Turkey Draws Closer to the US and Europe

M. K. Bhadrakumar
A US Navy destroyer crosses the Bosphorus to enter the Black Sea, as tensions simmer around Ukraine. (File photo) 

Being a “swing state” may have tactical advantages but when life gets tough and the tough gets going, there could be consequences. Turkey once faced such a moment of truth a hundred years ago. It faces a similar predicament today.

At a meeting on Thursday in Ankara with the European Union ambassadors, Turkish President called for bold action in developing relations between the two sides in 2022. He said full membership of the EU still remains Turkey’s strategic priority and it is “in our common interest to act with a long-term strategic perspective rather than prejudices or fears.”

According to Erdogan, Turkey-EU cooperation is vital and without Turkey’s “extraordinary efforts, Syria and Europe would have faced a different landscape.” Erdogan’s poser to Brussels assumes significance.

Ankara has convinced itself that Washington is keen to revive its problematic relationship with Turkey, since, as a commentary in the pro-government Sabah newspaper noted this week, 

“After all, at this very moment, the position that Turkey will take in the confrontation between Russia, the NATO alliance and the United States is more vital than ever. As a proven and indispensable member of NATO, Turkey is an important strategic partner for both sides.”

Expectations are high in Ankara after reports appeared in the Greek media earlier this week that Washington has had a rethink on the so-called EastMed project, a 1900-kilometre subsea pipeline designed to supply Europe with natural gas from the eastern Mediterranean.

To recap, Greece, Cyprus, and Israel had signed an agreement in 2020 for the construction of the pipeline to deliver natural gas from their gas fields in Eastern Mediterranean to Europe by 2025. The project was expected to initially carry 10 bcm of gas a year to Europe.

The 6 billion euro project had robust US backing and a final investment decision was expected this year but in a statement on Sunday, the US State Department said it no longer supported the project, since Washington was shifting its focus to electricity interconnectors that can support both gas and renewable energy sources.

The statement said, “We remain committed to physically interconnecting East Med energy to Europe. We support projects such as the planned EuroAfrica interconnector from Egypt to Crete and the Greek mainland, and the proposed EuroAsia interconnector to link the Israeli, Cypriot and European electricity grids.”

US backing is crucial for the project’s viability and Turkey is inclined to read political meaning into Washington’s U-turn. Ankara had strongly opposed the pipeline’s route through disputed maritime territories claimed by both Turkey and Greece.

This is a major political decision by Washington, which knew that Israel had hoped to earn huge income out of exporting gas to Europe from its massive Leviathan and Tamar fields.

Turkey has approached the new year with the assessment that during 2022, it is going to be wooed as ally by the NATO and the EU. In anticipation, Ankara proposed to Washington in late December the establishment of a “joint strategic mechanism”.

Erdogan’s key aide Ibrahim Kalın followed up the initiative with the US National Security Advisor on January 10. According to a statement by Ankara, within the scope of global and regional issues, views were exchanged on the Ukraine crisis, the protests in Kazakhstan, the normalisation process with Armenia, the developments in Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Ethiopia.

The statement said Kalın conveyed to Sullivan that the Ukraine crisis should be resolved through dialogue and cooperation and Turkey is ready to contribute in every possible way. Furthermore, Kaln underlined importance of the “protection” of Ukraine’s territorial integrity. (Turkey has a dynamic military relationship with Ukraine, especially in supplying attack drones.)

In a related development, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar revealed last  Saturday that Turkish and US officials are preparing to hold negotiations in Washington to discuss F-35 fighter jets, and “preparations are underway.” That is to say, Washington and Ankara are addressing Turkey’s removal as a partner from the American F-35 fighter jet programme following the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems.

Akar was cautiously optimistic that an acceptable solution may be found. Turkey was a partner in the F-35 programme and had planned to buy a hundred F-35As jets. Curiously, although Turkey was excluded from the F-35 fighter programme and its Defence Industry Directorate is facing US sanctions since 2020, Turkish contractors are still manufacturing parts for the fifth-generation jet.

