Turkey’s foreign policy reset – The Hindu

The war in Ukraine has encouraged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to quickly restore relations with his West Asian neighbors so that he is better placed to deal with the serious geopolitical challenges emerging from the conflict.

This course-correcting process began when Israeli President Isaac Herzog visited Turkey on March 9 this year, ending a decade of strained relations, largely due to Turkey’s support for Palestinian interests. The bonhomie created by the visit continued, with regular telephone conversations between the leaders of the two countries and indications that Mr. Erdogan could visit Israel soon.

The most spectacular Turkish outreach was in Saudi Arabia, with Mr. Erdogan’s visit on April 28-29. The visit was preceded by the transfer by the special prosecutor in Turkey of the criminal case against 26 Saudi nationals for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi to the kingdom itself, thus closing this sensitive and divisive case. Saudi Arabia returned the favor by removing the ban on imports of Turkish products, which had reduced Turkish exports from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $200 million last year.

Before his departure, Mr. Erdogan spoke of a “common desire to begin a new period of cooperation”, and notably mentioned energy, health, food security, finance and the defense industry as areas to be to pursue. During the visit, he had cordial talks with King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and called the kingdom a “friend and brother” of Turkey. In addition to strengthening bilateral economic ties, regional commentators discussed the prospects for cooperation in promoting regional stability, particularly on issues relating to Syria, Iraq, Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean.

Turkey’s strategic autonomy

A member of NATO since 1952, Turkey, under the presidency of Erdogan, aspires, as Graham Fuller said, “to a broad regional leadership, which does not depend on any country or power”. Convinced that the United States had played a role in the coup attempt against him in July 2016, Mr. Erdogan approached Russia and, contrary to NATO rules, even bought the system of Russian S-400 missile defense. His expulsion from the NATO project to develop the F-35 fighter jet encouraged an even greater affinity with Russia.

Russia now supplies 52% of Turkey’s gas imports, 65% of its grain needs and annually sends seven million tourists who contribute significantly to Turkey’s GDP. Russia is also building a nuclear power plant which will cover 30% of Turkey’s energy needs by 2030. Last year, bilateral trade amounted to $30 billion.

The two countries are also linked by the 930 km TurkStream gas pipeline which bypasses Ukraine and connects the two countries through the Black Sea.

Turkey has also established close ties with Ukraine. The latter provides nearly 15% of Turkey’s grain imports and also sends one million tourists to the country annually. At the beginning of February 2022, the two countries concluded a free trade agreement and a defense cooperation agreement. The latter provides for the supply and joint production of Turkey’s Bayratkar TB2 unmanned drones, which have boosted Ukraine’s combat capabilities in the ongoing conflict with Russia.

On March 29, Turkey hosted the second round of Russian-Ukrainian peace talks in Istanbul, amid few signs of progress at the time. Peace talks have since stalled; recent reports indicate that Western allies do not want a quick end to the conflict. At the same time, Western nations continue their efforts to involve Turkey more in their alliance.

So far, Turkey has remained committed to strategic autonomy. He described the Ukrainian conflict as a “war” and, under the terms of the Montreux Convention of 1936, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles Strait were closed to naval navigation. Mr Erdogan called the war “unacceptable”, while Turkish state media criticized the Russian attack. Turkey also co-sponsored the UN General Assembly resolution that “deplored” the Russian invasion. However, Turkey has refused to join its Western allies in imposing economic sanctions on Russia, nor has it closed its airspace to Russian traffic. Nor did it send new arms shipments to Ukraine.

Regional geopolitics

The sinking of the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, on April 14, possibly following missile attacks from Ukraine, highlighted the strategic importance of the Black Sea. Through its Black Sea Fleet, Russia is keen to project its power in the Mediterranean – hence the expansion and modernization of its bases in Crimea, Tartous and Hmeimim in Syria, and the consolidation of its military presence in Libya .

These Russian concerns and ambitions impinge on Turkey’s interests. Therefore, unsurprisingly, they clashed over the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, when in 2020 Turkey backed Azerbaijan against Armenia, a Russian ally. Turkey also opposed Russia’s occupation of Crimea in 2014 on the grounds that Russian control over Crimea and upgrading Russian naval capabilities will tip the balance of maritime forces in favor of the latter.

In response, Turkey has increased its naval prowess in these waters – in April this year, the “Blue Homeland” naval exercises were held in the Black, Aegean and Mediterranean seas, involving 122 ships, 41 aircraft and 12,000 personnel. During these war games, Mr Erdogan pledged to make Turkey “the strongest naval force in the region”.

Russia’s plan in the Ukrainian War to take full control of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and the Ukrainian coast on the Black Sea, and then to take control of the region of Transnistria on the Ukraine-Moldova border – taken together, this would greatly expand Russian influence and rekindle the traditional Russian-Ottoman rivalry in the region, when the Ottomans had been backed by Western allies Britain and France.

Turkey’s NATO allies hope that, faced with the challenge of an expansionist Russia, Turkey would return as a docile member of the transatlantic alliance.

But that seems unlikely. Turkey remains uncomfortable with periodic Western criticism of Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian ways. Turkish public opinion is also largely anti-Western. In a January 2022 survey, 39.4% of respondents favored closer ties with China and Russia, while 37.5% favored closer relations with the US and EU. ; a year earlier, the two figures were 27.6% and 40.9% respectively. Again, in geopolitical terms, Turkey sees the need to work closely with Russia to manage its crucial interests in Central and West Asia, the Caucasus and Afghanistan.

As the war continues and national and regional pressures mount on Mr. Erdogan, the Turkish leader will have to rely on his substantial capacity as a crisis manager to see his country through these stormy times.

(Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat)

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