Neither east nor west: Turkiye’s travails as a ‘swing state’

MK Bhadrakumar, The Cradle, July 24, 2023 —

Amidst a global power play, Turkiye finds itself at the heart of a high-stakes balancing act, as it struggles to juggle the expectations and pressures from influential players like the US and Russia, with crucial implications for its foreign policy and economy.

The Russian Foreign Ministry website featured two press releases last week on Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s conversations with his Turkish and Iranian counterparts, Hakan Fidan and Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, respectively. The conversations took place at the initiative of the Turkish and Iranian sides.

Lavrov’s conversation with Fidan was business-like and formal, while with Amir-Abdollahian, Russia’s top diplomat, was in a noticeably relaxed freewheeling exchange — “trust-based” and signaling “mutual interest in closely coordinating the approaches” to world politics. (here and here)

The alchemy of the Russian-Turkish relationship has distinctly changed, whereas, the strategic partnership with Iran has consolidated and a high level of maturity and predictability is visible.

Russian concerns and Turkish diplomacy

One recent factor that corrupted the Russian-Turkish relationship is the Kremlin’s unilateral decision to let the Black Sea Grain Initiative expire on 17 July. Ankara tried behind the scenes to avert the moment, but the Russian decision was not Turkiye-centric. Therein lies the hope — and the despair.

Russia has since offered that a new grain deal with Turkiye might be possible if Moscow’s demands are met, announcing works on new export routes. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reciprocated by calling on western countries to “follow up on Putin’s expectations.”

However, the crisis of confidence in the Russian-Turkish relations has a geopolitical dimension, and it concerns the war in Ukraine. Succinctly put, Turkish foreign policies have lately displayed a nuanced “westernism” that affects vital Russian interests.

Indeed, there is no plausible explanation for the sudden visit of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Istanbul on 8 July, the sudden release of notorious Azov commanders who were in Turkish custody per an understanding with Russia on the exchange of prisoners, or the plan to set up a co-production venture in Ukraine for Turkiye’s Bayraktar drones.

One way of looking at such a sharp Turkish turnaround could be that interest groups in Turkiye’s defense industry are being manipulated by Zelensky. Erdogan’s open support for Ukraine’s NATO membership is blatant tokenism.

The big picture is that Zelensky, with encouragement from the US, is looking for opportunities to erode the mutual trust and confidence that has accrued in the Turkish-Russian relationship over recent years, thanks to the hands-on diplomacy between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Anyway, on the eve of the NATO Summit in Vilnius (11-12 July), where Erdogan was expected to meet up with US President Joe Biden (and Zelensky), Lavrov made Moscow’s concerns known to Foreign Minister Hakan in a phone conversation initiated by the latter.

Geopolitical dimensions of the Ukraine crisis

The Russian readout said:

“The sides exchanged opinions on the regional agenda and prioritized the latest developments around Ukraine, including the situation regarding the return of Azov battalion “ringleaders” from Istanbul to Kiev. The Russian side drew the attention of Ankara to the fact that continued deliveries of military equipment to the Kiev regime amounted to a destructive course. It was noted that subsequent steps could only bring about negative consequences.”

When asked about these Turkish moves, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reacted, “certainly, as a modern state, Turkiye has the absolute right to develop relations with any country, including Ukraine. But, being partners with Turkiye, we are hopeful that that relationship will not be aimed against us.”

Peskov described the relations between Russia and Turkiye as “quite close, developed, multifaceted, and mutually beneficial.” However, “there are certain areas where we have differences,” he added. But Peskov also said the the implementation of the joint gas hub project of Russia and Turkiye won’t be affected since the interests of “a very large number of countries in the region, and even European countries” are involved.

Undoubtedly, some questions hang in the air, especially on how keenly the west is seeking to mend diplomatic relations with Erdogan. At the end of the day, Erdogan’s wish list remains fulfilled — Washington’s approval for sale of new F-16 fighter jets and modernization kits; the EU support for resumption of Turkiye’s accession talks; an invitation from Biden to Erdogan to visit Washington: Erdogan has been in power for more than twenty years, and Biden is the only US president who has refused to meet him in an official capacity, either in Washington or in Ankara.

These are complicated issues. The F-16 deal may run into headwinds in the US Congress, where Turkiye is a toxic subject for a variety of reasons. Biden also has to bear in mind the solid backing from the Greek lobby in an election year, which has been an asset in his political life all through.

As for the EU, fundamentally, it is a Christian club that will never admit a Muslim country with a population of 85 million that would upset its ecosystem.

