Turkey’s foreign policy reset

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has prompted a course correction from Ankara

May 04, 2022 12:15 am | Updated 01:37 pm IST

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, hugs Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before a meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on April 28, 2022.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, hugs Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman before a meeting in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, on April 28, 2022. | Photo Credit: AP

The war in Ukraine has encouraged Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to quickly reset relations with his West Asian neighbours so that he is better placed to cope with the serious geopolitical challenges emerging from the conflict.

This process of course-correction began when Israeli president Isaac Herzog visited Turkey on March 9 this year, ending a decade of strained ties, largely on account of Turkey’s support for Palestinian interests. The bonhomie created by the visit has continued, with regular telephonic conversations between the leaders of the two countries and indications that Mr. Erdogan might visit Israel shortly.

The more dramatic Turkish outreach has been to Saudi Arabia, with Mr. Erdogan’s visit on April 28-29. The visit was preceded by the special prosecutor in Turkey transferring the criminal case against 26 Saudi nationals for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to the kingdom itself, thus closing this sensitive and divisive matter. Saudi Arabia reciprocated by removing the ban on the import of Turkish goods, which had reduced Turkish exports from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $200 million last year.

Before his departure, Mr. Erdogan spoke of a “joint will to start a new period of cooperation”, and specifically mentioned energy, health, food security, finance and defence industry as areas to be pursued. During the visit, he had cordial meetings with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and referred to the kingdom as Turkey’s “friend and brother”. Besides boosting bilateral economic ties, regional commentators have referred to prospects for cooperation in promoting regional stability, particularly in matters relating to Syria, Iraq, Egypt and the east Mediterranean.

Turkey’s strategic autonomy

A NATO member since 1952, Turkey, under President Erdogan aspires, as Graham Fuller has said, “to a broad regional leadership, unbeholden to any single country or power”. Convinced that the U.S. had some hand in the attempted coup against him in July 2016, Mr. Erdogan moved closer to Russia and, contrary to NATO rules, even purchased the Russian S-400 missile defence system. Its expulsion from the NATO project to develop the F-35 fighter aircraft has encouraged even greater affinity with Russia.

Russia today provides 52% of Turkey’s gas imports, 65% of its grain requirements, and sends seven million tourists annually who make a significant contribution to the Turkish GDP. Russia is also constructing a nuclear power station that in 2030 will meet 30% of Turkey’s energy needs. Bilateral trade last year was $30 billion.

The two countries are also bonded by the 930-km TurkStream gas pipeline that bypasses Ukraine and links the two countries through the Black Sea.

Turkey has also built close ties with Ukraine. The latter provides nearly 15% of Turkey’s grain imports and also sends annually a million tourists to the country. In early February 2022, the two countries entered into a free trade agreement and a defence cooperation agreement. The latter provides for the supply and joint production of Turkey’s lethal Bayratkar TB2 unmanned drones which have boosted Ukraine’s fighting capabilities in the ongoing conflict with Russia.

On March 29, Turkey hosted the second round of Russia-Ukraine peace talks in Istanbul, amidst some hints of progress at that time. Peace talks have halted since then; recent reports indicate that the western allies are not keen on a quick end to the conflict. At the same time, western nations are pursuing efforts to pull Turkey more deeply into their alliance.

So far, Turkey has remained committed to strategic autonomy. It has described the Ukraine conflict as a “war” and, in terms of the Montreux Convention of 1936, the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits have been closed for naval shipping. Mr. Erdogan has described the war as “unacceptable”, while Turkey’s official media has criticised the Russian attack. Turkey also co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution that “deplored” the Russian invasion. However, Turkey has refused to join its western allies in imposing economic sanctions on Russia, nor has it closed its airspace to Russian traffic. It has also not sent any fresh arms shipments to Ukraine.

Regional geopolitics

The sinking of the Russian Black Sea fleet flagship, Moskva, on 14 April, possibly through missile attacks from Ukraine, has highlighted the strategic significance of the Black Sea. Through its Black Sea fleet, Russia is anxious to project power in the Mediterranean — hence the expansion and modernisation of its bases in the Crimea, Tartous and Hmeimim in Syria, and the consolidation of its military presence in Libya.

These Russian concerns and ambitions impinge on Turkey’s interests. Hence, not surprisingly, they have been on opposite sides over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, when in 2020 Turkey backed Azerbaijan against Armenia, a Russian ally. Turkey has also opposed Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014 on the ground that Russian control over Crimea and the upgradation of Russian naval capabilities will tilt the maritime balance of power in favour of the latter.

In response, Turkey has enhanced its naval prowess in these waters — in April this year, the “Blue Homeland” naval exercises took place in the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, involving 122 ships, 41 aircraft and 12,000 personnel. During these war games, Mr. Erdogan pledged to make Turkey “the most powerful naval force in the region”.

Russia’s plan in the Ukraine war to take full control of the Donbas region in east Ukraine and the Ukrainian coast on the Black Sea, and then take over the Transnistria region on the Ukraine-Moldova border — taken together, this would significantly expand Russian influence and revive the traditional Russian-Ottoman rivalry in the region, when the Ottomans had been backed by western allies, Britain and France.

Turkey’s NATO allies hope that, faced with the challenge of an expansionist Russia, Turkey would return as a compliant member of the trans-Atlantic alliance.

But this seems unlikely. Turkey remains uncomfortable with periodic western criticisms of Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian ways. Turkish public opinion is also largely anti-West. In a survey in January 2022, 39.4% of those polled favoured closer ties with China and Russia, while 37.5% favoured closer relations with the U.S. and the EU; a year earlier, the two figures were, respectively, 27.6% and 40.9%. Again, in geopolitical terms, Turkey sees the need to work closely with Russia to manage its crucial interests in Central and West Asia, the Caucasus and Afghanistan.

As the war continues and there are increasing domestic and regional pressures on Mr. Erdogan, the Turkish leader will need to depend on his substantial capacity as a crisis manager to take his country through these stormy times.

(Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat)

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