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türkiye's return to center stage: successful counterbalancing

Türkiye's Return to Center Stage: Successful Counterbalancing

Image source: The White House

Türkiye’s more aggressive and independent foreign policy has spurred both praise and criticism from its long-term Western partners. Nevertheless, Turkish-US ties have improved in the last year, despite many still questioning what they see as Türkiye’s neutral stance vis-à-vis Russia. Yet, Ankara has played a pivotal role in countering and managing Russian influence across the post-Soviet space. Türkiye has provided military support for Ukraine and, has more generally made the case that Ankara can be a more reliable partner to supplant Russia. Sustaining Türkiye's productive role in Eurasia will depend, in part, on maintaining constructive ties between Washington and Ankara, which have seen a recent uptick in security and economic cooperation. As Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan enters what seems to be his final four years in office, prospects for Türkiye’s leadership and foreign policy hold promise for deepening ties with the West...and the East.  

Türkiye's role in Counterbalancing Russia in Ukraine 

From the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Türkiye has sought to strike an independent course from the primary NATO approach. Türkiye, while condemning Russia’s invasion, maintains economic and political ties with Russia. Yet, Türkiye’s role as a NATO state with warmer relations with Moscow has allowed it to play a productive role throughout this conflict, even as it provides meaningful support to the Ukrainians.  

Türkiye’s role as a facilitator state was most evident in the Summer of 2022, when Ankara successfully brokered the Black Sea Grain Initiative between Kyiv and Moscow. Coming amidst Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian black-sea shipments, the initiative held for roughly a year and avoided a crisis for both the global food supply and Ukraine’s economy. Speaking in July of 2023, after Russia unilaterally withdrew from the initiative, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted Ankara’s leadership on the issue, saying, "We look to Turkey to play the role that it's already played, a leadership role in getting this back on track.” Turkish attempts at reviving the grain deal have fallen flat thanks to Russian intransigence, but intermediary states can be crucial actors throughout a conflict. 

While Turkish-Russian ties are undoubtedly more familar than US-Russian or EU-Russian relations, Ukraine has nevertheless sourced critical military hardware from Türkiye. Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones were central armaments for Ukraine in the earlier phases of the war, decimating Russian military equipment throughout the front line and attacking Russian naval infrastructure in the Black Sea. TB2s were not only a tactical advantage, but a boon to morale, a prestigious weapon that became a symbol of Ukrainian battle-field dominance. The Turkish company that produces the TB2, Baykar, began construction on three facilities in Ukraine, collectively worth $100 million, including a TB2 manufacturing plant. While the Bayraktars certainly grab the most media attention, Ukraine and Türkiye have extensive general cooperation in drone manufacturing and procurement. 

Looking further east, Turkish influence is increasing in what has traditionally been considered Moscow’s backyard: Central Asia and the Caucasus. In the South Caucasus, Azerbaijan has looked to Türkiye for political, military, and economic support against Armenia, a country that until recently was Russian aligned. One of the ways in which to read the last few years of turbulence between Armenia and Azerbaijan has been as a real-time example of Türkiye’s military and political influence squaring off against Russia’s. It is reasonable to imagine that the countries of the region looked to this conflict as a test of Russia’s commitment, and took notice when Russia’s military support, or lack thereof, proved ineffective against a Turkish ally.  

While there are no active combat zones in Central Asia, Türkiye’s presence there is increasingly felt. In contrast with Russia, which now must source its military goods from countries like Iran and North Korea, Türkiye is providing the Central Asian republics with cutting-edge military equipment. Türkiye has sold TB2 drones to four of the five Central Asian states, including Kyrgyzstan, which deployed them against Tajikistan during 2022’s border fighting. While Russian-backed inter-governmental organizations, such as the Collective Security Treaty Organization, appear to be in decline, the Turkish-backed Organization of Turkic States (OTS) appears to offer the four Turkic Central Asian countries new opportunities. OTS, as per their 2023 communique, appears primed to further increase defense cooperation in the coming years. Outside of the military sector, since 2022, Türkiye has bolstered ties to Central Asia through trade deals and cooperation on trans-Caspian commercial infrastructure expansion, such as the new Turkish ship-building facilities that will significantly strengthen Kazakh naval forces

Opportunities and Challenges within Broader US-Türkiye Relations 

 About a week after Russia made its initial offensive attacks against Ukraine in February 2022, Ankara closed the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to naval vessels from any country. Former Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, had declared Russia’s invasion a war the day prior to announcing the denial of passage, allowing Ankara to legally place these restrictions under the rules of the Montreux Convention. The strategic declaration and subsequent action were a significant example of one of Türkiye's roles in the region’s security. The Black Sea’s geopolitical importance since Russia's invasion of Ukraine has expanded, and Türkiye has played a critical but complicated role in its security upkeep. 

Türkiye's role also encompasses naval and security cooperation with neighboring countries, vital for maintaining stability and addressing common security concerns in the Black Sea. One recent example of this is the joint initiative between NATO allies Türkiye, Bulgaria, and Romania to tackle the threat of drifting sea mines in the Black Sea.  

To the United States, Türkiye has proven to be a crucial security partner and a valuable channel for cooperation with countries where the U.S. may have less influence. However, this partnership is not without its challenges. 