Travails of a ‘swing state’

So, the big question is about Turkiye’s own calculus as a geopolitical “swing state.” The first hint of Erdogan shifting toward orthodox western-oriented economic policy and the muscular diplomacy needed to back it up came in his announcement of a new cabinet on 3 June after a lavish inaugural ceremony in Ankara marking the beginning of his third decade in office.

Erdogan’s  choice of two Wall Street veterans as finance minister and central bank governor — Mehmet Simsek and Hafize Gaye Erkan — provided signs of a potential new direction for his rule, necessitating a rapprochement with the West.

Again, his choice of Hakan Fidan, the longtime head of Turkiye’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT) spy agency as foreign minister to replace tenured diplomat Mevlut Cavusoglu, suggested a future potential shift in Turkiye’s style of foreign relations. Under Fidan, MIT had held secret peace talks with the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) armed group in Oslo, and was also pivotal in the normalization talks with Israel and Syria.

Turkish experts call it “smart diplomacy” — a foreign policy set to advance to a more independent level without severing Turkiye’s relations with the west, which is dynamic but wouldn’t be a radical shift in Turkiye’s international stance, and would further deepen to buttress existing achievements and negotiating in a way that will not exhaust the Turkish economy.

Quintessentially, this entails Turkiye maintaining an attitude of neutrality as far as it can in the highly polarized international situation and the grave uncertainties in its own neighborhood.

The Erdogan-Putin relationship 

As prominent Turkish expert Mehmet Ozkan, Professor of International Relations at the Joint War Institute under the Turkish National Defence University in Istanbul, put it:

“Turkiye is a third path. While building its relations with both the West and the East, Ankara’s policy is one to guarantee its strategic autonomy and ability to move independently in order to avoid being caught between the two blocks.”

But Erdogan also insists that Putin is due to visit him in Turkiye in August. And, the Kremlin remains open to the pattern of intense contact between Moscow and Ankara that Erdogan and Putin have established in recent years.

Equally, Russia has conveyed to Turkiye that the grain deal to which Erdogan was passionately committed is still workable if only the west delivers on its promises to allow Russian exports of wheat and fertilizer to the world market.

However, the zero-sum western mindset expects Erdogan to jettison his friendly ties with Putin and roll back the Turkish-Russian relationship, and also make sure that Ankara will not help Moscow in the conditions under western sanctions. Clearly, the US will not tolerate Turkiye, a NATO member country, gravitating towards the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) or BRICS, or seeking Eurasian integration in any form.

Where US and Turkish interests collide 

Washington basically expects Ankara to dismantle the entire foreign policy architecture that Erdogan built through the past two decades in power, particularly after the US-backed failed coup attempt to overthrow his rule in 2016.

Zelensky’s diplomatic offensive — again, in concert with the US and NATO — aims to bring Erdogan on board a project to establish a new maritime route for grain exports through the northwestern Black Sea region, excluding Russia from it, and instead, pass through the territorial waters of fellow NATO-member Romania, where the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army is deployed.

Quite possibly, this could be a prelude to inserting US/NATO “boots on the ground” into Ukraine eventually. The point is, the US and its allies realize that the battered Ukrainian military cannot possibly defeat Russia, and a Plan B is needed to restrict the Russian forces tactically to the east of the Dnieper River until a Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian military axis, currently being groomed, can be inserted into western Ukraine by autumn.

Meanwhile, the US hopes to pre-empt any Russian offensive toward the hugely strategic port city of Odessa. However, any western attempt to undermine Russia’s traditional regional dominance in the Black Sea is a non-starter without Turkiye’s cooperation. Notably, the paragraph on NATO’s strategic agenda for the Black Sea specifically flagged the 1936 Montreux Convention, which is the essential element in the context of Black Sea security and stability. Biden may reciprocate by allowing the IMF to provide a bailout of the Turkish economy, which is in dire straits.

Erdogan’s tour of the Gulf states last week aimed to create space for Turkiye to negotiate by securing more investments from wealthy West Asian states. According to the official WAM news agency, the signed agreements during Erdogan’s visit to the UAE were “estimated to be worth $50.7 billion.”

The paradox is, the US strategists who began applying the coinage “swing state” to geopolitics in the late 1990s as the “unipolar moment” was fading away, ascribed to Turkiye the classic features of a nation whose affiliations in geopolitics would determine the outcome of big-power rivalry for decades to come. Thus began the agony and ecstasy of Turkiye’s foreign policies.

Today’s travails bear out that this trajectory is not easy. Swinging one side risks punishing revenge by the other side. And at the end of it all, Turkiye might be better off by not swinging at all but sticking to a straight path. Erdogan must be aware of whether he’d feel safe to take a walk in the dark with Biden. If not, his choice is clear — avoid it at all costs.

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