Turkey’s pyrrhic victory at NATO
Shortly after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Turkey gained a temporarily positive image in the West. Ankara’s key role in Black Sea security by closing the Bosporus and Dardanelle straits, its supply of highly effective Bayraktar drones to Ukraine, and efforts to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv boosted the country’s standing.
This came as a pleasant surprise to officials in Washington and Brussels who were accustomed to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s frustration with the West and his friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yet, soon after Sweden and Finland submitted their applications for membership in NATO, Erdogan quickly restored Turkey’s image as NATO’s problem child by threatening to use its veto. Erdogan is a tough negotiator and today, on the surface at least, he appears to have achieved his objectives after finally giving a green light to the two Nordic countries at NATO’s recent Madrid Summit.
However, Erdogan has failed on many fronts. He did not extract significant concessions from Washington, he managed to once again greatly irritate the U.S. Congress, which holds the key to arm sales to Turkey, and he will soon discover that Sweden is not likely to extradite the people named on Turkey’s terrorist list.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February, conventional wisdom held that Ankara would sit on the fence by not even voting against Moscow at the United Nations. After all, Turkey was dependent on Russia for its energy and tourism revenues. Perhaps more important, military ties between the two countries, cemented by Ankara’s purchase of the S-400 missile defense systems in defiance of U.S. demands and subsequent military sanctions, were becoming closer.
But expectations of Turkish loyalty to Russia underestimated two critical factors: Erdogan’s opportunistic political nature and the complexity of Turkish-Russian relations.
Turkish-Russian relations are not a product of strategic partnership nor of policy convergence. In fact, there is significant competition, bordering on rivalry, between Ankara and Moscow in almost all regions of strategic significance to Turkey. Turkish-Russian divergence includes Syria, Cyprus, Libya, Eastern-Mediterranean gas exploration, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. This long list also includes Ukraine, where Ankara strongly denounced Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Once home to a significant Turkic-Muslim population, Crimea quickly became the issue Erdogan was perhaps the most vocal against Putin, long before the current Russian invasion. Yet, despite such tension, Erdogan and Putin managed to compartmentalize relations thanks to Turkey’s energy dependence on Russia, the size of the Turkish market, growing bilateral trade and mass tourism, and mutual frustration with Washington.
It is also important to remember the obvious: Erdogan’s loyalty lies only to himself, and he has no motivation greater than survival and primacy — both at risk with the rapid approach of next year’s elections. Russia’s war in Ukraine began at a time when Erdogan was already engaged in a charm offensive in the Middle East with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel — all former partners-turned-foes due to Erdogan’s previous backing for the Muslim Brotherhood since the Arab Spring in 2011.
After the collapse of the Islamist experiment in Egypt and the outbreak of the catastrophic civil war in Syria that led to the exodus of four million refugees fleeing to Turkey, Erdogan was ready to concede strategic defeat in the region. Moreover, in the wake of his disastrous monetary policy that has led to financial instability, a currency collapse, and a looming payment crisis at home, Turkey was in desperate need of foreign capital. The time was therefore ripe to mend fences with deep pockets in the Gulf and a post-Netanyahu Israel.
Improving relations with the United States and the European Union appeared to be the next step for Erdogan. When Russia invaded Ukraine, Erdogan saw an opportunity to increase Turkey’s strategic leverage by showcasing his country’s indispensability to European and transatlantic security. Sweden and Finland’s rush to join NATO, he believed, gave him the perfect opening to extract concessions from Washington and Europe, including enhanced defense procurement from the United States and particularly the issue of ending the military embargo that sidelined Ankara from the F-35 project that followed Ankara’s purchase of the Russian S-400s.
In addition to removing Ankara from the F-35 program in which it was both a buyer and a co-producer, the wide-ranging CATSAA (Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act) sanctions have hit the Turkish defense industry hard. In that respect, Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications appeared to offer Erdogan an excellent vehicle for focusing Biden’s attention and receiving an official invitation from Washington to discuss a grand bargain.
Yet Biden seemed uninterested. In fact, between the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February and the Madrid Summit in late June, the U.S. president held only one phone conversation with Erdogan and reportedly kept it confined to a discussion of Turkey’s hosting high-level talks between Russia and Ukraine. The Turkish press reported that Erdogan complained about unfair military sanctions on Turkey during the call.
Biden must have correctly sensed that Erdogan wanted to use Turkey’s veto power over Sweden and Finland to ensure an agreement that would return Turkey to the F-35 project, end U.S. support for Syrian Kurds, and secure the extradition of Fetullah Gulen, the U.S.-based spiritual leader of a movement Erdogan blamed for a bloody 2016 coup attempt. After all, it is not unusual for Turkey to overplay its hand in its relations with Washington.
Instead, the Biden administration put forward a much more modest offer for Ankara: the modernization of the F-16s in Turkey’s aging air force. In Madrid, Biden assured Erdogan of his support for this upgrade knowing full well that Congress will have to confirm the final decision. In any event, the State Department had already informed Congress that a potential sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey would further U.S. national security interests and serve NATO’s long-term unity weeks before Ankara leveled its threat to veto Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications. In other words, Erdogan appears to have failed in getting a quid pro quo or major concession from the Biden administration.
What Erdogan fails to understand is the concept of separation of powers in the United States. It is ultimately Congress that Ankara will have to convince for the F-16s. And even then, this will not be a major victory for a country that had been on track not only to acquire F-35s, but also to co-produce them with the United States. What Erdogan managed to achieve with Washington is the opposite of what he needs: the irritation of a bipartisan majority in Congress which sees Erdogan’s eagerness to hold NATO’s northern expansion hostage to his more narrow political interests. Erdogan’s overplayed hand is a lost opportunity because many U.S. lawmakers who are now once again frustrated with him were probably positively surprised with Turkey’s initially constructive approach to Ukraine.
As far as the two Nordic countries are concerned, Turkey wanted Sweden and Finland to make written commitments to crack down against and extradite not only supporters of the Kurdish militant PKK group — which is already designated a terrorist organization by the EU and the U.S. — but also on its affiliates; most importantly the U.S.-backed YPG militia in northern Syria. Ankara also wanted Sweden to lift its sanctions on arms exports to Turkey. While Stockholm made commitments to change its regulations restricting military sales to Turkey, it managed to dilute the issue of terrorism with diplomatic ambiguity in the language of the memorandum signed with Ankara.
At the end of the day, Erdogan will discover that the extradition of Turkish and Kurdish dissidents deemed to be terrorists will remain an elusive quest in Turkish-Swedish relations.
To sum up, Erdogan wanted to use Turkey’s veto power over Sweden and Finland to ensure Western acquiescence and a grand bargain with Biden. But the Biden administration did not budge in its assessment that Erdogan was overplaying his hand and would have to settle for far less than he wanted from Washington and the two Nordic countries.
Erdogan can still sell his achievements as a big win to a domestic audience thanks to his domination of the Turkish media. Yet, whatever victory he claims is pyrrhic given the lack of real concessions by the White House, the renewed perception in Congress of his unreliability, and the very limited progress he has made in breaching Sweden’s arms embargo.