Argument

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What Everyone Gets Wrong About Turkey

Turkey isn’t East or West. It’s Turkey.

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.
Cavusoglu gestures with his hand while speaking. A Turkish flag can be seen behind him.
Cavusoglu gestures with his hand while speaking. A Turkish flag can be seen behind him.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks during a press conference with his German counterpart in Istanbul on July 29, 2022. OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

When I lived in Ankara in the early 2000s, I often spent time with Turks in their 20s and 30s. I recall a particular dinner conversation when we were discussing Turkish foreign policy and the country’s tortured relations with its NATO allies when one of them asked: “Why do Americans and Europeans insist that Turkey is either West or East? Why can’t we just be Turkey?” I fumbled around for an answer citing Turkish interests, the Cold War, and European Union membership before settling on “But Mustafa Kemal Atatürk! He wanted to ‘raise [Turkey] to the level of the most prosperous and civilized nations of the world.’ He meant the West.”

I have thought about my friend’s excellent questions quite a bit in recent years, but especially whenever moments of crisis in U.S.-Turkey ties arise and the inevitable “Who Lost Turkey?” article appears.

Turkey and the United States are in a prolonged period of discord as the policies, goals, and values of the two countries diverge. When Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visits Washington this week to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it seems likely that the top of the agenda will be Turkey’s increasing demands on Sweden to approve Stockholm’s NATO membership, tension in the Aegean Sea, and Ankara’s apparent willingness to normalize relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

When I lived in Ankara in the early 2000s, I often spent time with Turks in their 20s and 30s. I recall a particular dinner conversation when we were discussing Turkish foreign policy and the country’s tortured relations with its NATO allies when one of them asked: “Why do Americans and Europeans insist that Turkey is either West or East? Why can’t we just be Turkey?” I fumbled around for an answer citing Turkish interests, the Cold War, and European Union membership before settling on “But Mustafa Kemal Atatürk! He wanted to ‘raise [Turkey] to the level of the most prosperous and civilized nations of the world.’ He meant the West.”

I have thought about my friend’s excellent questions quite a bit in recent years, but especially whenever moments of crisis in U.S.-Turkey ties arise and the inevitable “Who Lost Turkey?” article appears.

Turkey and the United States are in a prolonged period of discord as the policies, goals, and values of the two countries diverge. When Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu visits Washington this week to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it seems likely that the top of the agenda will be Turkey’s increasing demands on Sweden to approve Stockholm’s NATO membership, tension in the Aegean Sea, and Ankara’s apparent willingness to normalize relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

That last one is an especially dramatic shift for Turkey, whose president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, once led the “Assad must go” chorus. A renewal of Ankara’s relations with Damascus promises to bring an end to the perceived threat the People’s Defense Units (YPG) poses to Turkish security, but it will also make it nearly impossible for the United States to work with this Syrian Kurdish fighting force, which has been Washington’s partner against the Islamic State. To add insult to injury in Washington, the change in Turkish policy is being accomplished with Russia’s encouragement.

Turkey’s relationship with Russia has become a matter of great interest, especially since Russian President Vladmir Putin ordered his military to invade Ukraine last February. Much of the reporting on the issue frames that bilateral relationship in terms of economics, but there is far more to it than just that. Yet this does not mean that Turkey has left the West and aligned with Russia but rather that Ankara refuses the categories of others as it seeks to become a power in its own right.

The reporting on Turkey is not wrong. The dreadful state of the Turkish economy is an important factor in Erdogan’s approach to Russia. He has resisted U.S. pressure to sanction the country, and in 2022, Ankara doubled its trade with Moscow, making Turkey Russia’s third-largest trading partner. Much of this business is in the energy sector. Russia supplies Turkey with significant amounts of gas, oil, and coal—a portion of which the Turks pay in rubles. Building on this trade, Erdogan and Putin met last October in Kazakhstan and agreed to a plan that would make Turkey a hub for Russian gas.

The Turks have long wanted to play this role, which would allow them to resell gas after their domestic needs are satisfied—calculating that it would not only generate revenue and help narrow Ankara’s persistent current account deficits but also give Turkey more clout in Europe, the ostensible destination for the gas. The Turks are already refining cheap Russian crude and reselling it at a markup.

