Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why the West Should Make Peace With Erdogan Now

He is the one unsavory character the West urgently needs better relations with.

By , a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Erdogan in Albania
Erdogan in Albania
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a press conference in Tirana, Albania on Jan. 17. GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP via Getty Images

The democratic West has a long and controversial history of entering alliances of convenience with dictators and strongmen around the world—unsavory but necessary partners in confronting threats to the international order. Denounced as ethically dubious, this sort of stance is also realist, balance-of-power politics par excellence. It enabled the world to unite to defeat Adolf Hitler in World War II and the West to win the Cold War.

Atop the list of unsavory partners the West urgently needs better relations with today sits Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That he is unsavory is clear: He has actively undermined Turkish democracy, undone decades of liberalization, weaponized migration, terrorized the Kurdish minority both at home and in neighboring Syria, and helped Iran violate U.S. sanctions. Most recently, he has threatened to block NATO membership for Sweden and Finland. It will take a long time before the West can genuinely trust him.

However, the reality is that the West needs Erdogan more than ever. Russia’s brutal, all-out war against Ukraine has vastly raised Turkey’s profile on the geostrategic chessboard. Ankara has emerged as a key supplier of drones to Kyiv—shipments it has luckily shown no intention of halting. Ukraine’s chances of victory would be significantly improved if Turkish arms deliveries were expanded. Erdogan, who controls access to the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits, crucially shut the passage to warships in late February.

The democratic West has a long and controversial history of entering alliances of convenience with dictators and strongmen around the world—unsavory but necessary partners in confronting threats to the international order. Denounced as ethically dubious, this sort of stance is also realist, balance-of-power politics par excellence. It enabled the world to unite to defeat Adolf Hitler in World War II and the West to win the Cold War.

Atop the list of unsavory partners the West urgently needs better relations with today sits Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That he is unsavory is clear: He has actively undermined Turkish democracy, undone decades of liberalization, weaponized migration, terrorized the Kurdish minority both at home and in neighboring Syria, and helped Iran violate U.S. sanctions. Most recently, he has threatened to block NATO membership for Sweden and Finland. It will take a long time before the West can genuinely trust him.

However, the reality is that the West needs Erdogan more than ever. Russia’s brutal, all-out war against Ukraine has vastly raised Turkey’s profile on the geostrategic chessboard. Ankara has emerged as a key supplier of drones to Kyiv—shipments it has luckily shown no intention of halting. Ukraine’s chances of victory would be significantly improved if Turkish arms deliveries were expanded. Erdogan, who controls access to the Black Sea through the Turkish Straits, crucially shut the passage to warships in late February.

At the same time, Ankara has also been willing to cooperate with Moscow on Ukraine where Erdogan sees an opportunity. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu discussed plans to secure a route for Ukrainian grain exports with his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, in Ankara on June 8, reportedly asking for a 25 percent discount on Turkish grain purchases as part of the deal. Without Ankara on board, any Western proposals to break the Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports are dead on arrival.

The West also needs Turkey on its side in the economic war against Russia. Ankara’s support alone can restrict the flow of sanctioned Russian goods in and out of the Black Sea, which continue even as Ukrainian ships are stuck in port. Ankara’s help is crucial in cutting ratlines for Russian money and kleptocrats. Turkey has become a major destination for Russian money (and oligarchs’ yachts) fleeing sanctions and plays a growing role in supporting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new autarkic economy. Turkey is one of the few major countries that freely accept Russian payment, undercutting the impact of Western banking sanctions. Bringing Turkey onboard would plug one of the largest holes in the sanctions regime.

Russia’s brutal, all-out war against Ukraine has vastly raised Turkey’s profile on the geostrategic chessboard.

But most importantly, Turkey will be a key player in the reordering of European energy supplies, not least because it controls energy access through a number of crucial pipelines. The key to Europe’s Southern Gas Corridor strategy, for example, is gas from Azerbaijan supplied via Turkey’s Trans-Anatolian and Trans-Adriatic pipelines—inaugurated in 2018 and 2020, respectively—and feeding into the European gas grid in the Balkans and Italy.

Erdogan is also actively seeking to develop Turkey’s own gas resources and potentially even link Israeli and Cypriot offshore gas fields to the European pipeline network. Such efforts are of course complicated by Greco-Turkish disputes over Cyprus and its surrounding waters. A revived European-Turkish partnership may be the only way the Eastern Mediterranean’s rich energy resources can be fully utilized. Such a partnership might also nudge Erdogan to make an about-face vis-à-vis Russia, where the inauguration of the TurkStream pipeline in 2020 signaled a new high point in Turkish-Russian relations.

Finally, aligning with Erdogan would offer the West more geostrategic leverage over the Kremlin beyond the war in Ukraine. Turkey is also a key player in three additional conflicts where Russia is involved: Syria, Libya, and the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. Erdogan moved from a policy of benign neglect to active intervention in these conflicts over the past decade, motivated by a desire to boost Turkey’s role as a regional power independent of the West. A resumed partnership with Erdogan offers further pressure points in the effort to constrain Moscow’s global influence.

For Erdogan’s drift away from the West and closer relations with Moscow to be reversed, it is important to understand what motivated it. Today, the West is paying a price for failing to listen to his concerns. The drift initially began in 2011, as the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East. Erdogan was ebullient, as the uprisings offered the prospect of bringing Islamists similar to himself to power across the region. He felt betrayed when then-U.S. President Barack Obama failed to uphold his redlines in Syria and abandoned then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and publicly backed by Erdogan, when the Egyptian military ousted Morsi in a coup. “Turkey has learned the hard way that the U.S. is unwilling to invest in the region,” Muhammet Kocak, an international relations specialist based in Ankara, told me. Similarly, “Turkey’s security concerns have not been perceived as a particularly relevant issue in the NATO agenda,” said Elizabete Aunina, a doctoral researcher at the University of Amsterdam focused on Turkish security policy.

But what accelerated Erdogan’s drift away from the West—and shift to Moscow—was his sense of betrayal after the 2016 failed Turkish coup, which he publicly accused the United States of fostering. He also felt abandoned by his NATO allies when Washington withdrew its Patriot missile defense systems from Turkey and when NATO barely even reacted after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter aircraft intruding on its airspace, the first such incident involving NATO and Russian or Soviet airpower in 60 years. Since then, Erdogan felt that Moscow offered a better route to improving his regional and domestic position.

Turkish-Russian cooperation since then includes the TurkStream pipeline, plans for Russia to build a $20 billion nuclear power plant in Turkey, and the 2017 announcement that Ankara would buy Moscow’s S-400 missile defense system. And although Turkey and Russia have occasionally sparred—they back differing sides in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, for example—relations have remained broadly warm and manageable. That only increases the potential strategic leverage the West would gain if it reversed Erdogan’s orientation.

What carrot could the West offer Erdogan for abandoning Moscow? Turkey’s economic crisis may be just the opportunity. With annual inflation reaching 73.5 percent in May, currency reserves near all-time lows, and the Turkish lira down by 30 percent versus the dollar year-to-date following a 44 percent drop in 2021, Turkey’s risk of default has spiked. Foreign investors have fled the market. Desperately searching for fresh foreign capital, Erdogan even patched up relations with his key regional rival, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It would be better for the West to offer Erdogan an economic lifeline than to allow Moscow to do so. The U.S. Federal Reserve and European Central Bank, for example, should consider offering Erdogan a currency swap line, a stabilizing instrument they have significantly expanded in recent decades. Access to dollars and euros could alleviate many of Ankara’s mounting economic challenges and set the stage for a more cooperative partnership.

Erdogan knows he has a strong hand and is likely to make other demands. He has already exerted his leverage over Sweden’s and Finland’s desired accession to NATO, linking it to a freer hand for Turkey against the Syrian Kurds, who have been the West’s valiant allies in the fight against the Islamic State. Earlier this month, Erdogan announced plans for a new operation targeting them. He may well make demands about other regional interests, and he will certainly seek to blunt Western criticism of his domestic governance. These concessions could prove costly to other Western interests.

There is clear hesitancy to engage Erdogan at the moment. The West’s strategy appears to be to “count on the possibility Erdogan will lose the [June 2023] elections,” according to Kocak. Counting on Erdogan to allow a free and fair election and a potential peaceful transfer of power a year from now is idealistic at best and hopelessly naive at worst.

Erdogan is an unsavory character and will likely remain one. But it is in the West’s interest that he be on its side—not Russia’s—in order to weaken Putin and ensure Ukraine’s survival. The opportunity is there, and it would be unwise of the West not to try.

Maximilian Hess is a Central Asia fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin
A closeup of Russian President Vladimir Putin

What Russia’s Elites Think of Putin Now

The president successfully preserved the status quo for two decades. Suddenly, he’s turned into a destroyer.

A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa
A member of the Zimbabwe Republic Police is seen in front of an electoral poster of President Emmerson Mnangagwa

Cafe Meeting Turns Into Tense Car Chase for U.S. Senate Aides in Zimbabwe

Leading lawmaker calls on Biden to address Zimbabwe’s “dire” authoritarian turn after the incident.

Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.
Steam rises from cooling towers at the Niederaussem coal-fired power plant during the coronavirus pandemic near Bergheim, Germany, on Feb. 11, 2021.

Putin’s Energy War Is Crushing Europe

The big question is whether it ends up undermining support for Ukraine.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.
U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres attends a press conference.

A Crisis of Faith Shakes the United Nations in Its Big Week

From its failure to stop Russia’s war in Ukraine to its inaction on Myanmar and climate change, the institution is under fire from all sides.