In Other News – A View from Abroad – 12/8/2022

December 8, 2022

A view from abroad
Once a month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

Turkey: Ally or Spoiler
As Ukraine continues to defend itself valiantly against Russia’s relentless attack, Turkey increasingly finds itself pulled between two worlds. Because of its longstanding geopolitical connections to both NATO members and Russia, Turkey’s response to the war can have an outsized impact. But in addition to external demands, Ankara must manage its own social, political, and economic challenges. Given this complex operating environment, the West should make it known that Turkey is valued as an ally.

Turkey is dealing with substantial foreign and domestic policy challenges that include ongoing tensions with the Kurds, Armenia, Greece, and other regional players. Further complicating matters, in recent years Turkey’s relations with the EU have been strained by conflicting views on Turkey’s accession status, human rights record, and policies vis a vis Turkish-born EU citizens. Ankara’s relations with the United States have also been challenged by the perceived reaction to the 2016 failed coup d’état attempt, acquisition of Russian air defense systems, and US cooperation with Kurdish groups in northern Syria.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Turkey has supported NATO’s political position, delivered weapons to Ukraine, closed the Bosphorus to Russian warships passing through, and helped arrange the grain deal. But it has also refused to apply EU/UK/US sanctions, profited from cheap energy deliveries from Russia, and harbored many illicit Russian oligarch yachts. Turkey has further tried to leverage Finnish and Swedish bids to become NATO members, asking for more PKK-related gestures from Sweden before it would ratify the memberships. And notably, Erdogan continues to engage directly with Putin.

An element of personal pride and insecurity can be seen in Erdogan’s politics. Since assuming national leadership roles nearly 20 years ago, Erdogan has consistently made Turkey less democratic, more Islamist and more authoritarian. But because he has removed institutional stabilizers, like the independence of the Central Bank, Turkey is suffering from rampant inflation and both monetary and economic crises. Next year, Erdogan faces elections, 100 years after the Republic of Turkey was founded, and he will be judged in large part by Turkey’s domestic economy.

In his foreign policy, Erdogan has become distrustful of traditional anchors such as the bid for EU membership and the NATO alliance. He hopes to exploit the geographical position of Turkey, between East and West, between the European and the Arab world, to the maximum extent possible. But he can be a tough-minded operator in the process. Erdogan has flooded the EU with refugees and overlooked the conflict with Saudi Arabia on MBS and the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

But ultimately, Erdogan is a transactional and pragmatic actor who will respond to incentives, and the West cannot afford to lose Turkey as an ally. At a fragmented time, it would be better if NATO and allies can link arms deliveries to Turkey’s ratification of the NATO accession treaties of Sweden and Finland and connect economic cooperation and aid programs to cooperation mitigating refugee flows.

Further, if Erdogan wants to be viewed by Washington with the same clout as his western neighbors, there’s an opportunity for Turkey to use its strategic position to further the cooperative mission of the newly formed European Political Community- a more structured security dialogue with the EU and bilateral engagement by its individual member states.

In Other News – Russia, China, and Opportunities for the US – 12/2/2022

December 2, 2022

Russia is trying to wear us down, but it’s wearing itself down in the process. Russian airstrikes have caused immense damage to the power grid in Ukraine, and this week President Zelenskyy has asserted that Putin is trying “to turn the cold of winter into a weapon of mass destruction.” Ukrainian officials have stated that rolling blackouts could continue until March and that citizens should prepare for long periods of shutdown. Russia is angling to wear Ukraine down, but he’s also hoping to wear down European resolve against him.

According to the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, European nations should prepare to receive hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians over the winter as the living conditions become untenable. But with their own housing shortages compounded by inflation, high energy prices, and social discontent, welcoming refugees will be a challenge for many governments. Putin knows this, and he also knows that Europe is nearing its challenging December 5 cut-off date for Russian oil imports.

But this week, NATO members met in Romania and reiterated that Ukraine is eligible for NATO membership and that the alliance will continue to send more financial, humanitarian, and military aid to Ukrainian forces. Ukraine’s membership process will be set aside for now to maintain firm unity of NATO members during this time of immediate crisis. Secretary of State Blinken also announced that the US government will provide over $53 million to support Ukraine’s acquisition of critical electricity grid equipment over the winter, and NATO ministers further vowed to help rebuild Ukraine once the war is over.

Russia is also increasingly facing its own internal challenges. Although the immediate impact of sanctions can be debated, sanctions are a marathon not a sprint, and we’re entering higher mileage territory. Sanctions have also demonstrated the resolve of NATO and allies to stand up to Putin and made his technological and military procurements more difficult. Putin must also continue to justify the food and energy crises and the general negative economic impact of the war to his allies, who are probably growing tired of his tropes. Further, internal dissent in Russia continues to rise, and as more bodies are sent home disapproval will only increase.

China, soccer and soft power and an opportunity for the United States. Over the last 50 or so years, China has constructed and renovated hundreds of sports stadiums worldwide as part of its soft power diplomacy. China started the effort in neighboring Mongolia but has since built numerous facilities throughout Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and South Pacific. The Chinese understood the power of sports and have used construction efforts to their political advantage. The stadiums were commonly “gifted” by the Chinese to countries as a reward for cutting diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Other times, nations would shift their stance on Taiwan after receiving the “gifts.”

Over the years, the stadium construction, along with other soft power initiatives, has allowed China to gain more political support from countries in places like Latin America and Africa. Stadiums are relatively affordable and offer big payoffs in terms of happiness. The symbolic camaraderie has also permitted China with an inroad to other lucrative infrastructure projects in these regions and allowed China to become a top trading partner for multiple continents.

But China is now slowing economically and facing a rare degree of internal turmoil due to its inhumane Covid policies, among other things. At the recent Chinese National Congress, President Xi scarcely mentioned the Belt and Road Initiative and it’s likely that instead of gifting stadiums, China will need to focus on supporting industries that directly impact its own citizens – things like copper, petroleum, and soybeans. At the same time, many Belt and Road countries will begin to see the underside of their Chinese infrastructure projects: public debt. Under these circumstances, there’s an opportunity for the United States to develop and reignite key relationships in strategic places like Latin America to counter China’s influence.