The Wider View

Mar 31, 2022

Erdogan Is Like a Juggler in a Hurricane

The Ukraine war is forcing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to reassess his course of maneuvering between Moscow and the West. Is a turnaround in Turkish foreign policy imminent?

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kyiv, Ukraine February 3, 2022.
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Part of the fate of a middle power is the question: Is it a player or a pawn? Can it influence the course of events, or will it simply be swept along by the shifts in world politics that have taken place since Russia's invasion of Ukraine? This is true for most of the middle powers, including Germany, which, however, is firmly integrated into European Union and NATO structures. The situation is much more complicated for Turkey, which is located at the crossroads between extremely troubled regions of the world, is not a member of the EU, and whose NATO membership has been called into question more than once. One could say that complexity is the defining principle of Turkish foreign policy.

With the Ukraine war, the complications have grown exponentially once again, also because this is a sensitive moment for Turkey. The state of its economy is desolate, the decline of the lira and skyrocketing food and energy prices are causing problems for the people, and there are repeated protests. The country is also heading into the next election campaign, traditionally a time of the most violent upheavals. If the elections are not brought forward, they will take place in mid-2023. Erdogan is a legendary election campaigner, but he is struggling now. It is already clear that the escalation in Ukraine and the international sanctions against Russia will put a further strain on the Turkish economy, which could be his undoing.

From “Zero Problems” to Only Problems

So, the situation is tense at home, and it is no different when it comes to foreign policy. The Ukraine war is also a decisive point for Turkey. It has mercilessly exposed the contradictory nature of Erdogan’s course, his maneuvering between Moscow and the West. Previously, Ankara had been quite comfortable in this in-between space. Now, however, the contradictions have become too great, and there is growing pressure on Turkey to position itself more clearly. Does the Ukraine war represent a strategic shift in Turkish foreign policy? And above all, what does it then mean for Erdogan's future?

For a long time, there was a simple answer to the question of Turkey’s relationship with Russia and the West. It was embedded in the Western alliance, as an anti-communist bulwark of NATO. From the mid-1990s on, everything revolved around Turkey’s aspiration to join the EU, a project that Erdogan and his party, the Islamic-conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) pushed hard in their first years in government. In 2005, the Europeans officially opened negotiations, but the process soon stagnated, and Turkey discovered its neighbors to the south and east. It was the hour of Ahmet Davutoglu, foreign policy mastermind and later prime minister, who cultivated Turkey's opening up in all directions, with stronger engagement in the region under the catchy slogan “zero problems with neighbors.” The West was no longer the only anchor point.

The zero problem policy initially brought successes—Turkey drew closer to hostile Armenia, reconciled with Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, mediated between Israel and the Arab states, and improved its relations with Russia. But Ankara overestimated the effectiveness of its soft power. Setbacks led to disappointments, disappointments to new disputes and upheavals, for example with Israel over the Gaza war in 2008/09.

The optimistic “zero problems” phase came to its final end after the Arab Spring. Turkey had supported the mass protests in the hope that Muslim Brotherhood parties, which have close ties to the AKP, would come to power. By 2013, with the coup in Egypt that brought General Fattah al-Sisi to power, Ankara’s dream of becoming a leading power in the Muslim world was finally shattered. The misjudgment that the fall of Assad—with whom Ankara broke shortly after the outbreak of the Syrian war—was imminent proved particularly fatal. Instead, Turkey has become party to the bloody war that has been raging in Syria for more than a decade, and which has also fueled the intra-Turkish conflict with the Kurds.

2013 was also the year of the Gezi riots, triggered by protests against the development of a shopping center in Istanbul’s Taksim Square. In the West, there was a lot of sympathy for the demonstrators, which strengthened Erdogan's belief that it was an attempted coup, directed from abroad. A conviction that took on almost paranoid characteristics after the subsequent attempted coup by Turkey’s military in 2016. During these years, the country became increasingly repressive, with Erdogan persecuting opposition figures and shutting down the media. He cooperated with the Europeans on refugee policy but, apart from that, there was a permanent crisis, and Brussels put the accession process on hold. Where it remains to this day.

