What Russia’s New Reality Means for Turkey
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine.
As Russia and the West enter a dramatic new period of confrontation, some in Washington have suggested a possible silver lining: the return of Turkey, NATO’s prodigal son, as a member of good standing in the alliance. Turkey, the thinking goes, would be alarmed by the revival of Russian power, especially in the Black Sea. The government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has also cultivated strong relations with Ukraine and would be upset to see the country’s sovereignty being violated by Turkey’s historic enemy.
In fact, the opposite appears more likely. If President Vladimir Putin wins a major military victory against Ukraine, and is able to weather the economic and diplomatic consequences, it will only accelerate Turkey’s move into a post-NATO stance. The failure of NATO to stop Moscow’s irredentism will confirm Ankara’s beliefs about the waning relevance of the alliance and fuel its hopes for a new era in geopolitics.
A Revisionist Synergy
Unlike during the Cold War, Ankara does not necessarily think of Russian resurgence as a threat. This is because the world view of Erdogan, as well as of the Turkish right as a whole, is much closer to that of Putin than it is to that of Western liberal elites. This may feel immaterial to policymakers, but it is the emotional backdrop to the entire policy apparatus, shaping popular perceptions and strategic culture. Putin is known for having said in 2005 that the “demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [20th] century.” His major foreign policy exploits, from the 2008 Georgia war to the current Ukraine crisis, seek to reverse that catastrophe.
Turks can relate to that aspiration. For conservatives like Erdogan, Turkey’s status as a junior partner in an American-led trans-Atlantic alliance and a medium-sized power between Iran and Bulgaria is a great catastrophe. The Turkish right dreams of a revitalized Turkish sphere of influence, projecting power across three continents. Twenty years at the head of government has allowed them to infuse the country with this vision. Turkey’s founding fathers defeated Western forces in battle in order to build a republic that held up Western modernity as a model. The current government, which can trace its roots to the radical right-wing dissenters from this tradition, seeks to do the reverse. They see the West as an anti-model: a rival to be mirrored, and eventually to be beaten at its own game.
Nothing about Russian success in Ukraine would reverse this. Rather, Putin’s triumph would have very exciting implications for some of the people at the presidential palace in Ankara. It would tell the Turkish right that they are on the cusp of a new era in global politics, one that they themselves have sought to bring about.
Washington is understandably focused on the implications that Russian territorial expansion might have for China and Taiwan. But borders are becoming hazier in other parts of the world as well. Turkey has by far the most powerful conventional forces in its region. It effectively controls northern Cyprus, directly governs chunks of northern Syria, and has a dominant military presence in northern Iraq. Ankara could further integrate these territories with the aim of eventually annexing them. It could also seek to link Azerbaijan’s mainland with its territorial exclave of Nakhchivan through the Zanzegur corridor. In the Aegean, Ankara could push more strongly against Greek naval boundaries, which it believes to be unfairly stacked against it. Indeed, Turkey could plausibly argue that it has as at least as much of a right over these waters and territories as Russia does over Ukraine. Like Moscow, Ankara would sing from the hymn sheet of liberal interventionism, adding its own imperial nostalgia and claims of religious and ethnic solidarity. Humanitarian aid, referendums, and military operations could ease the process along.
Even in a post-Ukraine world, such a policy could eventually trigger Western sanctions. Turkey is more democratic than Russia and has no energy resources to speak of, so it would be more susceptible to them. But maybe not all that much more. It has been speculated that cutting Russia off from the SWIFT messaging network, used by banks for cross-border payments, could lead to the construction of a non-Western alternative. The Chinese government is certainly working towards sanctions-proofing its technological and financial ecosystems. If the two biggest revisionist countries break out from the grip of Western sanctions, perhaps medium-sized ones like Turkey could follow in their wake. Erdogan has long said that he would consider joining the Shanghai Cooperation Council. There is no reason not to take him seriously.
Waning NATO Benefits
Further facilitating Ankara’s shift to a post-NATO stance is the fact that the benefits of alliance membership are already waning for Turkey. Ankara no longer has access to top-shelf NATO technology and appears less interested in defense guarantees.
To be clear, Turkey has benefitted immensely from NATO membership. Its military was thoroughly shaped by NATO’s culture, standards, and technology. Turkey has also paid back the alliance as a stalwart member, honoring its obligations by contributing to missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan and hosting NATO’s Land Command. Its current policy isn’t about leaving NATO, but rather about shifting perspective. Former president Abdullah Gul used to say in the 2010s that it wasn’t important whether Turkey eventually joined the European Union — the accession process was about reaching E.U. standards. Once Turkey had reached that level, it might well decide to “be like Norway” and refrain from membership. Erdogan’s goal with NATO might well be the reverse. He is already in the club, but sees Turkey’s future as being elsewhere. He wants to move the country into a place where it won’t necessarily leave, but it won’t have to worry about what other members think of it either.
