Will Erdogan be the biggest winner in the Ukraine crisis?
Just a few months ago, Turkey was in a bit of a tough spot. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s years-long move away from Western liberalism had rendered Ankara the black sheep of the NATO family. President Joe Biden put a fine point on this when he called Erdogan an “autocrat” during the campaign and left him out of last year’s much-touted Summit of Democracies.
And as tensions grew between Russia and Ukraine, many in Washington predicted that Turkey would be the big loser. As one scholar put it, the crisis “could spell the end of the long-running balancing act between NATO and Russia.”
But international events have a way of confounding expectations. As the war in Ukraine nears its fourth month, Turkey’s international standing has risen thanks to a careful strategy in which Ankara has armed Ukraine with cheap drones, joined some (but not all) Western sanctions, and sat down with Russian leaders whenever possible. Experts say this approach has allowed Turkey to do the unthinkable: Maintain strong relationships with both NATO and Russia as the threat of a new cold war looms.
“Turkey is a geostrategically important country, and this particular episode has really elevated its position,” said Sibel Oktay, a professor at the University of Illinois and a non-resident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
As Oktay implies, Turkey’s efforts to balance between East and West are nothing new. Istanbul straddles the Bosporus Straits, the strategic waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Since Russia is the main naval power on the Black Sea, Turkey has had no choice but to deal with it over the years. The two countries are now major trading partners, and Russian tourists flock to Turkey’s Aegean coast every summer.
Of course, Turkey also has a border with Europe and a long history of relations with the continent. Ankara has been part of NATO since 1952, and its proximity to Russia and large military make it arguably the second most important member of the alliance.
But location isn’t everything, and Turkey’s tightrope act hasn’t looked so elegant in recent years. Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) — once the darling of Europe and considered a model of moderate political Islam — have drifted away from Western partners in recent years, largely due to the AKP’s efforts to erode Turkey’s (relatively) liberal institutions and crack down on dissidents.
Things got worse in 2016 after members of the Turkish military attempted to overthrow Erdogan’s government. According to Giorgio Cafiero, the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, Erdogan and his advisers “believe that the U.S. and Western European countries were basically hedging their bets during those hours of uncertainty as the coup plot was taking place,” which led Turkish thinkers to call for and eventually implement a rapprochement with Russia.
Tensions reached a boiling point in 2018 when Ankara bought Russian missile defenses that are incompatible with NATO systems, a move that got Turkey booted out of the prestigious F-35 program. President Donald Trump did little to help things when he threatened to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy the following year.
The situation bottomed out in mid-2021 when Biden recognized the Armenian Genocide, a move that Turkey saw as an unprovoked attack on its national story. And throughout all of this, Turkey did itself no favors in Western capitals by continuing to crack down on dissent at home and cozy up to Russia on the world stage.
“We’re looking at a really, really rocky past couple of years,” Oktay told Responsible Statecraft.
But Ankara’s performance in the Ukraine crisis has changed the tone in Western capitals without damaging its ties to Russia — a remarkable feat given that Turkey spent the last few months arming Kyiv to the teeth.
Notably, Turkey has supplied Ukraine with cheap but effective drones, which allowed Ukraine to make early wins that “boosted the morale of everyone in the Western alliance,” according to Oktay. “Turkey elevated that geostrategic standing just by that act alone,” she said. “And it was a big enough gesture to show that Turkey was working alongside NATO, and to make sure that Ukraine could respond to the Russian aggression.”
Erdogan, who is not known for his subtlety, wasted no time in putting that newfound standing to the test when Finland and Sweden announced they wanted to join NATO. Turkey immediately objected to their bids, noting that the two countries had given refuge to members of the PKK, a Kurdish militant group that Turkey and most Western countries have designated as a terrorist organization.
The objection led to consternation among some, who see the move as divisive and risky at a time when NATO has to show a united front. As Mustafa Gurbuz, a professor at American University, said in an email to Responsible Statecraft, some observers may begin to see Turkey as “Russia’s trojan horse within NATO, rather than the other way around.”
“Erdogan’s threats to block the NATO membership of Sweden and Finland make it evident that Russia is the primary beneficiary of the frictions between Turkey and its Western allies,” Gurbuz argued.
In any case, Erdogan is determined to use his leverage to get a win, especially with elections looming next year. The Turkish president is worried that he and his AKP allies could lose big as his country suffers through a major economic crisis, and international victories could help him make his case to voters, according to Baris Kesgin of Elon University.
“The elections in 2023 are on the horizon, so I think he is very much keeping that in mind here,” Kesgin said, adding that Erdogan hopes to “claim victories and then set up the domestic scene along those lines.”
And, as Oktay notes, Turkey thinks that Finland’s and Sweden’s decision to host PKK affiliates has allowed the organization to stay alive despite decades of conflict with Ankara. It remains to be seen whether Turkey will get everything it wants from the NATO aspirants, but Oktay expects that Turkey “will get some concessions out of this somehow.”
At the end of the day, Turkey knows that NATO doesn’t want to deal with the consequences of letting Ankara walk. “If you expel Turkey, what’s going to happen? Turkey’s going to move closer to the Russian sphere of influence,” said Oktay, who then laughed and added that her comment made her feel like “we’re rewinding the clock 60 years.”
A recent statement from NATO head Jens Stoltenberg seems to support Oktay’s view. In a press conference, Stoltenberg said Turkey has “legitimate concerns” related to terrorism, signalling that the alliance takes the PKK seriously as a threat to Turkish security.
Another major issue in the conflict is the fact that millions of tons of grain are sitting in silos in Ukraine, unable to reach international markets. Western governments are desperate to get that grain flowing to mitigate a food crisis that now threatens some of the world’s poorest countries with famine. But few are willing to talk with Russia to make this happen. In comes Erdogan, whose team has been negotiating with the Kremlin in order to restart shipping in the Black Sea.
Erdogan’s efforts, however, have hit a serious roadblock recently, with Ukraine (which has not actually been at the negotiating table) rejecting Moscow’s conditions for restoring shipping. But Turkey is heavily incentivized to keep pushing on grain exports as well as larger efforts to mediate between the warring parties, according to Oktay.
“If [Turkey] acts smart, it has the potential to at least save the world from an impending food crisis, or possibly bring these parties to the negotiation table,” she said.
As for Kesgin, he’s not convinced that Erdogan’s short-term increase in leverage will translate into a long-term geopolitical rise. But he is sure of one thing: “[Erdogan] wants the recognition that Turkey matters, and this gives him that opportunity. How well he will materialize this, we are yet to see,” Kesgin said. “We are yet to see.”