While Türkiye has made political moves in opposition to Russia since the start of the war, economic ties between the two nations have strengthened. Though under pressure from the West to do more, Türkiye has made moves to seemingly test the limits of its ties to Russia—counterbalancing competing interests through political action such as openly supporting Ukraine's NATO membership and donating drones and weapons to Kyiv.  

At the same time, Ankara has refrained from imposing sanctions on Russia and has increased its imports from Russia by 80% in 2022, partly due to inflation—a move that has helped sustain an economic partnership amid financial instability in both nations. At least 13 Turkish firms exported $18.5 million to at least 10 Russian companies sanctioned by the U.S. 

A flourishing bilateral economic relationship points to one of Türkiye’s greatest weaknesses when it comes to Russia—economic dependence that is particularly dire in the energy sector. A significant portion of Türkiye's natural gas is still sourced from Russia through the Bluestream and Turkstream pipelines under the Black Sea. As a result, Türkiye is subject to a significant vulnerability—an overreliance on Russian energy resources that, as Europe can attest to after being plunged into an energy crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, can have catastrophic consequences.  

As part of this balancing act, President Erdoğan personally maintains cordial relations with Russian President Vladamir Putin and has occasionally criticized European leaders for actions he deemed “provocative” to Russia. He has reaped benefits from warm ties with Moscow, including Türkiye's 2019 acquisition of the Russian S-400 air defense system, which strained relations with successive US administrations, resulting in its expulsion from the F-35 program

Yet at the same time, recent developments point to a recovery in relations between the United States and Türkiye. In 2023 Türkiye stepped away from blocking Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession and received new F-16 US fighter jets in the process. In March, Washington welcomed Erdoğan for talks aimed in improving ties, despite Erdoğan’s recent statements relating to the Israel-Gaza war, far out of line with Washinton’s perspective. At a time in which US relations in parts of the Middle East have soured, the US-Turkish relations may have found an even more enhanced relevance for Washington. 

Türkiye's Future Leadership 

As Erdoğan enters his final term in office speculation grows on a potential successor. Recent local elections have signaled a possible pivot away from Erdoğan 's long-dominant Justice and Development Party (AKP). If the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) can build on this momentum by 2028’s national elections, it could signal the first change in leadership in Ankara since 2003. Even if the AKP remains in government, Erdoğan’s absence could have meaningful consequences for Türkiye's foreign alignments.  

It is unclear what a CHP victory in 2028 would mean for Türkiye’s foreign policy. The CHP represents the legacy, pro-Western, Kemalist faction and, therefore, may tone down anti-Western rhetoric or improve ties with NATO or the EU. However, the candidate the CHP fielded in the 2023 Presidential Election, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, never articulated a clear position on the war in Ukraine, and some analysts believe the CHP would likely maintain Türkiye’s careful balancing act. 

Caption and Source: Zelensky met with CEO of Baykar Haluk Bayraktar, September 2022. Photo credits: Office of the President of Ukraine 

It is likewise unclear what the AKP’s future foreign policy alignment will be. There are those within the party who may wish to continue Türkiye’s balance between East and West. However, the Selcuk Bayraktar, who designed the Bayraktar drone and is CEO of the company that produces them, seems to be one of the best-positioned actors to potentially replace Erdoğan. Central to Türkiye's military prowess are its cutting-edge drones, which have not only bolstered its own defense capabilities but have also found utility in the arsenals of other nations, spanning from Ukraine to the Caucasus. Türkiye’s Baykar, has emerged as a game-changer. This unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) offers cost-effective solutions compared to its counterparts and is currently deployed in countering Russian forces in Ukraine. On a political level, the success of the Bayraktar drones may provide their designer with the chance to enter politics and make a meaningful impact on Türkiye’s international orientation. 

The President’s son-in-law, Bayraktar’s public profile embodies the great-power nationalism of today’s Türkiye. There is good reason to believe that Bayraktar would be a Western-friendly, pro-Ukrainian leader. In terms of his personal biography, he was educated in the West holding degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and MIT. Politically, Bayraktar has good relations with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy, does not employ the anti-Western rhetoric of many in modern Türkiye, and likely would appeal to both religious and secular Turks. In interviews, Bayraktar has left open the possibility of running for office. If he someday becomes a major policymaker, it could bode well for Western-Turkish or Ukrainian-Turkish relations. 

Türkiye's Alignment Amidst Regional Tension on Both Sides 

Amidst the swirling tensions that define the geopolitical landscape of its region, Türkiye stands as a formidable force, both within NATO and in its broader neighborhood. With the second-largest military within the NATO alliance and a regional stature second only to Russia, Türkiye exerts significant influence on the global stage. Its commitment to defense is underscored by its allocation of 2.06% of its $820-billion GDP, amounting to a substantial $16 billion investment in its military capabilities. 

The strategic deployment of Türkiye's drones serves multiple beneficiaries. Though foremost among these is Türkiye itself, Türkiye's role within NATO and greater alignment with the West not only secures its own interests but can be utilized to foster greater stability in the region. Despite the complexities and occasional compromises inherent in this relationship, Türkiye remains an indispensable ally to the United States, particularly amidst escalating tensions in the Middle East and Russia's ongoing incursion into Ukraine. 

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