Although it happened on a left-leaning opposition channel sensitive to Russia’s Ukraine narrative, the sentiments of the pro-government media seemed no less anti-Western. Government-sanctioned mainstream network analysts framed the war as a confrontation between NATO and Russia, as opposed to an unlawful attack on a sovereign nation. And while there was a lot of sympathy for Volodymyr Zelensky and the Ukrainian people, the default position seemed to be to blame NATO for everything.
There were also plenty of headlines about how the evil West discriminated against Africans trapped in Ukraine or favored white Ukrainians over Syrian Muslims. The message was clear: Russia is bad, but the West is bad too.
None of this is surprising.
With the exception of the period of EU accession negotiations, anti-Western sentiment is common in Turkey across all political spectrums, even though the country has been firmly in the transatlantic camp since World War II and a member of NATO since 1952. The failed coup attempt in 2016 made everything worse, legitimizing anti-Westernism in official parlance.
In addition, Ankara has recently stepped up its engagement with NATO and has provides Ukraine with armed drones, the crown jewel of the Turkish defense industry. these drone have been used effectively by the Ukrainian military to slow the Russian advance over the past week and have become a popular symbol of Ukraine’s resilience in the face of invaders. Ankara also has limit facilitate access of the Russian Navy to the Black Sea by imposing the wartime clauses of the 1936 Montreux Convention which regulates maritime traffic on the Turkish strait.
A sense of strategic ambiguity seems to be at the heart of the balance between Turkey and Russia. Turkish policymakers are undoubtedly alarmed by a revisionist Russia that controls Syria, has expanded its military footprint in the Caucasus and now threatens to overtake Turkey’s northern flank across the Black Sea. Turkey and Russia are historical rivals and have fought on opposite sides of the conflicts in Libya and Syria. Erdogan’s Russian romanticism died after Russian and Syrian planes kill 34 Turkish soldiers in Idleb, Syria, two years ago. Now Putin’s recklessness is on full display.
But Turkey does not want to antagonize Putin – at least not with a firm offer from the West.
Erdogan has made Turkey economically and strategically vulnerable to Russia, and he knows that Turkey’s ability to operate in Syria is based on Putin’s consent. There is also Russian gas, Russian tourists and Russian investments. This has made an already uncomfortable relationship troubling for Turkey.
“If there is to be a new cold war, there is no doubt about our position,” a senior Turkish official told me. But he preceded that comment by criticizing the United States for being cold to Turkey and Erdogan.
I guess Erdogan wants to pivot to the West, but not necessarily back to a club of democracies. He wants to end social distancing by the Biden administration but does not want to change his domestic conduct in a way that could challenge his leadership at home.
But he can surely see that the world order is changing.
In 1945, Turkish leaders set their sights on the West because they feared Stalin’s Russia and wanted to be on the right side of history. As part of this agreement, then-President Ismet Inonu agreed to a multi-party system and Turkey’s entry into transatlantic institutions. On a net basis, all of this was good for Turkey.
Faced with the same dilemma, Erdogan should likewise do what is best for Turkey: bring us back to democracy and the transatlantic security order. A new commitment can start with small steps to break Ankara’s isolation. Opening negotiations with the Biden administration on the S-400 missile defense system or releasing symbolic names like civil society leader Osman Kavala would open doors in Washington and Europe.
I hope that the leaders of Turkey and its opposition understand that the West is recovering. I hope they are pragmatic enough to choose the right side, despite the moral confusion in the Turkish media. And I hope that, like in 1945, a big deal with Turkey will go through democratization.
Because the alternative for Ankara is left to Putin, and that is certainly dangerous.