With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine now well into its second month, the US foreign policy establishment offers criticism of how two of NATO’s biggest powers, Germany and Turkey , react to Russia. Any such effort must recognize the radically different roles these two nations played before the invasion.
For years, German Chancellor Angel Merkel and her cheerleaders this side of the Atlantic have openly bristled at observations that Berlin is too friendly with Moscow and increasingly addicted to its hydrocarbons. The Washington, D.C. smart set jumped to his defense when then-President Donald Trump in July 2018 uttered what had become obvious: “As far as I’m concerned, Germany is captive to the Russia“. Until the morning of the invasion, most Washington elites ignored this Tabletby Jeremy Stern recently called Germany’s “decades of emotional and economic investment in the Russian state”.
Stern noted that even after the capture of Crimea in 2014, Vladimir Putin opposed an open door in his dealings with Merkel, notably when “Merkel lobbied successfully for the restoration of Russians’ voting rights in Council of Europe, a human rights organization, despite no change in the developments that led to its suspension in the first place: Putin’s occupation and destabilization of Ukraine.
It was only after Russian tanks penetrated the rest of Ukraine that the new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, finally managed to come to terms with the strategic mistakes of the past and approved lethal arms exports. Politico quoted Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock during the Berlin energy transition dialogue earlier this week explaining that “we knew, or we could have known, that it wasn’t just stupid to place all our [energy] security policy maps on a single country, but that it was also not a good idea to put them on this particular country.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy also made it clear that the Germans were not left behind. The Ukrainian leader addressed the Bundestag in mid-March and made scathing remarks that at times sounded almost like Trump’s. According to to the London timeZelenskyy “accused Germany of ignoring years of warnings about the Kremlin’s malign intentions, of dragging its feet on sanctions such as an embargo on Russian fossil fuels, and of obstructing Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union”.
Woodrow Wilson Center Ambassador James Jeffrey is one of the few in the foreign policy community to point out how the United States treated a generation of German-Russian camaraderie with kid gloves while Turkey , which has the second largest army in the alliance, was excoriated when it bought Batteries of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles and later ejected from the F-35 fighter program. During a webinar last year, Jeffrey observed: “Germany and the United States have institutional, personal, and even ideological buffers that, no matter how serious the problems, make everyone expresses how important it is to conceal these things.
Indeed, Turkey looks north across the Black Sea and sees Kremlin warships shelling the area around Odessa, while along its southern border it faces the catastrophic consequences of the invitation of the President Barack Obama told Putin in 2015 to insert his army into civil war-torn Syria. (Turkey is not alone in feeling betrayed. Obama’s move also proved disastrous for Israel’s security, as Russia has an effective veto over Israeli strikes against targets. Iranians and Hezbollah in Syria.)
Unlike Germany, Turkey is sandwiched between Russian forces and has carefully weighed its options, seeking to avoid both military confrontation or further damage to its already struggling economy. While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan early and openly condemned the invasion, Turkey chose not to impose sanctions and instead offered to mediate in hopes of securing a ceasefire.
“[Turkey] made a habit of countering Russia’s overreach without triggering a sense of existential threat to Russia itself,” according to to geopolitical consultant and retired army officer Richard Outzen, citing successful actions in 2020 in Libya, Syria and the South Caucasus.
Moreover, Turkish military cooperation with Ukraine since the capture of Crimea has proven indispensable. In particular, the Turkish Bayraktar Tactical Block 2 unmanned aerial combat vehicles destroyed so much Russian armor during the first week of fighting that “Bayraktar” is now the title of a popular Ukrainian song, played alongside a video featuring some of the drones killed on the battlefield. .
Turkey and Ukraine have also been major trading partners, with bilateral trade exceeding $7 billion in 2021, and a free trade agreement was signed days before the invasion.
U.S. critics of Erdogan raise human rights concerns that don’t typically exist in Germany, but it’s high time they and others in the foreign policy establishment admit that, as during the coldest moments of the Cold War, Turkey remains an indispensable NATO partner.
Jason Epstein is president of Southfive Strategies, LLC, an international public affairs consultancy in New York and Washington. He was a member of the public relations team at the Turkish Embassy in Washington, DC from 2002 to 2007.
Adinda Khaerani is a specialist/researcher in international relations at the Center for Diplomatic Affairs and Political Studies (DIPAM) in Istanbul.