How Much Multipolarity Does a Strongman Need?: Why Erdogan Has Benefited From Russia’s Failure in Ukraine
This week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly threatened to invade Greece, then, without missing a beat, condemned the West’s provocative approach to Russia. And yet, since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Ankara has been eager to tout its unique success in balancing between both sides of the conflict to the benefit of Turkey, NATO, and the world. This approach reflects Erdogan’s emphasis on pursuing an independent foreign policy in which Turkey will supposedly use its military strength and cultural influence, along with its unique geographic position, to chart a course between the great powers.
The success of this policy can be debated. Turkish drones and diplomacy have certainly proved more influential than many of us anticipated and less influential than many of Erdogan’s propagandists continue to insist. But to the extent Turkey’s independent foreign policy has proven effective in this conflict, it reveals a deeper irony about the premises behind it. Turkish policymakers have consistently presented their newfound independence as a structural response to the West’s growing weakness and the emergence of an ever-more multipolar world. Over the last six months though, it has instead been Russia’s unexpected weakness that facilitated Turkey’s balancing act.
If, as many analysts expected, Russia had overrun Kyiv in a matter of weeks, few people would now be praising Turkey’s Bayraktars or mediation efforts. Instead, Erdogan would be facing a more formidable strategic environment from the Black Sea through the Caucasus to Syria, and even greater frustration in the United States and Europe. This outcome might have brought Ankara other benefits instead, but it would be left balancing on a far more wobbly wire.
Besides counting their blessings, U.S. policymakers can take this as a reminder to stop worrying about how to win Turkey back. The invasion of Ukraine has been put forward as a reason why the West should be more solicitous of Erdogan in seeking to repair ties with Turkey. But Ankara’s response suggests the opposite. Ankara has demonstrated that it will respond to shifting geopolitical circumstances with an eye toward securing the immediate benefits they offer. For example, Turkey has profited directly from selling drones to Kyiv and from its role in facilitating the export of Ukrainian grain. To the extent these moves advance U.S. interests, Ankara will pursue them without any need for encouragement or incentives from Washington. To the extent other moves undermine U.S. interests, such as threatening to block Nordic NATO membership or start a war with Greece, Washington can target its pressure or blandishments where they are needed.
The invasion of Ukraine has led Ankara to double down on its independent foreign policy, while calling into question one of the core assumptions behind it. Recognizing this can help Washington be clear-eyed about Turkey’s course and craft its response accordingly.
Making the Most of Multipolarity
As Ankara has pursued a more assertive foreign policy in recent years that is increasingly at odds with U.S. interests, observers have offered a range of overlapping explanations. Some have stressed Erdogan’s domestic concerns or ideological hostility toward the United States. Others have emphasized Ankara’s threat perception, justified or imagined, and its perceived need to push back against the activities of U.S. allies in the region. Others, however, particularly defenders of Ankara’s policies, have stressed that they are a logical or predictable reaction to multipolarity, Washington’s withdrawal from the Middle East, and the growing strength of actors like Russia. In the case of Syria, where Ankara needed Russian compliance to pursue its fight with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and maintain its presence in Idlib, this explanation certainly makes sense. In other cases, such as Turkey’s intensified confrontation with Greece, the logic seems far less plausible.
Most likely, Turkish policymakers, like their counterparts in other countries, were predisposed to interpret geopolitical trends in accordance with their ideological orientation and policy preferences. They disliked the United States and resented its policies, and so were happy to believe its power was in abeyance. And while they had little reason to love Putin, and indeed clashed with Russia in a number of specific regional conflicts, they nonetheless saw Russian power as something that could push back against Washington and give them more room to maneuver. By backing forces opposing Russia’s partners in conflicts like the Libyan civil war and Nagorno-Karabakh, Ankara sought to build leverage with Moscow that it could ultimately use to negotiate outcomes that benefited both countries. The result would be to not only strengthen Turkey’s position but also minimize Western influence and, ideally, exclude Western actors from regional conflicts altogether.
Before Russia’s invasion, Ankara had also developed a strong relationship with Ukraine. Erdogan consistently criticized the annexation of Crimea, specifically with reference to the Crimean Tatar community. Ankara had also agreed to establish a co-production program for Turkish drones with Kyiv and begun building ships for the Ukrainian navy. These measures won Turkey points in Washington and also helped contribute to the balancing act with Russia. Through 2021, Ukraine represented a case where Turkey’s independent foreign policy was playing out well. As tensions mounted, Erdogan appeared to see this as something that could further enhance Turkey’s role. But, like many others, he discounted the possibility of an actual Russian invasion.
Tellingly, when the invasion happened, Erdogan criticized NATO for having failed to successfully deter it, while at the same time many pro-government media outlets accused NATO of provoking it. Viewed in these terms, the invasion fit nicely into the dual narrative of Western weakness and perfidy. Erdogan announced that it was not possible for Turkey to abandon either Russia or Ukraine, emphasizing he would continue to support Kyiv while simultaneously distancing himself from the broader Western response. The invasion, in short, was an opportunity for more balancing. And yet, initially at least, it threatened to undermine key components of Turkey’s preferred foreign policy.
Consequences of a Russian Victory
Had Russia carried out its invasion as planned, toppling the Ukrainian government and consolidating control over much of the country, Turkey would have lost the relationship it had cultivated with Kyiv and many elements of its current engagement would have been rendered moot.