Things were not that different with the Americans. The list of points of contention grew longer and longer, with the Turks in particular demanding the extradition of US-based preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom Erdogan considers the mastermind behind the 2016 coup. The latest conflict came about because in 2017, Erdogan, despite NATO’s protests, opted for Russia’s S-400 air defense system. After the first parts were delivered, Washington imposed sanctions and, among other things, ended Turkish participation in the construction of the F-35 fighter aircraft—an unprecedented move within NATO.

Within a few years, “zero problems” had become “fault lines everywhere.” At the same time, Turkey pursued the increasingly blatant, expansive, and often aggressive policy of a major power. It massively built up its economic, political, and military presence in many countries within its broader periphery, for example in Africa.

Scrawling Lines of Alliance

In the Libyan civil war, one can see how Turkish foreign policy’s lines of alliance constantly cross, how erratic they actually are. In Libya, Turkey militarily supports the UN-recognized government of national unity in Tripoli, while Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates are on the side of the antagonist, General Chalifa Haftar. Turkish troops are stationed in northern Syria and northern Iraq. In the dispute over gas deposits in the eastern Mediterranean, Ankara is provoking EU member states Greece and Cyprus with test drilling in disputed waters. Around the Black Sea, Turkey is competing with Russia for influence. In the Armenian-Azerbaijani war, Erdogan supported Azerbaijan with Turkish drones, while Russian President Vladimir Putin backed the Armenians. Russia functions as a friendly adversary, or hostile friend.

Turkey is a country that is too big to be subordinate and too small to be able to impose its ambitions everywhere. In Ankara, there has recently been an apparent realization that Turkey cannot solve the problems in the region on its own. And so, the Turkish government announced that it was striving to create “a ‘problem-free circle’ with its close regional allies.” This sounds a bit like a new edition of “zero problems,” albeit under different auspices. This includes that Ankara has started talking to Cairo again last year, followed by the reconciliation with Israel. After the Israeli government had managed to normalize its relations with a number of Arab countries in the context of the Abraham Accords, Turkey feared to be left on the sidelines. Also with the Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates which used to be bitter opponents, a busy travel diplomacy has been initiated. One needs to be able to afford enemies—and Ankara presently is not. Rather, it needs money.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that Turkey consistently vacillates between zero problems and only problems. It is in a supremely complex situation, led by a man who feels persecuted and who has no plans to give up power. To be both friends and enemies with Putin is hard to explain without taking into account both men’s personalities and their shared status as aging autocrats without an exit strategy. Both have been in power for about two decades, and both despise liberal democracy. Both rule countries that emerged from empires and still suffer from the loss of those empires today. Both suppress opposition and civil society, although Putin has had more success with this than the Turkish president, whose country still has a genuine opposition and elections worthy of the name.

Erdogan has made no secret in the past of the fact that he wants to reduce Turkey’s dependence on the West. His strategic friendship with Putin should help him do so. The flip side of this strategy is a new dependence. Turkey meets about half of its natural gas needs with supplies from Russia. The situation is similar with oil, where the Russian share is about 40 percent. Moreover, Turkey gets about 70 percent of its wheat from Russia. The tourism industry is also worried: 4.5 million Russian tourists visited Turkey last year, and this year there should have been even more—but now the war and sanctions are getting in the way. Hardly any Russians want to be stranded in front of an ATM on the Turkish Riviera in their flipflops. So, it's little wonder that Erdogan has not agreed to sanctions as of yet. 

However, Turkey also has very good relations with Ukraine. Russian tourists were joined by more than 2 million Ukrainian tourists in 2021, and the Turks import Ukrainian wheat and sunflower oil. Ankara strongly condemned the annexation of Crimea in 2014, which broke international law, because it sees itself as a kind of protective power of the Muslim Crimean Tatars. The Turkish government has called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine an “unacceptable” violation of Ukrainian sovereignty. Shortly before Putin launched his attack, Erdogan had traveled to Kyiv, where he was received with military honors. He and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a free trade agreement and agreed to deepen their arms cooperation.

