Biden Admin Juan Cole Russia

Is Turkey Abandoning Russia to Turn Back Toward the West?

President Biden met with President Erdoğan of Türkiye at the sidelines of the 2023 NATO Summit. Office of the President of the United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

By Juan Cole / Informed Comment

Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Given the decisions announced by Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, some have speculated that Turkey is “turning back toward the West” after a long period of estrangement and flirtation with Russia. Erdogan finally dropped his opposition to Sweden joining NATO. He backed NATO membership for Ukraine. He welcomed a Biden offer to sell Ankara F-16 fighter jets and to offer update kits for the F-16s that Turkey already has.

It should be underlined, however, that Turkey has not agreed to join in the economic boycott of Russia, to which most NATO members have signed on. Ankara still attempts to mediate between Ukraine and the Russian Federation, including the grain export agreement that it initiated. Turkey has managed ship traffic through the Bosporus Strait in an even-handed way, which Russia appreciates. President Erdogan says he invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to Turkey in August, though TASS says that Putin presently has no such plans.

Turkey is not the only NATO member to resist Washington’s wide-ranging boycott of Russia. Hungary, too, cites its dependence on Russian petroleum as a reason for which it cannot cut Moscow off.

Erdogan did express his support for Ukraine joining NATO eventually, which cannot have been welcome in the Kremlin. Turkish commentators, however, were sanguine that this step would not harm Russo-Turkish relations because Putin has already factored in Turkey’s NATO membership and understands the constraints it places on Ankara (BBC Monitoring). Gareth Jones at Reuters wrote of Russia spokesman Dmitry Peskov, saying “Peskov said Russia understood that Turkey had to fulfil its obligations as a NATO member over Sweden, but he added that Moscow wanted to continue to build mutually beneficial relations with Ankara despite “all disagreements.”‘

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Peskov also said that Russia didn’t worry about Turkey being allowed to join the European Union, a request that Erdogan renewed this week and pressured Sweden into supporting.

The EU is widely seen as a largely Christian club unwilling to admit 85 million Muslim Turks on racial grounds and out of fear of a surge of immigration from Turkey if borders were lowered. The EU says it worries that Turkey’s eastern borders are embroiled in conflicts with Kurds and Syria and it does not want to invite those conflicts into Europe.

So if Turkey is not actively pivoting to the West or actually turning against Russia, what did happen?

It was all transactional. Karl Ritter and Andrew Wilks at AP explain that Turkey wanted a firmer Swedish and NATO commitment to fight terrorism, by which Erdogan means Kurdish groups such as the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Some European countries have been sympathetic to Kurdish desires for a country of their own, even though it would be carved out of existing countries such as Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Sweden in particular did an about-face and pledged closer anti-terrorism efforts with Turkey, which implies less sympathy for at least those Kurdish nationalists who turn to violence.

President Joe Biden also met personally with Erdogan, seeking a reset of relations with Turkey, which Erdogan said was welcome. People around Erdogan had blamed the US for the 2016 attempted coup against Erdogan, though there is no public evidence that the Obama administration had anything to do with it. The US has also disappointed Turkey by refusing to sell it advanced F-35 fighter jets or even F-16s. Turkey has bought the S-400 anti-missile system from Russia. Such systems are on the internet and suck in information from devices around them that are also on line, including the US jets. So Washington considers the S-400 to be a major security threat, allowing the “internet of things” to transmit sensitive information about weapons systems to the enemy.

While the US still won’t sell Turkey F-35s, Biden said he would try to sell some F-16s to Turkey, if he can get the deal through a skeptical Congress. Erdogan was apparently mollified by the offer, and said he understood that the deal would have to go through the US legislature, just as he would have to take the proposed Swedish membership in NATO to his own parliament when it reconvened in October.

So the warmer ties between NATO (including the US) and Turkey appear mainly to be a matter of selling F-16s to Erdogan and leaning toward his definition of the PKK as a terrorist organization (which the US had itself long since accepted but some other NATO members had not). Erdogan was allowed to have his way on a couple of the outstanding issues between Turkey and NATO, and that’s why agreement was reached on Swedish accession to NATO.

It isn’t a turn to the West, it is a successful piece of bargaining with the West, which does not forestall continued bargaining with the Russian Federation.

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole, a TomDispatch regular, is the Richard P. Mitchell collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He is the author of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: A New Translation From the Persian and Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. His latest book is Peace Movements in Islam. His award-winning blog is Informed Comment. He is also a non-resident Fellow of the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies in Doha and of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).

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