Ukraine’s War Is Erdogan’s Opportunity

Turkey’s president is seizing on Europe’s crisis to establish his own country’s independent power.

Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Cook-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist4
Steven A. Cook
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviews the guard of honour upon his arrival during a welcome ceremony ahead of a meeting with Ukrainian President, in Kiev, on October 9, 2017.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviews the guard of honour upon his arrival during a welcome ceremony ahead of a meeting with Ukrainian President, in Kiev, on October 9, 2017.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan reviews the guard of honour upon his arrival during a welcome ceremony ahead of a meeting with Ukrainian President, in Kiev, on October 9, 2017. SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Russia’s war in Ukraine presents an opportunity for Turkey. That’s not because—as Ankara’s supporters and propagandists in Washington would have people believe—Turkey is or wants to be a bulwark against Russia as it was during the Cold War. That’s a narrative manufactured for the benefit of busy members of Congress and their staffers. Turkey simply does not want to be assigned the role, once again, of sentry on NATO’s southeastern flank.

Rather, the opportunity for Turkey in the present crisis is the product of a messier reality connected to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party’s conception of Turkey as a power in its own right, the threat of Kurdish separatism at home and in Syria, and disappointments that have festered and accumulated into grudges against those who are supposed to be Turkey’s most important allies—the United States and Europe.

The combination of these aspirations and traumas compelled Erdogan to seek out his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, relatively early in the crisis. The resulting dialogue and expansion of bilateral relations––despite differences between Turkey and Russia in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and apparently Ukraine––sowed further mistrust between Ankara and its Western partners. Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system forced the United States to apply sanctions on the Turkish defense sector. Calls to expel Turkey from NATO—something that the alliance’s founding documents do not allow—welled up once again, along with more serious questions about Ankara’s foreign-policy orientation. Was it still a part of the West? Was it moving East? Was Turkey making a bid for leadership in the Middle East? The Eastern Mediterranean? The Muslim world? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

Russia’s war in Ukraine presents an opportunity for Turkey. That’s not because—as Ankara’s supporters and propagandists in Washington would have people believe—Turkey is or wants to be a bulwark against Russia as it was during the Cold War. That’s a narrative manufactured for the benefit of busy members of Congress and their staffers. Turkey simply does not want to be assigned the role, once again, of sentry on NATO’s southeastern flank.

Rather, the opportunity for Turkey in the present crisis is the product of a messier reality connected to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party’s conception of Turkey as a power in its own right, the threat of Kurdish separatism at home and in Syria, and disappointments that have festered and accumulated into grudges against those who are supposed to be Turkey’s most important allies—the United States and Europe.

The combination of these aspirations and traumas compelled Erdogan to seek out his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, relatively early in the crisis. The resulting dialogue and expansion of bilateral relations––despite differences between Turkey and Russia in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and apparently Ukraine––sowed further mistrust between Ankara and its Western partners. Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system forced the United States to apply sanctions on the Turkish defense sector. Calls to expel Turkey from NATO—something that the alliance’s founding documents do not allow—welled up once again, along with more serious questions about Ankara’s foreign-policy orientation. Was it still a part of the West? Was it moving East? Was Turkey making a bid for leadership in the Middle East? The Eastern Mediterranean? The Muslim world? The answer to all of these questions is yes.

Erdogan has always been as lucky as he is shrewd. He has been blessed with an incompetent opposition and an American ally that has been willing to look past his domestic excesses for flimsy geostrategic reasons (three decades after the Cold War) and sentimentality for the era when Americans and Turks stood shoulder to shoulder against the Soviets. The Ukrainian maelstrom may be another one of Erdogan’s fortunes, giving him an opportunity to reprieve Turkey’s role as a regional troubleshooter and, in the process, advance the idea that Turkey is a global leader, ranking with players like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

Just a few months ago, Turkey was isolated internationally. Ankara’s relations with Europe were fraught after spending the better part of two years menacing Cyprus and Greece, threatening to unleash refugees on Europeans, and clashing with the French over Libya. In the Middle East, Ankara had difficult—even hostile—relations with every major country in the region. Turkey’s ties with the Saudis, Emiratis, Egyptians, and Israelis had deteriorated so much that those countries were linking up to oppose Ankara around the region and beyond. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration mostly ignored Turkey and Erdogan, save the occasional criticism from the State Department podium. By late 2021, with Turkey isolated and experiencing an acute currency crisis, Ankara sought to repair the damage it had brought upon itself. There was an air of desperation to it all, however.

