Written by ŞEYMA NAZLI GÜRBÜZ
The S-400 crisis has triggered developments in the international political spectrum that have increased the importance of Turkey finding a balance in its diplomatic ties with the U.S. and Russia
Over the past few years, there has been a rapprochement with Russia in Turkish diplomacy, with the two countries cooperating in multiple fields and somehow managing to overcome their core differences in perspective on regional issues. The country’s ties with the U.S., however, have been quite rocky, due to obstacles that continue to emerge, stopping the NATO members from achieving the solid alliance they desire. Arguably, 2020 has been the year that this duality in Turkish international relations reached its peak, as Ankara escalated efforts to preserve well-established ties with both sides, striking a balance between the two, over 30 years since the end of the infamous Cold War era.
On May 18, during the peak of the first wave of the pandemic, French political scientist Dominique Moisi wrote an article for Institute Montaigne titled “Coronavirus: History’s Great Divider.”
“The Second World War had led to the Cold War. The war against the coronavirus does not create, but gives a spectacular boost, to the Second Cold War, by dividing men even more where the fight against the epidemic could have, on the contrary, brought them together,” Moisi wrote, bringing the Cold War back into the political discussion while underlining the U.S.’ declining power.
This shift in the international political spectrum has affected Turkey’s diplomatic ties as well, putting the country in a position it had successfully managed to avoid for three decades: having to choose sides between the U.S. and Russia. This dichotomy, gradually becoming more apparent in recent years, reached its peak when the U.S. recently announced its decision to impose sanctions on Turkey over the country’s S-400 missile purchase from Russia.
“The thing that pushed Turkey to buy S-400 missiles was the erosion of trust with the U.S.,” said professor Tarık Oğüzlu, an academic at Antalya Science University, analyzing the parameters that lead to the current situation.
The U.S. announced sanctions earlier this month to penalize Turkey for its procurement of Russia’s advanced S-400 missile defense system, under a U.S. law known as CAATSA which aims to push back against Russian influence. It was the first time that CAATSA had been used to penalize a U.S. ally. The sanctions target Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), its chief, Ismail Demir, and three other employees. Turkey maintains that its purchase of the S-400s was not a choice but a necessity as it was unable to procure air defense systems from any NATO ally on satisfactory terms. While Washington says the S-400s pose a threat to its F-35 fighter jets and NATO’s broader defense systems. Turkey, however, stressed that the S-400s would not be integrated into NATO systems and pose no threat to the alliance or its armaments.
“Turkey plays with the balance of power, which is a game that is necessary for the country. “Turkey both says it sides with NATO and it is not obliged to NATO, which is what balanced diplomacy looks like,” Oğuzlu continued.
But this is not the first time Turkey has sought a balance between nations.
Remaining neutral for most of World War II, Turkey declared war against Germany shortly before it drew to a close. Due to the emergence of the Soviet Union as an expansionist power, Turkey made the conscious decision to side with the Western Bloc, becoming a NATO member and benefiting from the Marshall aid provided by the U.S. at the time.
Although some critical topics such as the Cyprus crisis and the infamous Johnson letter forced Turkey to reconsider its full commitment to the U.S. alliance while mending ties with the Soviets, the country remained with the Western Bloc until the end of the Cold War in 1991.
“During most of the Cold War period, Turkey remained in the backwaters of international politics,” says academic Kemal Kirişçi in his 2016 article “Changes in Turkish Foreign Policy Behaviour.”
“Turkey, throughout this period, was a staunch ally of the Western Bloc. Basically, the parameters of its foreign policy behavior were determined by the strategic exigencies of its leading NATO allies. The only few times that Turkey made it to the forefront of international politics was usually in the context of crises in its relations with Greece or Cyprus,” he said.
“Yet,” he continued, “since the end of the Cold War, Turkey suddenly appears to have been propelled to the forefront of international politics.”
Turkey’s efforts to strengthen ties with diverse organizations and countries in the post-Cold War era have often been mistaken as an axis shift stemming from the country’s strained ties with the U.S. and its EU accession process, which has reached an impasse. However, Turkish officials underline that Turkey values its allies but at the same time aims to increase the number of its partners in the international arena. Ankara has long stressed that enhancing ties with a specific country does not necessarily mean giving up on its current allies.
“After the Cold War, Turkey reached a point that enabled consolidation between the East and West, by being the most western point of the east and most eastern point of the west,” said Tutku Dilaver, an analyst at the Center for Eurasian Studies (AVIM). “Its roots are in the East so there is no possibility of getting away from the East. However, there is no possibility of cutting ties with the West either. For Turkey, as (President Recep Tayyip) Erdoğan often says, West and East are no alternatives to each other. Turkey has a consolidating role in this.”
“Turkey’s ties with not only Russia but also Middle and East Asia can be interpreted wrongly. However, we see that in recent years, there is a rising trend of ‘Asia Anew’ in Turkish politics. This may lead to news like Turkey is switching from its pro-West stance, but this would be a wrong interpretation. Such trends and policies can only show the versatility of Turkey’s foreign policy,” she said.
Oğuzlu said that there is one thing that Turkey demands from NATO: for it to respect its demands for strategic autonomy.