Meanwhile, on a parallel track, Erdogan also proposed to President Biden last November to purchase 40 new F-16 fighter jets and about 80 modernisation kits to upgrade Turkey’s existing fleet.

Clearly, notwithstanding a welter of bilateral disagreements ranging from Syria policy to sovereign rights in the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, Turkey has been exploring avenues for positive dialogue with the US. Ankara estimates that although Turkey is a toxic subject in the Beltway, the Biden Administration is not willing to go for a rupture.

Suffice to say, Erdogan has been hoping that the US attitudes to Turkey might change now that Ankara’s stance vis-a-vis the great power competition becomes consequential.

Indeed, Turkey’s role in the Black Sea region, Ukraine, the near alignment in Ankara’s and Washington’s interests in Iraq and Libya, Turkey’s growing footprint in sub-Saharan Africa (where Russian and Chinese influence is expanding) — all this can be “game changer” in the co-relation of forces today.

However, Erdogan’s main problem is his own credibility. His hobnobbing with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria apart, he turned his back on the West and sought Eurasian integration and even toyed with the strange idea of Turkey’s SCO membership.

Turkey’s Arab neighbours viewed his neo-Ottoman ambitions with distaste and suspicion. In reality, Erdogan is returning home like a prodigal son. Yet he is fantasising that he is indispensable to the West, NATO and Russia. The truth is, the West may accept Turkey back, but will they accept Erdogan? 

Erdogan is trying hard. Turkey took 8 days to react to the recent developments in Kazakhstan. It has not gone unnoticed. President Tokayev repeatedly alleged that extremists and terrorists from the Middle East were involved in stoking the unrest in his country who were trained by foreign powers and were battle-hardened. Kazakh officials say the plot was masterminded from “a single source.”

It doesn’t need much ingenuity to guess who that “single source” could be. It simply cannot be Turkey. But among the large number of militants who have been detained and are being interrogated by Kazakh authorities, there is a large number of foreigners, possibly in their hundreds, including Americans and Turks.

The point is, Turkey has been promoting an Islamic identity among Kazakhs and facilitating and supporting the Kazakh militants’ participation in the conflict in Syria. The nexus between nationalists and mafia elements in Turkey and Kazakhstan is an open secret. 

The Russian media has reported a surge in tensions on the Armenian-Azerbaijani border while the CSTO peacekeeping mission was helping to stabilise the situation in Kazakhstan, with Armenia chairing the post-Soviet bloc.

The influential Moscow daily Kommersant wrote on Thursday that the CSTO mission to Kazakhstan was actively criticised in the Turkish and Azerbaijani media outlets although “no dissatisfaction has been expressed officially.”

Erdoğan conducted his first telephone conversation of 2022 with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin on the eve of the eruption in Kazakhstan. The Kremlin readout said amongst other things that Russia’s proposals to the US and NATO Washington regarding various security guarantees were discussed.

Two days later, foreign minister Çavuşoğlu had a conversation with his US counterpart, Antony Blinken where, according to the Turkish readout, the main topic was the tension between Russia and NATO over Ukraine.Blinken himself tweeted, “Good call with Turkish Foreign Minister @MevlutCavusoglu. The United States and Turkey continue our close coordination on the threat of Russian escalation in Ukraine and, separately, to deepen cooperation bilaterally and as @NATO Allies.”

Two days later, on January 6, Çavuşoğlu also spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The readout said the two discussed the NATO-Russia council meeting, current developments in Kazakhstan, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Caucasus.

Apropos of such “intense diplomatic traffic in Ankara,” pro-Erdogan Sabah newspaper noted: “It is likely in the new year that not only the countries where normalisation steps are ongoing but also NATO and the EU will knock on Turkey’s door much more in 2022, as is the case with Russia.”

Running with the hare and hunting with the hound is exciting and may seem the smart thing to do. But a hundred years ago, Ottoman Turkey paid a heavy price. Its decision to facilitate Germany’s attack on Russia in the Black Sea would ultimately lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Ottoman citizens, the Armenian genocide, the dissolution of the empire, and the abolition of the Islamic Caliphate.