By Jahja Muhasilović
Despite being one of the most respected NATO members many are wondering why Turkey’s stance toward Russian aggression in Ukraine is softer than expected. The normalization of relations between Ankara and Moscow following the failed coup attempt of 2016 has led to the building of trust between the two regional powers that goes deeper than many would like to see.
What immediately comes to mind is the economic rationale. Russia is still among to top trading partners only behind Germany. The trade amounted to almost 30 billion USD last year. Russians traditionally are the number one in terms of tourist visits to Turkey. More than seven million Russians visited Turkey before the COVID-19 pandemics. Turkey also serves as one of the main transit routes for Russian gas flows to Europe. The recent limitation of economic relations between Russia and the West is seen as a chance for Turkey to fill the economic gap since Ankara didn’t join the international sanctions. The flight of the Western brands is an opportunity for Turkish brands to settle in the market two times the size of the domestic one. Certainly, it will be Chinese and Turkish goods that would flood the Russian market at least until Russia gets back on somewhat more stable feet. Turkey needs an export market such as Russia in order to balance the chronically negative trade balance. This is also a good opportunity for the devaluated Turkish Lira since the export will be cheaper and Russia is in huge need now. Although, it is questionable to which extent Turkey can replace Russia’s needs for high-tech products that the West was supplying for years. That vacuum is more likely to be filled by China. But in the short and medium-term, Turkey will certainly derive some economic benefits from the war.
There are cultural-political grounds involved as well. As there always was a strong anti-Russian element inside Turkey due to the country’s geography and historical experience, there are also strong pro-Russian political elements. A group of Russophiles, known as Eurasianists are present in Turkish domestic politics since the Cold War. The Kremlin was supporting underground Marxist movements in the country. However, the state has dealt with this problem through state-backed nationalist cells. During the Cold War, most of the Eurasianists (pro-Soviets) went through periodic purges, which certainly strengthened the Atlantist forces within the state apparatus. For a long time, pro-NATO forces have been the main force behind the scenes. But this has slightly changed in recent years.
After the 2016 failed coup attempt the cards turned to the detriment of pro-NATO forces because the government held the US responsible for the coup.[i] Certainly, the Gulenist elements (FETO) were considered part of the same camp. So, within the state apparatus, a serious cleansing of all the elements that smelled of Atlantism or pro-Americanism began. The whole process strengthened the Eurasian counterweight.[ii] These elements within the state became stronger when the ruling AKP decided to enter a necessary coalition with the nationalist MHP party. The later party, although initially pro-NATO during the Cold War, became somewhat anti-NATO, under the leadership of party chief Devlet Bahçeli. Certainly, the party’s ideological Pan-Turkism ordered it to become such. There has long been speculation about the strong influence of the main promoter of Eurasianism Doğu Perinçek on the state. The president of Turkey, as well as his party, have certainly left as the only balancing factor in the whole story.
Especially after 2016, anti-Americanism rose in public opinion. A series of crises that followed like the formation of the proto-Kurdish state in Syria, the devaluation of the Turkish Lira, the non-extradition of Fethullah Gulen inflamed this sentiment. Today, the United States is very unpopular in Turkey. According to the Springfield Researchers, in 2019 only 20 percent of Turks had a favorable view of the US. Eighty-two percent perceived the US as a threat to their security.[iii] Also, in the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the local media seemed more in favor of Moscow. In the later phase, the narrative was slightly changed indicating possible intervention from the top. On top of all, there is a psyche of debt to Russia. Kremlin was among the first to condemn the putschists. There are also speculations that it was Russia who provided the critical intelligence about the movement of troops.[iv]
An End of the Balance Game for Turkey?
Chances for relations with the US to be as good as they use to be are slim at the moment. This has been proven in a recent diplomatic spree where to some extent Turkey managed to normalize ties with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel. A similar diplomatic reconciliation was tried with the United States, but the bilateral offensive did not yield the desired results. Washington was persistent in asking Turkey to give up its S-400s. Washington’s request was seen as too risky for Ankara. It could leave the country without a sufficient air defense system since NATO is not giving guarantees that the Patriot system would be installed anytime soon. Also, giving up the S-400s would signal a diplomatic defeat for Turkey. In such a scenario the government would be left contradictory to themselves because a narrative of external endangerment has been built on the domestic scene. It would leave the government defeated in the eyes of the public, as the government domestically played on this card for too long.
But perhaps most important of all, ruining the relations with Russia might end the balance game. For years Turkey is persistently trying to play a balanced foreign policy. Often blackmailing the West by using the Russia card. Russia's weakening will make balancing policy almost impossible and force Turkey to completely attach itself to the NATO alliance. Without a strong Russia, geopolitical balancing in foreign policy simply ends. In this case, Turkey will have to be the first to give in and satisfy the wishes of the West. Something similar was foreseen by the former US National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who thought, the moment Russia joins the West, Turkey will have to follow automatically.[v] For that reason having the communication line with the Kremlin open might appear logical. Especially because no one still doesn’t know in which direction the whole Ukraine situation might evolve. In the case of hypothetical Russian success, Ankara’s policy might pay off positively.
