How Turkey is trying to balance East and West as war rages on

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From the 1940s, Turkey, suspicious of Moscow, positioned itself as an ally of Washington and soon after joined NATO, the military alliance founded to protect Europe against Soviet attacks during the war. cold. Since coming to power in 2003, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has gradually reinvented Turkey as a power in its own right, free to make new friends, even if it bothers old ones. Politics is facing a major test with the war in Ukraine. Erdogan condemned Russia’s invasion of the country, but refrained from joining Western sanctions against Moscow and welcomed Russian businesses, investments and tourists to Turkey. As the conflict drags on and the stakes rise for all parties involved, it will likely be increasingly difficult for Erdogan to maintain the balance.

For much of the Cold War, Russia was the hostile neighbor that forced Turkey to seek powerful allies to help defend its territory. Over the past decade, he has courted some of Washington’s adversaries – Russia, China and Iran – while remaining within NATO. Seeking to play a major role in world affairs, Erdogan has opened dozens of diplomatic missions in Africa and Latin America and pledged to make Turkey the first NATO member to join the NATO Cooperation Organization. Shanghai, a China-led international security group that originally focused on Central Asia but is now expanding into the Middle East. Russia has become a major economic partner, supplying nearly half of Turkey’s natural gas imports and a record 4.7 million tourists to the country last year. In 2019, Turkey acquired Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles in defiance of its NATO allies. Russian state-owned Rosatom is building a $20 billion nuclear power plant on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast and the Turkish government has asked it to build another.

2. What is Erdogan’s problem with Western governments?

Erdogan has bristled at a series of perceived snubs from his Western allies. When the United States in 2014 began supplying arms to Kurdish militants in Syria, who were helping to fight the Islamic State, Turkey – which is waging its own conflict with affiliated Kurdish separatists – saw the move as a betrayal. In 2016, decades of negotiations on Turkey’s accession to the European Union have stalled. Turkey took delivery of the Russian missile system in 2019 after abandoning talks to acquire a comparable US weapon, the Patriot, over Washington’s refusal to share the technology. Following the missile deal, US President Donald Trump’s government banned Turkey from buying F-35 fighter jets. Washington officials feared the Russian missiles could be used to gather intelligence on the F-35’s stealth capabilities. The United States and many of its allies have grown increasingly wary of dealing with Erdogan, who has repeatedly resorted to anti-Western rhetoric and accused allied countries of supporting an attempt to overthrow his administration in 2016. Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, criticized Erdogan for his authoritarianism. .

3. What is behind the diplomatic pivot?

Erdogan’s Justice and Development party emerged from an anti-Western Islamic political movement that has long accused Western nations of thwarting Turkish aspirations for a self-sufficient defense industry and a strong economy. Suspicions intensified after the failed coup attempt, which Erdogan says was orchestrated by a US-based self-exiled Turkish cleric. Washington refused Turkey’s request to extradite him. During a visit to New York in September, Erdogan called for an overhaul of the UN Security Council with its five permanent members. “By saying the world is bigger than five, we are advocating for a multipolar, multicentric, multicultural, more inclusive and fairer world order,” he said. Rather than cutting ties, the idea is to gain more weight with historical allies by showing that Turkey has alternative partners.

4. What difference has the war in Ukraine made?

Erdogan’s doctrine is on display in the Ukraine conflict – supporting the government in Kyiv, while cultivating ties with Moscow. He condemned Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian provinces and banned Russian ships and planes from accessing Turkish-controlled sea and air routes. A company run by Erdogan’s son-in-law has sold dozens of armed drones to Ukraine. But Erdogan refused to join the sanctions targeting Russia, accused some Western allies of provoking war and warned them not to “underestimate” Russia. He met Putin four times between July and October and positioned Turkey as a mediator, brokering a deal to allow the resumption of grain shipments from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and an exchange of prisoners.

5. Has Erdogan’s approach benefited Turkey?

It seems to offer economic benefits, at least for now. Investments from Russia are helping shore up Turkey’s struggling economy, which Erdogan needs to stabilize before seeking re-election next year. In August, Erdogan and Putin agreed to expand economic cooperation. Erdogan demanded price reductions for Russian energy imports and asked to pay them in Turkish lira, according to Turkish officials.

Erdogan’s approach challenges Western efforts to forge a unified international front and persuade Moscow to change course on Ukraine. But if the United States attempts to punish Erdogan, it could jeopardize relations with an important partner in the volatile Middle East. Turkey hosts US nuclear warheads at an airbase near Syria and an early warning radar that is part of NATO’s ballistic missile defense capabilities. It also absorbed millions of refugees from the Middle East and Asia and acted as a buffer for this flow to Europe. If Erdogan tilts Turkey towards Russia, he could jeopardize Turkey’s most important military alliance and sabotage a potential deal for Turkey to buy US-made F-16 fighter jets and upgrade new ones. other military equipment. The United States could impose new sanctions on Turkey. The mere threat of such sanctions prompted five Turkish banks to abandon a Russian card payment system in September.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com

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