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.