The Ukraine crisis threatens an already hard-pressed Erdogan regime with a host of added economic and political burdens, with presidential and parliamentary elections looming. At the same time it is becoming increasingly clear that, nonetheless, the Russia-Ukraine war and Western reactions to it, has also provided Turkey’s embattled and internationally isolated ruler with a welcome opportunity to turn his complicated balancing act – balancing both Russia-US/NATO/EU and Russia-Ukraine – into a diplomatic asset and an escape route. Erdogan’s offer to act as a – or the – mediator country, based on having functioning ties with both sides, seems to be well received by the various Western players, so much so that the long list of relational problems between Turkey and US/EU (including human rights abuses) seems to be put on a back burner. For now. But the rope of the balancing act is tight, and it is very unclear how long the Turkish respite can last. Complications are many and varied.
Many and varied are the ways in which the Ukraine crisis has shaken up pre-existing structures and postures as players try to adapt in the fog of uncertainty. Turkey provides a significant example. For president Erdogan’s Turkey global and Western focus on Ukraine has – so far – been seen to open up new opportunities, a new level of strategic balancing.
Before the Ukraine crisis, or war, erupted Mr Erdogan’s regime seemed caught in a spiral of ever-increasing, mutually reinforcing problems, economic and political, domestic and foreign. By year’s end 2021 a lengthy trend of worsening conditions had given rise to serious questions concerning the viability, sustainability and even survivability of the 20 year-long Erdogan regime era, with a new round of decisive elections looming on the horizon.
In’s the economy…
One thing was the economy, after years of economic crisis signs brewing, mainly a product of the regime’s own doing: the Lira standing at more than 14 against the dollar, inflation at 54 % and rising, with the Central Bank politically prevented from combatting inflation in the established fashion by raising the interest rate, people’s cost of living sky-rocketing, and other symptoms. Drastic structural reform in combination with clear need to drastically improve relations with Western countries and economies were needed but prevented by prevailing political mechanisms.
And these economically needed improvements in Turkey’s ties with the West, including the EU and the US, were counteracted by a huge pile of bones of contention between Ankara and these countries, burdening Turkey’s standing in NATO (for all the standard talk about Turkey’s strategic importance at the Europe-Asia crossroads and as guardian of NATO:s southern flank) and bringing EU-Turkey relations to a stand-still, not least as a result of Turkey’s ever-worsening performance in the area of human rights, freedom of speech and assembly, democratic governance and rule of law. And then there was the relationship problems arising as a result of Turkey’s Erdogan-guided assertiveness in the various relevant foreign policy arenas; Libya, Syria, Iraq, Eastern Mediterranean, Nagorno-Karabach, and others. In the lengthy problem list between Ankara and Washington, part a legacy from the Trump era, part with added dimensions following the transition to the Biden administration, one issue stood out as key, Ankara’s controversial purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air defense system, seen in the West to be incompatible with NATO standards and operations.
Comprehensive efforts laid down by Turkey to seek compensation for these strains with the West by seeking radical improvements in relations with former regional adversaries, like Israel, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia (in spite of the Khassoggi murder scandal), seemed to help only marginally.
Diplomatic reset – last year it was Kabul airport, then Ukraine
Last year we could observe how Turkey was looking out for opportunities to improve ties with the West, notably the US, in the area of foreign policy and diplomacy. First it was Afghanistan, with Erdogan in his first bilateral with Biden offering assistance to the US as concerned an orderly way of organizing evacuations by means of handling the Hamid Karzai airport. In the end, as we recall, there was no evacuation orderliness, so this strategic Turkish offer came largely to nothing, even though appreciated by the US as a means for Turkey, NATO: s sole muslim country, to make itself useful.
And then came the developing Ukraine crisis during late last year and early this year. Moving into this problematic stage, Turkey found itself in a position of delicate balancing, balancing between Russia and US/NATO and balancing between Russia and Ukraine, together making Erdogan’s Turkey highly vulnerable – politically and economically – to a serious and worsening West-Russia crisis over Ukraine. But also potentially offering diplomatic opportunities, if played cleverly. Recent and historical Turkey-Ukraine links with a significant defense component (exports of Turkish TB2 drones) had to be balanced against a high and complex degree of dependence on Putin’s Russia – oil and gas imports, development of nuclear energy facilities, the S 400 issue, crisis management in Libya and Syria and other links. All these in a context of increased contradictions and tension both in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Black Sea region.
