Europe’s day of infamy
February 24, 2022, when Russia invaded a sovereign European state, Ukraine,
will go down in history as a day of infamy, which U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt called December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. This day signals the end of the rules-based international order established by the United Nations in 1945.
It is still an open question how far China’s leader Xi Jinping will back Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move, but the question is what stand Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will take. So far Erdoğan has in an awkward balance succeeded in running with the hare and hunting with the hounds.
Since 1952 Turkey has been a member of NATO, which in its Preamble reaffirms its faith in the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter and democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law. President Erdoğan has in the present conflict called for the application of common sense and international law, both of which Russia’s president has blatantly violated.
Earlier, Turkey had been one of NATO’s solid pillars. But with the advent of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002, there has been a change of emphasis to the detriment of NATO’s founding principles.
In 2012, İbrahim Kalın, who is now President Erdoğan’s spokesperson, gave a keynote speech at the Istanbul Forum, where he outlined a new geopolitical framework and rejected the European model of secular democracy, politics and pluralism.
Six years later, Ayşe Sözen Usluer, then Erdoğan’s head of international relations, stated that Ankara had long preferred to diversify its foreign policy choices. “For the last 10-15 years in particular, Turkey has not felt the need to choose between the West and the East, or between the United States and Russia. Turkey no longer sees its foreign policy within the framework of the Cold War or East vs. West alliances,” she said.
Consequently, Turkey felt free to purchase Russia’s S-400 missile defence system and transfer more than $20 billion to Iran in defiance of U.S. sanctions. Both have caused the United States to question Turkey’s credibility. U.S. President Joe Biden’s apparently lax policy towards Turkey has also come under fire.
In 2013, İbrahim Kalın plaintively tweeted of Turkey’s “precious loneliness” in the Middle East, which has since developed into isolation. The Abraham Accords with Israel only served to emphasize this isolation, which is why President Erdoğan has been engaged in intense diplomatic activity, for example, with the Emirates and Israel, to mend fences.
The perilous state of Turkey’s economy and the fact that next year Erdoğan and the AKP face re-election add urgency to his overtures.
When it comes to Russia, it has always been Putin who has had the long end of the stick, which was proved when a Russian fighter jet was shot down by Turkish F-16s in November 2015.
Putin made it clear that Russia’s response would not be limited to an embargo on Turkish tomatoes but was extended to a ban on charter flights to Turkey, a suspension of the TurkStream natural gas pipeline project and construction of the Akkuyu nuclear power plant in southern Turkey. This in turn elicited an apology from Erdoğan, which was timely in view of Russia’s support for Erdoğan in connection with the attempted coup in July.
Turkish tourism has also been given a boost with the massive influx of Russian tourists, but Russia’s refusal to allow Turkey access to Syrian air space blocked a planned fourth offensive against the Syrian Kurds. This could be in retaliation for Moscow’s concerns about military and technical cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine, in particular the purchase by Kiev of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 armed drones. Turkey and Ukraine have also agreed to coproduce the drones.
Turkey’s presence and expansion in Syria is on sufferance, which was underlined by Turkey’s invasion and occupation of the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in northwestern Syria in 2018. This was first greenlighted in Moscow at a meeting between Russia’s defence minister and chief of staff with Turkey’s chief of staff and head of the National Intelligence Agency (MİT).
Turkey’s insecure presence in Idlib province and the threat of a million more Syrian refugees is only held in abeyance by Russia’s refusal – so far – not to support a massive offensive by Assad’s forces against the last remaining opposition from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has made it clear that Russia has never truly considered Turkey as a strategic ally but only as a close partner. Even though Turkey has refused to recognise Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, Erdoğan failed to back this up with sanctions.
Even though Turkey’s president takes “a principled position” on Russia’s moves against Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, there is no likelihood this will be backed up by action. Despite the close relations between Turkey and Ukraine – last year it was Ukraine’s largest foreign investor – Turkey is not expected to upset the apple cart.
Turkey’s response has been met with a shoulder shrug. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov did not expect differences between Russia and Turkey over Ukraine would prevent Moscow and Ankara from maintaining ties.
One unfortunate consequence is that President Erdoğan’s credibility together with Turkey’s economy continues to collapse.