Turkey’s Turn toward Russia

Erdogan meets with Putin in St. Petersburg, Russia, August 2016. (Photo: Sputnik/Kremlin/Alexei Nikolsky/Reuters)
As Erdogan turns his back on the West, the danger is not that Turkey could leave NATO but that it might not.

Independent observers have deemed Turkey’s referendum campaign to be neither free nor fair, but their objections may be moot. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has claimed victory and declared debate over; he will not accept a recount or nullification.

Symbolically closing the door on the secular, Western-leaning republic founded nearly 100 years ago by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Erdogan visited not his tomb after the election but rather that of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II (r. 1444–46, 1451–81), who conquered Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453. The visit capped Erdogan’s more than decade-long embrace of neo-Ottomanism, the idea, promoted by former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, that Turkey should focus its foreign policy more on the former Ottoman domains in the Middle East and North Africa than in Europe or elsewhere in the West.

The neo-Ottoman reorientation may have just been the beginning as Turkey seeks to pivot from its westward focus. It appears headed not only toward a break with the European Union, in which it once sought membership — in recent weeks, Erdogan has likened both the Dutch and the German governments to Nazis — but also toward a full-scale embrace of Russia.

NATO authorities have been in denial. “We are grateful for Turkey’s long-standing contribution to our alliance in so many ways,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after a visit to Istanbul and Ankara last year. He has lauded Turkey’s contributions to the international fight against terrorism, never mind that Erdogan has transformed Turkey into an underground railroad for Islamic State fighters and supplied and endorsed al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria and elsewhere.

On its surface, a Russo–Turkish alliance might seem counterintuitive: Russia and Turkey have been historical adversaries. Russia fought multiple wars against the Ottoman Empire and long sought to win possession of the Bosporus. During the Cold War, Turkey was one of only two NATO members bordering the Soviet Union.

In recent years, Ankara and Moscow have been at loggerheads over Syria, as Russia doubled down on its support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad while Turkey supported the militant opposition. This tension peaked after a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down a Russian Su-24M attack plane that had strayed into Turkish air space. Turkish-backed Syrian rebels shot and killed the pilot after he ejected. The Russian government retaliated by forbidding Russian tourism firms from working with Turkey, crippling an already-reeling Turkish industry.

In recent months, however, Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin have reconciled (notwithstanding the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey). Tourists are back. The two leaders met to bury the hatchet, first in St. Petersburg and then in Istanbul. They discussed billions of dollars in energy, infrastructure, and nuclear deals. Often, when the topic turns to the nuts and bolts of business, the professional diplomats leave the room and the two leaders, each of which is a financial giant in his own country, hash out deals that are as much about reconciling bank accounts as national interests. Even the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey by a Turkish policeman swearing allegiance to an al-Qaeda affiliate did not derail the rapprochement.

The Turkish military tilt toward Russia has gone beyond the symbolic.

Putin approaches diplomacy not as an exercise to find win–win solutions but rather as a zero-sum game: A partnership with Turkey cannot be only about diplomacy but must have the effect of permanently separating it from the West. Here, Erdogan, who holds the West in disdain because of its support for Turkey’s old secularist order, plays his part. Even as Turkish and Western diplomats and military officials pay lip service to the importance of each other’s country, Erdogan has fed Turks a steady stream of hatred and conspiracy toward the West in general and NATO in particular. Turkish state media have sent reporters to Germany so they could stand in front of U.S. military bases as they deliver breathless reports about NATO sponsorship of terror. Russian political and conspiracy theorist Aleksandr Dugin appears more often in the Turkish press than does the U.S. ambassador.

The Turkish military tilt toward Russia has gone beyond the symbolic. As depicted by Turkish diplomats and Western reporters, the purge of Turkish military officers is directed against followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, but Turkish officers with significant service in NATO have been as great a target, if not greater. To have served in NATO commands is now seen by Turkish officers as a ticket to prison, not promotion. Earlier this month, Turkey and Russia held joint naval exercises. Rumors persist in Turkey about the Kremlin’s desire to establish a naval base in Mersin, where there is a growing Russian presence, according to Turkish military officials.

The diplomatic tilt is equally pronounced. For all the noise that Turkish public-relations organizations make in the West about a commitment to Europe, Erdogan and his foreign ministry have been laying the groundwork for membership in the Moscow- and Beijing-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization. In the waning weeks of the Obama administration, Turkey seemed to catch Secretary of State John Kerry by surprise when it endorsed a Russian and Iranian diplomatic initiative for Syria.

Ironically, as Erdogan seizes the power to guide Turkey from the West and toward a broader partnership with Russia, the problem for the United States is not that Turkey could leave NATO but that it might not. NATO is run by consensus, and Turkey could act as a Trojan horse, paralyzing all decision-making and effectiveness. NATO has no mechanism to expel a member that drifts away from the alliance’s political or democratic norms.

The danger goes further, however. Turkey is a partner on the F-35 joint-strike fighter and seeks to purchase what the Pentagon sees as the next generation of its airpower. To send or sell any F-35s to Turkey now is to risk provision of cutting-edge military technology and codes to Russia and China. The idea that Turkey needs F-35s is risible. After all, Erdogan’s purge of his air force has been so drastic that Turkey now has two F-16s for every pilot (when those who are imprisoned are factored out). Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missiles is just as dangerous, as they could be integrated into Turkey’s air-defense system only by betraying NATO codes and processes.

So what is Erdogan’s game? He may believe that he is engaged in a win–win strategy. If he builds leverage to force concessions from the United States or a fearful Europe, he wins. President Donald Trump or Defense Secretary James Mattis would be foolish to engage in a bidding war, however, as Erdogan will never be satiated. Meanwhile, if Erdogan receives from Putin some reward, either personal or national, he believes he wins. What Erdogan does not understand is what a risky game he plays for Turkey’s future: Whereas the United States sees allies as partners, Russia sees them as client states, and, while Erdogan may believe he can outplay Putin, he is a novice compared with Russia’s KGB-trained leader.

The West can wring its hands about the death of democracy and a more secular order in Turkey, but that train left the station a decade ago. Far more dangerous for Europe and the United States are the changes now underway in Turkey’s foreign-policy orientation.

— Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.



Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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