A quick Russian victory, or even a more successful initial Russian air campaign, would have preempted the possibility of Turkish drones playing their high-profile role in the initial weeks of the war. If Russia had set up a puppet government in Kyiv, Moscow would have had little need for Turkey to serve as an intermediary in negotiating with it. Even in a different scenario, where Russia was seeking to impose a victor’s peace on a defeated but still independent Ukrainian government, any Turkish role in the process would have looked decidedly unpalatable to the country’s NATO’s allies.
More broadly, if slightly more speculatively, a decisive Russian victory would have generated much greater alarm throughout the NATO alliance, leading to considerably greater anger at Turkish fence-sitting. Publicly at least, Washington was initially willing to put a positive spin on Turkey’s approach to the conflict. For example, U.S. officials thanked Turkey for closing the Bosporus to Russian warships in keeping with the Montreux convention, while officially overlooking the fact that, in an effort to be scrupulously balanced, it had also closed the straights to NATO ships as well. In a far more strained and perilous situation, however, there may well have been less tolerance. Ankara’s refusal to impose sanctions on Russia or its bargaining over the admission of Sweden and Finland to NATO could well have generated a more punitive response if the stakes were higher. It is possible that, feeling even more threatened, NATO members might have proven more hesitant to antagonize Turkey, or more desperate for any support they could secure from Ankara. But in Washington at least, the impulse to take a with–us–or–against–us approach would have been strongly felt.
In security terms, Russia’s seizure of the entire northern Black Sea coast would have also posed a significant long-term risk for Turkey that would have been difficult to counter without intensified NATO cooperation. Of course, this too would have driven a greater desire for cooperation on Washington’s part. But, with Bulgaria and Romania in NATO and new transportation options through the Greek port of Alexandropoulos, Washington now has more flexibility in the Black Sea than during the Cold War. This presumably would have shifted the perceived necessity of cooperation more firmly toward Ankara. And, if not immediately, Turkey would have been left confronting an emboldened Russia in multiple contact zones throughout the region.
Instead, as Russia remains bogged down in Eastern Ukraine, Turkey has benefitted from its weakness in other theaters. The initial ceasefire agreement following the 2021 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan gave Russian peacekeepers a prominent role, seeming to consolidate Russian influence in Nagorno-Karabakh. However in the past month, Turkish-allied Azeri forces have made further advances, pressing their advantage against Armenia with minimal diplomatic or military response from Moscow.
In Syria, the invasion has also lessened the threat of any new offensive against Idlib, where Turkey has currently stationed at least 10,000 troops following the last regime advances in March 2020. Despite recent speculation, it is still far too soon to envision any successful rapprochement between Erdogan and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. But if this were to happen on terms amenable to Ankara, namely those that allow a continued Turkish presence in the country over Assad’s objections, it could only be as a result of diminished Russian support for the regime.
Rather than being vindicated by the rise of a multipolar world, Turkey has benefited from keeping its distance from the pole that held. The West has shown greater unity than many expected — although this too would look much less impressive if Russia was winning on the ground — leaving Turkey freer to pursue its own interests. Advocates of a more independent foreign policy have often argued that previous Turkish governments were too deferential to the United States and NATO out of some kind of ideological subservience enforced through Western-backed coups. But the reality is that many of these governments, both military and civilian, also wanted to pursue a more independent foreign policy, but were prevented by their own strategic concerns about the Soviet Union. In other words, they were constrained by the distinctly bipolar Cold War order.
At the outset of the invasion, many observers predicted that Turkey would seek to avoid taking sides, but also that it would eventually be forced to. So far, however, Turkey has not. While this may be delivering diminishing returns or further alienating Turkey’s Western allies, it has also delivered real benefits. Following months of free advertising, new orders for Bayraktar drones are coming in. An influx of Russian money has brought no more than warnings from Washington while providing relief to Turkey’s collapsing economy. Crucially, it was the success of Ukraine’s military resistance, bolstered by Western support, that made this possible.
Recognizing this reality leaves Washington freer to pursue its own interests without having to fret about bringing Turkey on board with further concessions. Turkey’s military support for Ukraine and ability to serve as an intermediary between the warring parties have both been put forward as reasons why the West should cultivate Erdogan and embrace his independent turn. But these Turkish policies suggest an alternate reading. During his first year in office, Biden took a hands-off approach to Turkey. He kept his interactions with Erdogan to a minimum and had the State Department issue regular expressions of concern when Erdogan committed new human rights abuses. He offered no concessions on sanctions over Turkey’s S-400 purchase, and — despite a brief flurry of interest in Turkey running the Kabul airport after America’s withdrawal — did not go out of his way to solicit Turkish cooperation on other issues.
Whatever policies Turkey has carried out with regard to Ukraine, it has carried out against this backdrop. To the extent Ankara’s advocates believe the West should be pleased with these policies, that suggests a more solicitous approach to Erdogan was not necessary. To the extent Washington is still frustrated with Turkey’s behavior, it can at least take comfort in the fact it is a consequence of Russia’s failure.
Nicholas Danforth is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP). He is the author of The Remaking of Republican Turkey: Memory and Modernity since the Fall of the Ottoman Empire.
Image courtesy of Peruvian foreign affairs ministry