Take the most salient issue: air defense. The backbone of the Turkish air force is the F-16 fighter jet, the product of very fruitful Turkish-American cooperation in the 1980s. Turkey also joined the consortium for the F-35, the fifth-generation fighter jet. During the Syrian Civil War in the early 2010s, Turkey relied on American-made (American, Dutch, German, and Spanish) Patriot air defense systems to guard its southern border, and wanted to buy its own batteries from the United States. But this cooperation broke down. To this day, when asked in private meetings, Erdogan insists that the United States would not sell him the Patriot system. American officials deny this, arguing that they offered favorable terms. Then, soon after the 2016 coup attempt, Turkey purchased the Russian S-400 air defense system. The Americans argued that the F-35 could not co-locate with the Russian system for security reasons, and booted Turkey out of the F-35 program. Now it isn’t even clear whether Congress will allow American firms to modernize Turkey’s F-16 fleet. European countries also have de facto sanctions on Turkey over issues ranging from Syria policy to human rights abuses.
Given its world view, the Erdogan government doesn’t seem to mind. Erdogan’s stump speech on defense policy features the story of how U.S. sanctions on Turkey following its 1974 intervention in Cyprus spurred the development of the country’s defense industry. He is also quick to point out that when his government wanted to buy Reaper drones from the United States and was denied, it set about creating its own world-class drone program. “Bad neighbors have made us into home owners,” Erdogan likes to say, arguing that U.S. sanctions are now going to drive the development of the TF-X, Turkey’s first indigenous fighter jet.
There is, of course, Article 5 and nuclear deterrence, which have been the centerpiece of Turkey’s defense for 70 years. Tellingly, these are not issues that have been discussed with much rigor in recent years. Does Erdogan still count on the West to come to Turkey’s aid if the need should arise? Maybe. Or maybe not. One thing that is certain is that if Russia is successful in gaining control over Ukraine, Turkey’s leadership will lose more respect for their Western counterparts.
True, some of this could change: The United States and its European allies could offer Turkey favorable deals on weapons systems and make a point of supporting its defenses, especially in the Black Sea, where Turkey has historically felt most threatened by Russia. This would involve redirecting (once again, in case of the F-35) the complex supply chains that build state-of-the-art weapons, as well as changing minds in the Western parliaments that control sanctions. The first could be done — the latter might be harder. On both sides, trust would be hard to restore. Ankara would drive a hard bargain, and the West would always fear that Turkey could pocket the concessions and walk anyway.
The natural position for Turkey to be right now is on the fence. It is true that Turkey has strong relations with Ukraine, but that isn’t necessarily an effort to balance against Russia. Turkish officials have told me in the past that they were actually disappointed to see such decidedly anti-Russian and pro-Western sentiment in their Ukrainian counterparts. They would much rather Kyiv be nationalistic but non-aligned, and therefore in need of a friendly middle power like Turkey.
Turkey has not been a major actor in the diplomatic traffic recently, and that is not a coincidence. Turkey isn’t part of the now defunct Normandy Format, and there is no reason to think that it wanted to be. Instead, Erdogan invited Putin and President Volodymyr Zelensky to Turkey with an offer of mediation. This was odd, considering that the crisis isn’t really between these countries, but between Russia and the United States. More than anything else, the invitation was an expression of the regret that Turkey feels about a conflict within the non-Western, non-liberal, and therefore, in Erdogan’s view, “free” space. Erdogan probably believes that if only Zelensky had not been as enthusiastically “Western,” and if he had assumed a more Turkish approach to sovereignty, Putin would not have invaded his country.
Things being as they are, Turkey’s immediate consideration is economic. The war between Ukraine and Russia will be awful for the already fragile Turkish economy. Turkey imports a third of its natural gas from Russia and significant quantities of food from both countries. Russian tourists are an important source of foreign exchange and were eagerly expected as the tourism season approaches. Having been cut off from Western suppliers, Turkey also has agreements to import Ukrainian engines for some of its key weapons systems. As defense analyst Arda Mevlutoglu pointed out, it will be hard to find engines for the TAI’s T929 Atak attack helicopter and Bayraktar’s Akıncı drone, two important weapons systems for Turkey.
As Putin recognized the breakaway republics on Monday, Erdogan was on a multi-country trip across the Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal, and Guinea-Bissau. The Turkish foreign ministry put out a terse statement calling on Russia to respect Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, but that was it. When an emergency NATO summit was called, Erdogan did eventually cancel the last leg of his trip and head home. En route, he offered some comments to his traveling court of journalists and geopolitical analysts: NATO leaders should decide what they wanted to do already, Turkey was a Black Sea country and would act as one, he couldn’t accept Russia’s violation of Ukrainian territory, Turkey would not give up on either Ukraine or Russia, he would speak to leaders and sort things out. None of it meant much. Erdogan just seemed bitter about having had to cancel his Guinea-Bissau trip in order to sit through a meeting with deeply concerned NATO leaders.
Not long before, presidential advisor Ibrahim Kalin had granted an interview to a German daily, saying:
Sanctions against Russia wouldn’t work. They only postpone problems. It is better to listen to other side and understand their strategic concerns. Russia feels threatened by NATO. Putin wants to redraw borders and renew strategic alliances 30 years after the USSR’s collapse.
Kalin sounded is if he was trying to calm Western nerves, the way one might soothe a long-suffering mental patient. Until recently, it was the other way around. Reality belonged to the liberals, who adopted this tone toward the far-right nationalists they considered delirious. Now, nationalists in Russia, Turkey, France, China, the United States, India and elsewhere are waiting to see if Ukraine is where that reality ends.
Selim Koru is an analyst at the Economic Policy Research Foundation (TEPAV) and a Black Sea Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI).