Turkey’s geography, at the juncture of the Middle East, Europe and Asia, means events in all these regions affect its interests, geopolitical calculations and alliance commitments. Turkey’s leadership, therefore, must constantly calibrate the level and nature of the country’s engagement. The current crisis in the Black Sea region, between Russia and the Ukraine, is one such moment. But for Turkey this is far larger than a spat between two neighbors. That’s because one of them happens to be Russia – a superpower with which the Turks have had intense adversarial dealings as well as bouts of close cooperation. And if recent history offers any hint, Turkey will prove impotent in influencing current events to its interest.
Russia and Turkey have been on opposite sides in Syria, Libya and now Ukraine. Turkey has made clear its displeasure with Russia’s aggressive actions, having also previously opposed the annexation of Crimea by Vladimir Putin. Yet, the Turks and the Russians have had complementary moments, too. They have, in fact, collaborated in Syria, such as when Moscow gave Ankara permission to invade parts of Kurdish-controlled territory; they have shared military technology, such as when Russian sold Turkey its sophisticated S-400 air-defense system; and finally, as Steve Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations argues, they both share the view that an American-led order in the region is not in their best interest.
Yet, in all cases, as adversaries and partners, the Russians have managed to adapt tactics to further their goals; the Turks, not so much. Russia has been adept at generating discord between Turkey and its Nato ally, the United States. The S-400 purchase was one such case, resulting in Turkey’s expulsion from both the acquisition and joint production of America’s latest generation stealth jetfighter, the F-35. The lingering aftertaste from the S-400 is one reason the relationship between Turkey and the new Biden administration got off to such a poor start. Putin is unlikely to have been unhappy.
Turkey’s geopolitical predilection is aggravated by the temperament of its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a restless leader. Almost from the moment he entered office, Erdogan has been on a mission: first, to make Turkey into a global power of consequence, and in the process to make himself a global leader who is venerated and talked about. In his mind, he would be the Turkish leader that changes the course of global politics. As such, foreign-policy activism has characterized much of his tenure.
After 18 years in power, he has succeeded in undermining both public and private domestic institutions, ranging from the judiciary to the press. He has increasingly prioritized his foreign-policy engagement both as a means to deflect attention from domestic woes, such as the economy, and also to increase his influence abroad. The successes in Libya and in Nagorno-Karabakh, where Turkish-made drones were decisive in turning the tide in favor of Turkey’s allies, have given Erdogan greater confidence and reason to brag.
And probably for this reason, he has again raised the matter of a canal parallel to the Bosporus, in the hope that he can shift much of the shipping away from the latter. This is despite the fact that navigation through the Turkish Straits (including the Dardanelles) is governed by the 1936 Montreux Convention, an agreement no country – mostly Russia, as well as the US – has any interest in altering, even if its restrictions happen at times to be inconvenient. The canal plans show Erdogan’s hubris; he presents Turkey somehow as a power with limitless capabilities, able to navigate between and above Russian and American needs and interests.
And with that we return to Turkey’s latest maneuvers in the Black Sea.
Ankara, of course, has a genuine stake in peace in the neighborhood. Thus, it has an incentive to act as intermediary between all parties to any potential conflict. However, there are limits to Turkey’s freedom of action between Ukraine and Russia – primarily because Putin has figured out how to neutralize Turkey.
At first, Erdogan sought to engage in a game of high-stakes poker: he quietly offered Ukraine Turkish-made drones. That gambit was quickly derailed when Putin imposed sanctions by forcing the cancellation of half a million Russian tourists’ trip to Turkey. He had played the same card earlier in 2015, when the Turks shot down a Russian aircraft over Syria. After proudly touting the shootdown as a sign of prowess, Turkey was forced to backtrack and apologize to Moscow.
For despite his braggadocio, Erdogan is a novice in foreign policy. With his combative style and unpredictable outbursts, he has alienated almost everyone in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood and beyond, save for Qatar and Azerbaijan. His efforts to repair ties with Greece, Egypt, Israel and the Europeans in general have produced mixed results. Only this past week, Turkey and Greece had an ugly public brawl as their foreign ministers traded accusations over maritime borders, migrants and the treatment of minorities, after which Erdogan gloated that the Greeks had “been put in their place.” He has also just declared Israel an “the enemy of Islam” and that he would not favor any reconciliation with the country. In short, Erdogan is not seen as a plausible mediator.
In contrast, the Russian president is a pro. He has played the Turkish leader time and again. The sale of the S-400 was a brilliant move, as Russia took quick advantage of Erdogan’s catastrophic miscalculation and swiftly delivered the missiles. In so doing, Putin engineered a deep quarrel between the US and Turkey that Ankara could not win. Putin has even more cards to play. He can gently pressure Turkey in a number of areas: from the Armenia-Azerbaijan front, to quietly objecting to Canal Istanbul, to reversing course on the Kurds in Syria. None of these is determinative, but sufficiently unsettling for Turkey.
And so, whatever happens next between Ukraine and Russia, Turkey’s imprint will be imperceptible. While Erdogan may want to stamp Turkey’s mark on the Black Sea region, he will in all likelihood be relegated to being a spectator to events on the northern shore of the Black Sea. And that’s how Erdogan sacrifices Turkey’s position at the fulcrum of geographic influence.
Henri J Barkey is Cohen professor of international relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.