Understanding Erdogan's foreign policy shift
By Can Burgaz
The NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, had significant implications for the alliance, particularly regarding Turkey's stance. While Turkey accepted Sweden's membership, its position on Ukraine's membership remained ambiguous. However, the summit signaled Erdogan's desire to forge closer ties with the West in Turkish foreign policy.
Many observers argue that Turkey has historically been part of the Western alliance, and the recent years under Erdogan's rule represent a deviation from that path. While economic and political conditions may have pushed Turkey to reestablish good relations with the West, there are concerns about the permanence of this shift.
What led to the deterioration of Turkey's relations with the West?
Under Erdogan's rule since 2002, Turkey has become increasingly authoritarian. When the country transitioned to a presidential system in 2018, Erdogan consolidated his power as the country's sole official. Using populist rhetoric and exerting control over all institutions, including the judiciary, Erdogan intimidated the opposition and sought public support.
Central to this discourse was Erdogan's vision of Turkey as a global power. He promoted the idea that Turkey would empower oppressed peoples and challenge imperialist powers. As a result, Erdogan pursued anti-Western policies.
At the same time, Erdogan established close relations with Russian President Putin, which led to Turkey's purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia. As a result, Turkey was excluded from the F-35 program and became increasingly dependent on Russia for natural gas and tourism, with Russia building a nuclear power plant in Akkuyu.
In the midst of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Turkey maintained warm relations with both countries and acted as a mediator in various agreements, including grain and prisoner exchanges. Turkey became a pipeline for Russia because it didn't join international embargoes. In particular, before the recent elections, Russia postponed the debts of the Turkish natural gas company, BOTAŞ. After the elections, in which Russia indirectly supported Erdogan, a new foreign policy seemed to be on Erdogan's agenda.
Deteriorating relations with Russia
Turkey's response to the Wagner paramilitary uprising in Russia was muted. During Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's visit to Ankara, Erdogan supported Ukraine's NATO membership. Erdogan also extradited five Azov battalion commanders to Zelensky during the visit, in violation of the prisoner exchange agreement. This move provoked a harsh reaction from Moscow.
Rumors circulated that Turkish warships might play a role in continuing Turkey's grain deal. In addition, Turkey's SİHA manufacturer, Bayraktar, announced plans to open a new factory in Ukraine, and there were discussions about Turkey providing significant weapons to Ukraine.
Shortly before the NATO summit in Vilnius, Erdogan surprisingly announced the lifting of Turkey's veto on Sweden's NATO membership. These developments have been interpreted as signs of deteriorating relations between Turkey and Russia and Erdogan's willingness to restore good relations with the West.
Is Erdogan realigning with the West?
The Wall Street Journal's analysis highlights several reasons for Erdogan to improve relations with the West. First, Erdogan perceives Putin weakened after the failed Wagner paramilitary mutiny in June. Second, Turkey desperately needs foreign currency due to economic mismanagement. Finally, having narrowly won the May elections, Erdogan faces less pressure to whip up the nationalist and anti-Western sentiments central to his campaign.
According to Patrick Wintour's analysis, Erdogan's efforts to protect Turkey's interests include cracking down on Turkish Kurds in Sweden, lifting the de facto U.S. congressional veto on the sale of F-16s to Ankara, and demanding progress on Turkey's quest for visa-free travel within the EU. While progress has been made in these areas, specific timelines for Turkish parliamentary approval of Sweden's NATO membership remain uncertain.
Turkey's Foreign Policy shift driven by economic concerns
Most commentators believe economic concerns primarily drive Turkey's foreign policy shift. Turkey has recently experienced a significant currency crisis, and its resources from Russia and the Middle East are insufficient. Therefore, this reorientation is seen as a tactical move. Wolfango Piccoli of consultancy Teneo said: "I don't believe in the Western pivot. The best we can hope for now is a better relationship than the last five years, which remained largely transactional.
Many argue that Turkey's rapprochement with Russia has gone too far and that these recent moves are necessary to restore balance at some point. One of the key motivations is Turkey's desire to recover from its economic slump and attract foreign investment. Tense relations with the West have dampened the economy and investment flows, despite recent Gulf Arab investment in Turkey, as Galip Dalay of the Chatham House think tank acknowledges.