Enter realpolitik, enter the February 24 water shed. Enter big and bold Erdogan moves with a view – perceived by everyone – to exploiting diplomatic opportunities and minimizing a ton of risks. The art of mastering brinkmanship and of transforming an apparent mission impossible into a role as indispensable mediator/facilitator (for the West) – based on geography and history, and based on the unique capacity of a large and relevant country with ties to both sides in the conflict. Hence the starter the other day, with direct talks in Istanbul between diplomatic representatives of the two sides, hosted by president Erdogan and foreign minister Cavusoglu, Turkey being seen, for now, to emerge as the winner in the emerging beauty contest between aspiring mediator countries, Israel and others, hoping to escape the growing pressure for Ankara to take a clear stand in the Ukraine conflict.
And it has worked, for now. International analyses now circulate portraits of a Turkey, recently caught in a seemingly hopeless negative spiral, that has rendered a new meaning to the old concept of “strategic importance” and has stepped up – with all its deficiencies and problems – as a, or the, indispensable actor for peace and stability in a key area of global security. Turkey’s balancing act between Ukraine and Russia, including its refusal to joint Western sanctions against Putin’s Russia, tends to receive a considerable degree of Western understanding, or tolerance, so long as this particular component of Turkey’s balancing can be seen as serving the purpose of opening and keeping open diplomatic channels, for immediate and more long-term use.
Even in the context of massive international criticisms of human rights abuses in Turkey, most recently by Amnesty International, and although transatlantic governments have tended to sharpen focus on the task of combatting autocratic regimes worldwide, Western capitals now tend to de-emphasize rights abuses in Turkey. This trend is also a product of the current mass flight from Ukraine into Eastern Europe – preoccupation with this challenge now leads leaders like Germany’s Scholz to travel to Ankara with reassuring messages, in fear of how Erdogan might again weaponize refugee flows from that direction.
Mediating over Ukraine: Turkey’s claims to indispensability
So in this sense Vladimir Putin could be seen in Turkey, by its otherwise cornered regime, as a saviour, for now. The Ukraine crisis has given Erdogan’s Turkey an opportunity to prove its indispensable strategic worth to formerly sceptical (or more) Western capitals. The strategic value conferred, for now, hangs in the balance between, on the one hand, Turkey’s perceived, renewed indispensability as mail pillar in NATO:s southern flank in the collective defense against Russian aggression, and, on the other hand, Turkey’s potential diplomatic usefulness in whatever opportunities for dialogue and negotiations that may emerge, where Turkey’s independent-minded dual contacts may be seen, also by Putin, as a decisive asset. Already now, the new context has emboldened the Turkish master of the art of brinkmanship to report to the Turkish media that during the recent Brussels NATO summit he did indeed tell all present leaders (except perhaps the US) that now it is long overdue for them to lift all sanctions and restrictions against Turkey.
The big question now, for now, is how long this balancing can last. That includes to what extent and for how long Vladimir Putin will tolerate some key components in Erdogan’s balancing acts so far, notably his closing of the Turkish Straits for reentry of Russian naval units into the Black Sea (referring to the Montreux Convention) and the continued supply of TB2 drones to the Ukrainians (while abstaining from joining Western sanctions and sticking to the S 400 deal). The list of Turkish vulnerability areas to potential Russian punishments remains long, economically and politically (tourism, gas deliveries, nuclear power, crisis management in Libya, Syria, Nagorno Karabach, etc etc). But equally long is the list of reasons why the Turkish economy is in dire need of normalizing ties with the West. With elections looming.
So far so good
Nonetheless, so far so good, for Turkey’s absolute ruler, a respite and an image restoration. And a huge policy dilemma for Western capitals moving into the next few weeks and months, perhaps years.