The rapprochement with Russia in recent years paid off for the Turks in many ways. Turkey managed to get the long-awaited buffer zone in Syria that would protect it from the YPG threat. In coordination with Russia, a corridor in the Caucasus that was territorially connecting Azerbaijan was created. Russia’s tactical involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean gas dispute helped Turkey’s position.[vi] Shortly, relations with Russia paved way for Turkey to emerge as a serious macro-regional power. Of course, this didn’t mean that the two countries had good cooperation in all areas. In the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East they remained rivals. However, they never seriously threatened each other’s interests. Wherever there was a certain misunderstanding, a solution was reached in a very fast and pragmatic way that would satisfy the needs of both parties. A level of cooperation and mutual trust was demonstrated that has almost never existed in relations with the West. With the eventual fall of the Putin regime, all this might end.
Given the fact that Erdogan and his party are highly unpopular in the West, the government might fear that it could be the next. The distrust that the Turkish government is having of the West's intentions should be taken into a consideration in Ankara’s foreign policy maneuvers. As much as Russia served as a balancing card, it was also ‘a buffer’ against the West’s ‘suspicious’ intentions. After all, it was Putin to whom the Turkish government went first less than a month after the failed coup attempt.[vii] Which tells a lot about the post-coup psyche in Ankara.
Falling of Russia as a Long-Term Chance for Turkey?
The weakening of Russia could have a positive effect on Turkey in the long run. In the scenario where Ankara decides to side with the West, it would be the country that, along with the United States and Poland would benefit the most from the eventual decline of Russia. Russia’s historical decline that culminated in the collapse of the Soviet Union can be stretched as back as the 1960s. Putin’s ascendance and regulation of the country under an authoritarian system only slowed down the process. Under his rule demographic deterioration that has been going on since the late 1980s has slowed somewhat. By relying on energy exports the failure to move to the next level of industrialization was treated with ‘aspirin therapies’ (the phenomenon of treating cancer with painkillers). This was only possible due to favorable energy prices on the global market during the 2000s. However, after the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis in 2014 and especially the COVID-19 pandemic, old negative trends have returned. The downfall is back.
The population of Russia fell by one million in 2020. This is the largest natural decline ever recorded. Every next census is revealing that the percentage of ethnic Russians is significantly declining. This is a catastrophe for a country that is organized as a federation. Non-Russians are enjoying a high degree of autonomy in their autonomous Republics. Ethnic Russians from the former Soviet republics who for a long time served as a mitigating factor of demographic decline are not large enough and can in no way meet Russia's demographic needs. Russia burned that fat a long time ago. Imports of non-Russian labor from Central Asia or the Caucasus cannot be a solution. The increase in their number would lead to a rise in Russian ethnic nationalism. Overall, the decline of Russia as great power resumed much faster than it was in the 1990s. Of course, Vladimir Putin's control of the media and authoritarianism only masked the gray reality in the eyes of the domestic audience. Overseas, an image of a strong Russia was sent out.
Unlike Russia, Turkey is a rising power. It has favorable demography and a good geographic position. It is still a member of the Western alliance system, economically and financially more open than the Russian economy, has a vibrant and pretty competitive domestic market, militarily already present in areas like North Africa, the Middle East, Mediterranean, Caucasus, etc. Like Russians, Turks also have imperialistic nostalgia. When all the elements are put forward, Turkey’s future perspective looks more favorable. In the case of Russia’s backtracking, a huge sphere of influence would be opened to Turkey, as the collapse of the Soviet Union opened in the 1990s. History has proven to us that the rise of Russia is in the fall of Turkey, and vice versa. Two regional powers are interested in the same geographical area and cannot co-exist without rivaling each other. Together with Poland and Germany to an extent, Turkey seems like the only logical actor to fill the vacuum left by Russia. Turkey has already made some critical moves in that direction.
As Russia will suffer economically due to international sanctions, its overseas operations will become costly. Turks are already present where Russians could struggle. With weakened Russia, Turkey is the most serious country that could take over the dominant position in Syria. With limited and uninterested United States, Turkey is the only serious player with boots on the ground. In Iraqi Kurdistan, it is already present with its troops. In Libya, without strong Russia, Haftar’s troops will be left without a significant foreign supporter. With Turkish UAV capacities, and it already is second in the number of armed drones to the United States, it would be an easy task for the Tripoli government to reconquer the rest of the country. Ankara has already normalized ties with Israel which will provide Turkey a more favorable position vis a vis gas disputes in Eastern Mediterranean.[viii] In Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, Egypt is the only serious obstacle. But Cairo is too weak to confront Turkey and too reliant on Russian and Ukrainian wheat and food production. This means Egypt could soon enter a crisis that would cause nationwide unrest. It should be remembered that it was the rise in food prices that caused the Arab Spring in 2011 which in turn toppled the Mubarak regime. The recent Ukrainian crisis might cause a similar regime toppling. The most relevant factor that could come to power in post-Sisi Egypt is Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated groups with whom the Turkish government already enjoys good relations. In brief, a chain of uncontrolled events might launch Turkey as the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean and the land corridor stretching from Iraq to Libya.
