by Theodoros Kaloudiotis*
Despite President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to present the mobilisation of the Russian armed forces as defensive military drills, on 24/02 he announced a ‘special operation’ against Ukraine. The aftermath of this unlawful invasion found the Western countries rallying around a joint response. The Russian President claimed that “Sanctions are akin to a declaration of war” and ‘blacklisted’ 46 countries, fueling a discussion on an inevitable ‘iron curtain’-like future. The intriguing side in the story is that while 29 NATO countries are ‘blacklisted’ (most of them are also members of the European Union) Turkey does not belong to the ‘enemies of Russia’. Thus, this inevitable iron curtain has a crucial difference with the experience of the Cold War, at least in geopolitical terms.
Russia and Turkey share a turbulent history. In addition, the Turkish government opposed the annexation of Crimea (2014) and the Russian recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia (2008). However, during the recent past, they have been working on a close partnership, with Turkey being in the top 10 diplomatic partners of Russia in 2018 and in the top 20 diplomatic friends of Russia in 2019. After the United States (US) refusal to deliver F-35 jets, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan clarified that looking towards Russia for enhancing the country’s defence capacity is a necessary national security measure. Estimates have even mentioned that the arrival of the Russian S-400 air defence capabilities in Turkey (2019) was saluted by some as ‘liberation’ from being dependent on the Western suppliers. Both countries also share discontent towards the West, with Russia being annoyed towards the Eastern ‘expansion’ of NATO and the sanctions that followed the illegal annexation of Crimea and Turkey being displeased by the Greco-French bilateral defence pact and the US sanctions that followed the purchase of S-400 air defence systems.
After the invasion of Ukraine, Turkey attempted to establish communication bridges with both sides. Even though the Turkish President described the Russian aggression as unacceptable and the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu explained the importance of closing the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, acting according the Montreux Convention, Turkey refused to participate in the sanctions against Russia. Turkey followed a similar approach after the annexation of Crimea (2014). Erdoğan explained there is no intention to abandon the ties with Russia or Ukraine, blaming the Western diplomacy for being ineffective and even part of the problematic turn of events. Implying that the meetings between Western leaders (Macron, Scholz) and the Russian President did not manage to de-escalate the conflictive situation is not only a way to express his discontent with the Western consensus against the invasion, but also a way to distinguish Turkey from NATO’s common attitude. With the Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijan blaming NATO for the invasion of Ukraine, Erdoğan’s refusal to participate in the collective response and his pointed finger at the Western diplomacy reveals that the leader of a NATO country resembles those who oppose the alliance. Finally, scenarios of Russia looking for aircraft part supplies in Turkey have revealed a strange bilateral interaction that reveals that neutrality has a completely different meaning in the specific case.
Erdoğan’s decision to provide military assistance in Ukraine facilitated the Turkish ‘neutral’ attitude within the NATO circles but at the same time the non-alignment with sanctions established a positive bilateral interaction between Ankara and Moscow. Turkey has received significant economic support from Russia, i.e. the wire transfer of $5 billion from President Vladimir Putin to Turkey for the construction of the Akkuyu Nuclear Power station. While the funds were officially directed to Rosatom, the Russian company overseeing the project, the injection of Russian cash into the Turkish economy provided temporary relief from hyperinflation for ordinary citizens; especially given the Turkish President’s recent election campaign, the specific assistance was crucial and revealed the Russian preference regarding the Turkish future leadership. After all, the Russian President’s message after the recent elections in Turkey highlighted that ‘dear friend’ Erdoğan’s victory was a natural outcome for a leader who conducts an independent foreign policy,
What does this mean for NATO? Considering the invasion as the threshold of a new iron curtain the first area we need to explore is the meaning of Erdoğan’s refusal to join the sanctions. While Article 5 pushes for collective action in case of a military threat, there is no direct plan on collective action related to sanctions and Turkey seems to act unilaterally in the specific crisis. Furthermore, Erdoğan implied that his foreign policy stance would remain unchanged if he secures another term, stating that his opposition to Sweden’s NATO membership bid would persist, which is a major NATO-related concern. It is obvious that the Turkish President does not want to close the Russian door, especially considering the above-mentioned tensions between Turkey and the West. In addition, even though the invasion was described as unacceptable, the practical hesitation to adopt sanction measures can be linked with the fact that the Turkish government has also foreign policy revisionist characteristics, regardless Erdogan’s ‘Realist’ rhetoric. A similar practice of avoiding sanctions was followed after the 2014 annexation of Crimea, where Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu clarified that Turkey is against the European Union’s (EU) decision to impose sanctions on the country’s neighbors and partners.