Swing toward the West?

The Ukraine war has now burst in on this tangle of contradictions. As long as the West was not united regarding Russia, Ankara had enough leeway to pursue its seesaw policy; now, however, the West is moving closer together and as a result Turkey is under pressure.

The Turkish government was correspondingly hesitant at first. It took several days before it referred to the war as such, because it also entailed the obligation to close the Dardanelles and the Bosporus to Russian warships, as stipulated in the Montreux Treaty. And when the Kremlin complained that Turkish drones were being used in the war against Russian soldiers, Deputy Foreign Minister Yavuz Selim Kıran asserted that Kyiv had bought the drones from a private company and that the deal was not an expression of official policy (he failed to mention that the manufacturing company is owned by the family of Erdogan's son-in-law). Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute summed this up with the neat formula of “pro-Ukrainian neutrality.”

For now, the Turkish government has sought its salvation in the role of mediator, and it has had some success. Twice in March, it succeeded in bringing together the warring parties in Turkey. In substance, the results were straightforward but Turkish and international commentators alike attested to Turkey’s improved image. “Turkey will soon run out of red carpets,” a Turkish journalist stated when German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg traveled to Turkey in quick succession.

Rationally speaking, the new confrontation between the West and Russia could reduce complexity for Turkey, namely if the country turns more toward the West again instead of toward a presumably weakened post-war Russia. The question is whether Erdogan, with a foreign policy so associated with him personally, will be able to do so, especially since, domestically, the stakes are once again high for him.

Some observers, meanwhile, believe the war could also burnish Erdogan's image. For the AKP leadership, the Ukraine crisis is “a god-sent opportunity to swing the 2023 elections,” writes journalist Pınar Tremblay. Erdogan could use the war to justify the poor economic situation, whereas so far he has been criticized mainly for his own lousy crisis management; there could also be a strong-man effect, and in times of uncertainty people might be less inclined to place their trust in a new government. Erdogan’s poll numbers are still poor, however, with some polling institutes seeing his alliance as being behind that of the opposition for the first time.

If Erdogan really does move closer to the West again, which is the hope of many, he will face another problem: He will have to convince a large part of the population that is anti-Western. Turkey has always been the NATO member with the most skeptical population, and this has not changed; on the contrary. For years Erdogan stirred up this resentment; he cannot now simply make it disappear. In a Metropoll poll in March, 48 percent of respondents said Washington and NATO were responsible for the escalation in Ukraine.

In addition, Erdogan’s coalition partner, the staunchly nationalist MHP, has brought forces into the state apparatus that feel closer to an autocratic Russia than to the United States or Europe. Without them, however, Erdoğan cannot win the next elections. Therefore, his personal power logic does not necessarily follow a conceivable new rationale for Turkish foreign and alliance policy.

Erdogan has long seen himself and Turkey as global players; as leaders in a new world order in which Russia and China matter. The fact that the West has often appeared divided confirmed this assessment for him. Now Europe and the US have unexpectedly moved closer together; under the pressure of events, they are tinkering with a new security architecture for the new era. “Turkey is a strong member of NATO,” Ankara affirms. It is quite possible that Turkey is rediscovering the value of Western ties, in times of economic hardship and global political uncertainty. But many questions remain unanswered. For example, whether the policy of bridge-building will endure or fall victim to Erdoğan’s domestic political calculations at the next opportunity, as has often been the case. And also, what place Turkey sees for itself in the new security architecture if it cannot foreseeably free itself from its dependence on Russia.

Is Erdogan, or his country at large, now a player or a pawn? Neither. Turkey's president is a juggler—in a hurricane.

Luisa Seeling is Head of Writing, Editing, and Communications at the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV). She used to cover Turkey for Süddeutsche Zeitung where she worked as an editor on the foreign desk.