On Turkey’s eastern front, the weakening of Russia is providing an even brighter picture. During the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War Turkey positioned its troops in an extremely important corridor that connects this country with Azerbaijan by land. This is the first time since the First World War that two countries have an uninterrupted land corridor. The bilateral and cultural relations between the two countries are probably better than ever before. As the Western embargo on Russian gas continues the alternative route via Turkey would be used to meet Europe’s needs for energy. This route is of vital importance for the Balkan countries that unlike Western Europe did not build alternative sources. Azerbaijan-Turkey energy axis might become ‘the next Russia’ in the European energy sector. All that in the combination with continuous depopulation of the Balkans might bring small and insignificant geopolitical players to a more dependent position in their relations with Turkey. Turkish Armed Forces are already militarily present in Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina (through EUFOR Althea), and Kosovo which increases the importance of this country for regional security. Let’s put the Balkans aside and move back to the eastern flank.
Territorial connection with Azerbaijan automatically means a land connection with the rest of the Turkic World, which goes east all the way to the borders of China. Currently, there is uninterrupted communication of the Turkic world from the Chinese border to the Aegean Sea. Perhaps this might explain why the Turkish president has insisted on strengthening the Turkic Council in recent years. Russia is currently a gravitational force in the Caucasus and Central Asia. However with Moscow out of the equation any future union of these countries would represent a serious geopolitical block that is unchallenged by anyone in Eurasia. We might witness an ascendance of a new geopolitical force in Turkic clothes. Certainly, the geographical position in this regard is in Turkey’s favor. As well as the climate change that is causing, the Caspian Sea, which currently serves as the only geographical barrier for the territorial unity of Turks, to dry up. Experts estimate that much of the Caspian Sea could evaporate in the next 30-40 years. It would create a land connection between Central Asia and Azerbaijan-Turkey axis. The mentioned geopolitical scenario is supported by the incredible demographic rise of all Turkish countries, in combination with the demographic decline of Russia, as well as the construction of China's new Silk Road, which will strengthen the currently weak communication between these countries. China might be unconsciously paving way for the emergence of Turkic power on its borders. In the above-mentioned scenario, Turkey might unexpectedly become a force of gravity from the borders of China to Libya.
However, the fate of Russia will inevitably have enormous consequences for the whole of Eurasia, since this is a country that stretches from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean. And the vacuum that may remain behind weakened Russia might be filled by Turkey. Of course, since geopolitics does not tolerate a vacuum, it would be foolish to claim that Turkey will not be hindered in its rise. There are always forces of resistance. That is simply the nature of geopolitics. However, the social and political earthquakes caused by the displacement of geopolitical tectonic plates benefit those who are best equipped to challenge them. The world is certainly changing rapidly and after the Ukrainian crisis, we are entering a new era. Eurasia’s post-Russian era. It will be built by those who are in every sense the readiest for the task of leadership.
[i] Reuters Staff, “Turkish minister says U.S. behind 2016 failed coup - Hurriyet”, accessed March 28, 2022, https://www.reuters.com/article/turkey-security-usa-int-idUSKBN2A41NF
[ii] Suat Kınıklıoğlu, “Eurasianism in Turkey”, accessed on March 28, 2022, https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/eurasianism-in-turkey
[iii] Ragip Soylu, “Anti-US sentiment in Turkey reaches a new high, poll shows”, accessed on March 29, 2022, https://www.middleeasteye.net/news/anti-us-sentiment-turkey-reaches-new-...
[iv] “Russia Warned Turkish Government About Imminent Coup – Reports”, The Moscow Times, accessed March 28, 2022, https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2016/07/21/russian-and-uk-music-industrie...
[vi] Stronski, Paul. “A Difficult Balancing Act: Russia's Role in the Eastern Mediterranean.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 28, 2021., accessed March 29, 2022, https://carnegieendowment.org/2021/06/28/difficult-balancing-act-russia-....
[vii] “Turkish FM: EU ‘failed the test’ after the coup attempt”, Euractiv, accessed on March 28, 2022, https://www.euractiv.com/section/global-europe/news/turkish-fm-eu-failed...
[viii] Kirişci, K., & Arbell, D. (2022, March 7). President Herzog's visit to Ankara: A first step in normalizing Turkey-Israel relations? President Herzog’s visit to Ankara: A first step in normalizing Turkey-Israel relations? accessed on March 28, 2022, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2022/03/07/president-her...
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Balkan Studies Center (BSC).