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Ukraine war boosts Erdogan's 'new Atlanticism,' but for how long?

Turkey’s westward focus may complicate, or complement, Ankara’s previous priority of Eurasia.
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C) walks with officials, including Turkey's Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has swung the pendulum for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan from the “Eurasianism” that ultimately lies in his heart back to Turkey’s traditional “Atlanticism.”

He and members of his Cabinet are going out of their way now to stress Ankara’s commitment to the West and the NATO alliance.

The role Ankara is playing in efforts to broker peace between Moscow and Kyiv, based on Turkey’s unique position as a NATO member that enjoys good ties with Russia and Ukraine, is also gaining Erdogan kudos from the West.

Aware of Turkey’s strategic position on the map with regard to Russia and crucial energy routes, European leaders, for their part, appear to have also put aside their dislike for Erdogan because of his authoritarian and anti-democratic ways.

Recent high-level visits to Turkey, including those by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, attest to the fact that Europe cannot afford to lose Turkey at a time like this.

Erdogan also held talks with European leaders French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during NATO’s recent emergency summit on Ukraine in Brussels. 

Many praised Ankara’s decision to limit access to Russian battleships from the Mediterranean Sea to the Black Sea by exercising its rights under the 1936 Montreux Convention on the Turkish Straits.

There is also a new atmosphere in the Western media toward Turkey as a result of Erdogan’s new role as a peace broker. 

“Among the pack of countries vying to act as mediators in the Russia-Ukraine war, Turkey has emerged as the winner, increasing the stature of Turkish diplomacy,” wrote Patrick Wintour of The Guardian after the latest round of talks in Istanbul between Russian and Ukrainian officials. 

This is all in stark contrast to what the situation was not so long ago when Erdogan never wasted an opportunity to express his deep antipathy for the West, with many in the West responding to him in kind.

Turkey’s ties with Washington and European capitals had hit rock bottom as a result of Erdogan’s Islamist-based abrasive approach to foreign policy.

Erdogan’s policies had also put paid to any progress in Ankara’s EU membership bid while making mutually beneficial long-term strategic cooperation with Europe more difficult.

Erdogan also made no secret in the past of his desire to establish a place for Turkey within a grouping of countries that would reduce its dependence on the West. 

Ties with Russia always held a special place for him in this regard. He hoped his close friendship with President Vladimir Putin and their shared dislike of the West would facilitate this. 

Turkey was sanctioned by the United States under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) for purchasing Russian-made S-400 anti-missile defense systems over NATO’s head. In addition to this, Turkey was booted out of the strategic F-35 fighter jet program over which it is still chafing. 

Ironically, it is Putin that forced Erdogan to push his dreams to the backburner and expedited his turn to the West again. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which Ankara has castigated as a gross violation of international law and norms, left him with no choice in this matter.

Erdogan was, in fact, in a dilemma with regard to ties with the West and his Islamist-nationalist based approach to foreign policy before the Ukrainian crisis erupted.

Turkey’s growing international isolation and the serious economic costs this brought, as well as the loss of political support at home over his mismanagement of the economy, is what ultimately forced his hand.

Erdogan knows he has to improve the economy if he is to improve his chances in the presidential elections in 2023. He is also aware that this will require improved ties with the West.

The same applies to Turkey’s ties with regional countries such as Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These are also countries he had alienated with his abrasive tone.

His recent outreach to Israel and the UAE in particular showed that Ankara was already on the verge of an about-face in its foreign policy orientation. 

The war in Ukraine has merely strengthened Erdogan’s hand in this regard.

“Turkey is a strong member of NATO [within which it enjoys an unquestionable position],” government spokesman Omer Celik told reporters during a recent press conference when referring to the war in Ukraine.

Retired Ambassador Yusuf Buluc said it was the likelihood that a prolonged conflict would inflict immeasurable economic and financial losses and potentially endanger Turkey’s security that drove Ankara to take the initiative in trying to establish peace between Russia and Ukraine.

"It was opportune for Turkey, especially under rampant inflation and on the verge of sovereign default, to deploy its geostrategic and geopolitical assets to try and broker a deal between the parties,” Buluc told Al-Monitor.

He stressed, however, that arriving at this “watershed juncture for Turkey” was due to Ankara’s place in the Western security architecture. 

“While upgrading Turkey’s stature internationally as a peacemaker, it has also engendered a realization that it owes this bravado and initiative to its NATO membership,” Buluc added. 

Osman Sert, a media adviser for former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, highlighted Erdogan’s contradictory current position regarding NATO when compared to his highly critical past approach to the alliance.

“The atmosphere changed after NATO emerged as the power that would counterbalance Russia — which also poses a genuine security threat to Turkey — and when Western capitals deferred their concerns regarding human rights and democracy due to their security interests and established new bridges with Erdogan,” Sert wrote in his column for the daily Karar.

The war in Ukraine has not only injected a new sense of urgency into the need for Turkey to repair its ties with the West and regional countries, but it has also highlighted fresh opportunities for strategic international cooperation, especially in the energy field.

This will be crucially important for Turkey and the West in the coming years as Europe searches for means to minimize its dependence on Russia.

There are other potential benefits for Ankara in its rediscovery of Turkey’s place in the Western security architecture. 

For example, it has given Erdogan fresh arguments against Europe and the United States to end the official and unofficial sanctions and embargoes slapped on Ankara.

Talking to reporters after NATO’s recent emergency summit, Erdogan underlined the importance of the message of unity to come out of the talks in Brussels.

“The embargoes placed on our defense industry by our NATO allies have to be lifted. I shared my views on this openly with the leaders,” Erdogan said. 

Even Erdogan’s vehemently anti-Western and anti-Israeli supporters are trying to rationalize the importance of Turkey’s NATO membership now, albeit with some counterintuitive arguments. Yusuf Kaplan, a fiercely anti-Western and overtly anti-Semitic columnist for the pro-government daily Yeni Safak is an extreme case in point.

Referring to NATO as a “non-aggression pact established between Britain’s insidious intelligence and paranoid-schizoid Jewish power,” Kaplan claimed NATO membership had hamstrung Turkey.

Nevertheless, he argued that being part of the alliance had prevented Turkey from being declared a dictatorship like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and attacked by NATO. 

“Turkey will embark on its own march to civilization sooner or later and establish its own NATO. It would, however, be a grave mistake for Turkey to leave NATO at this stage,” Kaplan wrote. 

Whether Erdogan is ultimately sincere in his rediscovered Atlanticism remains an open question. Many believe he can easily change tack again based on how the wind blows. 

For now, though, he needs the West as much as the West apparently needs him. 

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