Considering the US as unreliable, due to the recent past’s implications regarding the Turkish armament and being challenged by the bilateral Greco-French defence pact, the Turkish diplomacy is standing before a crossroad. The role of the ‘neutral’ is convenient for a country that is heavily dependent on Russian natural gas, tourism, and even defence supplying, especially in a fragile period of Western-Turkish relations. The interesting part after the Russian army’s full-scale invasion is the exclusion of Turkey from Putin’s blacklist. The question is not what Ankara will do but how Moscow is planning to use this fragile momentum to enhance its influence. The extensive operations in the Ukrainian territory have damaged the international image of Russia, but also consumed significant amounts of the Russian military and economic resources. Thus, potential cracks between the relations of Turkey and NATO are essential for a weakened Russia. A future scenario of tensions between Greece and Turkey can be the theater of a new security reality, especially after the announcement of the Russian ‘blacklist’.
Before the invasion of Ukraine, NATO seemed to face the beginning of an existential crisis, at least in the European security discourses. The French President Emmanuel Macron had raised concerns that NATO’s ‘brain-dead’ condition, highlighting the necessity for limiting the European dependency on US military force, while competitive scenarios between the US and France regarding supplying defence capacities in Greece had launched a camouflaged questioning of NATO’s role and meaning. The invasion can be considered a mouth-to-mouth kiss to the importance of the transatlantic security umbrella in Europe, but the role of Turkey is still a crucial matter. Erdoğan’s ambitions in the East Mediterranean and the multilateral attitude against him by other regional actors (Greece, Cyprus, Israel) is a long-term thorn in both NATO and EU security agenda. Looking at the way the Turkish government has been repeatedly balancing between two different sides we can understand the meaning of today’s decisions regarding the measure of sanctions. In case the Turkish President sees no future or tangible support in the alliance, creeping under a different orbit is not an extreme scenario and his ‘neutral’ cloak reveals that radical changes might be lurking in the shadow of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Given that there are already discussions that present a future where Ukraine might launch a counter-offensive, it will be particularly intriguing to observe Turkey’s position in the coming months. This is especially noteworthy considering the willingness of other NATO allies, such as Denmark, the United Kingdom, and the United States, to support Ukraine by supplying F-16 aircraft and providing training assistance to Ukrainian pilots. The potential for enhanced transatlantic coherence on this matter may exert pressure on the Turkish responsible authorities to adopt a more explicit stance regarding the country’s foreign policy in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
To conclude, Erdoğan’s attempt to stay ‘neutral’ and the Russian appreciation of his refusal to participate in the collective response of sanctions raise a crucial question for the future of NATO. 29 NATO countries belong to Putin’s ‘blacklist’, with Turkey being saluted for its unilateral approach. If “sanctions are equivalent to a declaration of war”, is the Turkish government against its NATO allies for the sake of keeping its ties with both Russia and Ukraine unbreakable? If the invasion in Ukraine launches a new iron curtain, where is the distinction between status quo powers and revisionism? Finally, if Erdoğan’s accusations regarding a failed Western diplomacy mirror camouflaged support for Putin and resemble the Chinese attitude, to what extent the Turkish government is still supportive of the role of the alliance? The ‘good’ diplomacy, the ‘bad’ sanctions, and the ‘neutral’ illusion is a short-sighted narrative, as sooner or later the answers to these questions will reveal that neutrality is just a Trojan horse for accepting revisionism as foreign policy and possibly for Turkey’s turn towards a different orbit. Putin will not ignore the opportunity to erode NATO through the unilateral foreign policy of Turkey and what remains to be seen is how NATO will behave in this vague but crucial security circumstance.
*PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Glasgow | Graduate Teacher Assistant UoG | Leader of Tomorrow St. Gallen.