In addition to energy, Turkish companies of all kinds have stepped in when their Western counterparts withdrew from Russia, providing Russian businesses and consumers who were suddenly shut out of markets access to goods and creating new opportunities for Turks. Ankara has also welcomed millions of Russian tourists along with a much smaller set of uber-wealthy oligarchs.

Turkish officials argue that they cannot impose sanctions on Russia without putting the Turkish economy at risk, suggesting—perhaps unintentionally—how important the bilateral relationship has become. Inexpensive Russian energy, the revenue earned from tourists, and the hard currency pouring in from wealthy Russians provide Turkey with a cushion after years of serial economic mismanagement. Yet even though it is true that bilateral economic relations flowered after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ankara was upgrading its economic, diplomatic, and security ties with Moscow well before Putin’s blitz into Ukraine and Turkey’s economic slide.

Washington’s few remaining Turkey supporters who are not on Ankara’s payroll respond to these developments in two different—but not quite convincing—ways. First, they point to the fact that Ankara and Moscow have been on different sides in Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Syria. They also cite Turkish drones and weapons sales to Ukraine, Erdogan’s rhetorical commitment to Ukrainian independence, and the grain deal the Turks brokered that helped avert a global food crisis. Fair enough—but Erdogan and Putin were able to put their differences in the Libya, Syria, and Armenia-Azerbaijan conflicts aside and continue to work together on building stronger economic relations and security ties.

Second, Turkey’s friends argue that whatever is happening between Ankara and Moscow is Washington’s fault. If the United States did not treat Turkey “like shit,” in the words of one former U.S. official, Ankara would happily be a bulwark against Moscow. That was an undiplomatic way of criticizing Washington’s relationship with the YPG and as close to a Turkish talking point as one will get without actually reading from Turkish talking points.

Knowing what we know about the Turkish-Russian relationship, it seems unlikely that Turkey would apply economic sanctions on Moscow and curtail other aspects of the bilateral relationship if Washington dropped the YPG. Regardless, Turkey’s supporters seem so wrapped up in their advocacy that they are unable to assess Ankara’s strategic goals accurately. They are quite right that Turks are aggrieved at the U.S. relationship with a group they believe is indistinguishable from a terrorist organization—the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)—but they fail to recognize that Turkish officials are not interested in replaying the Cold War, during which Turkey was critical to the defense of the West.

If the Turks wanted to be the bulwark their supporters imagine, Ankara would not have purchased Russia’s S-400 air defense system. It also would not have entered into a deal for the Russians to develop the Akkuyu Nuclear Power Plant, which the Russian state-owned energy corporation Rosatom will now own and operate. And in another deal related to Akkuyu, the Turks would not have entered into a contract with the Russians to develop the Port of Mersin. Turkey’s critics have seized on all of this to make the case that Turkey is no longer a reliable partner of the West.

They are correct. Turkey may be a NATO ally, but it is hardly a partner. At the same time, the tendency of Turkey’s detractors to discern Ankara’s divergences from the West as alignment with Russia misapprehends Turkish foreign policy. It is no secret that there is a faction in Ankara that is deeply suspicious of NATO and wants to throw Turkey’s lot in with Moscow. The influence of this group tends to wax and wane, but even at moments when it has held more sway, Erdogan has resisted turning foreign policy over to the so-called Eurasianists. If he did, it would likely result in a break with the West, which despite Turkey’s tightening ties with Russia is not something the Turkish leader wants.

That said, Erdogan does want leverage, and the entire U.S./NATO-Turkey-Russia dynamic gives him an opportunity to try to manipulate Washington and Brussels. For example, when a Turkish defense official raised the possibility of acquiring Russia’s Su-35 fighter plane because members of the U.S. Congress were raising a ruckus about selling Ankara F-16s, it stoked fear in Washington that if Turkey didn’t get the U.S. planes, then the West would lose Ankara. This kind of manipulation is only possible so long as the foreign community sees Turkey as either West or East. Erdogan does not want Turkey to become an asset to Russian foreign policy any more than he wants the country to be viewed strictly as a NATO appendage on the alliance’s southeastern flank.

What’s happening in Turkish foreign policy is consistent with the conversation I had with Turkish friends in Ankara long ago. Turkey may be distancing itself from the United States and NATO, but it is not quite aligning with Russia. It is Turkey.

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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