Then Russia invaded Ukraine. Almost immediately, two opposing accounts of Turkey’s response to the war developed. One claimed that Erdogan’s support for Ukraine’s independence, Ankara’s willingness to supply lethal drones to Kyiv, and the closure of the Bosphorus Strait was proof positive of the argument they had been making all along: Turkey was and remains a critical component of Western security. The other argued that there was less to Turkey’s alleged pro-Ukraine position than Ankara’s cheerleaders suggested. Critics highlighted the fact that the Turkish government had not sanctioned Russia, that Turkey’s airspace remained open to Russian planes, and that the superyachts of Russian oligarchs were showing up in Bodrum and Marmaris with the apparent approval of the Turkish government. This may have less to do with a pro-Russia policy in Ankara than the links between Russian and Turkish oligarchs, and the latter’s rumored connection to Erdogan, however.

Setting aside the information warfare between pro- and anti-Erdogan groups, the very fact that Turkey can neither be entirely pro-Ukraine nor entirely anti-Putin provides an opportunity for Erdogan to resume a role he played in the mid-2000s, while reinforcing the idea of Turkish power and independence in a way that is not just trolling the West. Few remember it, given the needlessly aggressive nature of Turkish foreign policy in recent years, but between roughly 2005 and 2011, the Turkish government sought to play a constructive role in the Middle East: overseeing indirect negotiations between Syrians and Israelis, deploying peacekeepers to Lebanon, seeking to outmaneuver Iran in Syria, and leveraging its economic weight to drive good relations between Ankara and a variety of countries in the region.

It seems there is an opportunity in Ukraine to reprieve this role. Critics have pooh-poohed Turkish mediation as merely an effort to match or one-up other would-be mediators (especially the Israelis) or as cover for Ankara’s pro-Russian position. There is a compelling logic to both critiques. Erdogan does not like to be overshadowed, especially by the Israeli prime minister, and Turkey has needed Russian forbearance so it could conduct military operation in Syria. Yet critics overlook what Erdogan brings to bear at the negotiating table––notably, his relationship with Putin. Few leaders with perhaps the exception of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have spent more time with the Russian leader than Erdogan.

Of course, Putin is not known to accept the counsel of others, but Erdogan is better positioned than others to play this role. He is charismatic, a fellow strongman, and someone with whom cooperation—even in the face of profound policy differences—seems possible. The two men have done business before. And Erdogan is the leader of an important NATO country and thus a conduit to Washington and Brussels.

Would this bring the Russian war on Ukraine to an end? Putin is in too deep to declare victory and go home, but Erdogan can be helpful in efforts to establish humanitarian corridors and to deliver essential relief to Ukrainians in need. These are, of course, things that are easier said than done, but there does not seem to be a country better positioned than Turkey to try. The round of talks that ended in Istanbul on Tuesday hold out the hope of a cease-fire, providing much-needed relief for Ukrainians under siege.

Whether that cease-fire materializes or not, the good news for Erdogan is that he does not need to succeed to reclaim and reinforce the idea that Turkey can be a constructive actor in Europe, the Middle East, and the Eastern Mediterranean. It would also advance Ankara’s narrative that it is a leader in these regions. Odd as it is, but it may very well be that Turkey’s decision to purchase the S-400s and what that has meant for relations between Ankara and Moscow could—if Erdogan plays it right—be a critical factor in a return of Turkey’s power and prestige. It is sometimes better to be lucky than smart.

Steven A. Cook is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East. Twitter: @stevenacook

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