder, and other war crimes committed by Russian forces. If the EU opts to significantly reduce oil and gas imports from Russia, it should ask Turkey to join the effort. While this would lead to difficult discussions between Ankara and Brussels, the alleged war crimes that have been revealed in the last few days suggest that such a scenario may come to pass. To rebuild its relationship with Turkey, the EU needs to be sensitive to the fragile state of the Turkish economy and devise a realistic plan that Turkey can stick to. As Turkey is highly dependent on energy imports, such a plan would need to include both short-term and long-term strategies for replacing Russian energy. Lastly, European and Turkish decision-makers will need to cooperate more effectively in the Black Sea region, where their interests increasingly overlap.

Suat Kınıklıoğlu is a former member of the Turkish parliament and an ECFR Council member.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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