“The West needs to get rid of its old thoughts and habits. Turkey does not have any problem with a liberal international order, democracy and capitalism. However, it demands more representation in the international area, which the West seems to deny,” he emphasized.
In Dilaver’s opinion, the U.S. sanctions are more a reflection of U.S. domestic politics rather than NATO’s institutional structure, creating a rift with the U.S. rather than alienating Turkey from the bloc.
“The increasing anti-Turkey sentiments in U.S. domestic politics and senators’ desire to ‘give a lesson to Turkey’ lead up to this decision,” she said.
However, according to professor Elizabeth Shakman Hurd from Northwestern University, this bipolar Cold War-era framework is actually no longer helpful in understanding international politics, and due to the pandemic, the U.S. public is interested in global politics.
“In general, at this point in time, most Americans are consumed by the economic and emotional stress of the pandemic and don’t have much energy left to worry about global politics. They are unaware of what is happening in Turkey or in Russia,” she said.
Leaders shaping diplomacy
Still, Hurd elaborated that the leader’s power is “certainly” a factor in these three countries’ relations.
“I expect the Biden team to return more or less to an Obama-era foreign policy, with a considerably cooler relationship with the Russians. This cooling-off will almost certainly impact U.S.-Turkey relations. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a U.S.-Turkish rapprochement at some point in the next couple of years, particularly if there is some turnover in leadership on your side as there will be on ours,” she underlined.
The U.S. sanctions come at a delicate moment in Ankara and Washington’s fraught relationship as Democratic President-elect Joe Biden gears up to take office on Jan. 20, replacing Republican incumbent Donald Trump. In a video that surfaced in August, Biden said he would seek a regime change in Turkey and expressed his willingness to work with “opposition leadership” in the country to topple Erdoğan in Turkey’s 2023 elections. While the remarks caused an initial uproar in Turkey, Turkish authorities have recently expressed their willingness to work with Biden as long as Turkey’s concerns are respected.
“We see that with the election of Biden, Turkey started to send positive messages to the West once again. It doesn’t seem likely for Turkey to follow Russia blindly,” Oğuzlu said. “The thing that is important for Turkey is the relations between the U.S. and Russia. If they preserve sustainable ties, that would benefit Ankara. If they get tense, this would cause tension for Ankara as well. We know that Biden has anti-Russian tendencies.”
The effectiveness of the role leaders play in diplomacy and policy-making has been long-debated. The earliest work on the issue goes back to World War II, a time when negotiations often hinged on the personalities of national leaders and their personal influence in domestic and world politics. While some experts argue that political leaders do not have a dramatic impact on politics, since ultimately, they must work within the framework of the existing international system, others claim that had the leading actors been different, history may have taken a different course. Some pundits claim leaders with strong personalities are effective in their relations with others, having a greater overall influence on bilateral political relations.
When it comes to Turkey’s diplomatic efforts in recent years, many argue that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s personal ties with other presidents and world leaders are a unique variable in determining how things develop. Especially when it comes to dealing with countries like Russia and the U.S., two of Turkey’s most strategic allies, Erdogan’s personal communications with Trump and Putin was a key factor, according to many pundits and analysts. The U.S.-Russia relationship has even experienced a calm period thanks to somewhat good communication between Trump and Putin, overshadowing the traditional animosities between the two.
While leaders are important in managing diplomatic ties, Dilaver states that when it comes to the U.S., lobbies still hold the power in the decision-making process.
“In today’s world, it can be said that diplomatic relations between the countries are quite dependent on the states’ leaders and their personal characteristics. However, for the U.S., the important variable is the lobbies. The increasing number of anti-Turkey lobbies in recent years has impacted Turkey-U.S. ties negatively,” she said.
When it comes to relations between Turkey and Russia, Dilaver describes the rapport as hanging in a “unique” balance.
“We can say that today, Turkey-Russia ties have a unique balance. The two can sit on opposing sides of the table in some cases, while in others they sit side by side. However, so far, through bilateral dialogue, they managed to cooperate in many fields even if they do not share the same opinions,” she said.
In her opinion, crises like Nagorno-Karabakh and the S-400 issue should not test ties and can be dealt with effectively through bilateral dialogue.
“We cannot say that there is a classical alliance between the two since Turkey is a NATO ally, which means that in order to be a true ally of Russia, it needs to leave NATO and join the CSTO, which is quite unlikely. However, still, we can foresee that the bilateral dialogue between the two will continue with increasing communication in the near future,” Dilaver underscored.
For Oğuzlu, while there is a balance between Turkey and Russia, it is a delicate one.
“Turkish-Russian relations are improving on a very delicate balance. It seems like there is good communication between the two. However, the issues with the possibility of causing a crisis are still valid, waiting to be resolved,” he said.
“For instance,” he continued, “although a solution has been reached in Nagorno-Karabakh, we know that Turkey and Russia are far from being on the same side.”
Oğuzlu stated that in order to preserve the balance in diplomatic and well-established ties with the U.S., Turkey needs to stand up for itself.
“Turkey needs to voice out loud why the West needs it as an ally. Turkey’s siding with the West would strengthen the West. Biden seems to already want this, which would necessitate him to keep Turkey as a traditional ally. However, if he acts otherwise, and continues to criticize Turkey on human rights, etc., then he would cause Turkey to get closer with China and Russia,” he said.