Mending fences: The new normal in Turkish diplomacy

7 min read
11 April, 2022

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has presented Turkey with some dilemmas.

Whether discussing Ankara’s bilateral relationships with Kyiv and Moscow, Black Sea security, or the state of the Turkish economy, much is at stake as the conflict rages on.

But striking a delicate balance through skilled diplomacy is the name of the game for Ankara.

On one hand, Turkey has supported Ukrainian membership in NATO and stood against all Russian violations of the country’s sovereignty going back to 2014.

Turkey has also given military support to Kyiv in the form of stealth frigates and Turkish Bayraktar drones.

On the other, Ankara has chosen to engage President Vladimir Putin and his government respectfully, refusing to impose sanctions on Russia while acknowledging the need to address some of Moscow’s legitimate security concerns in pursuit of a solution to the conflict.

"The war in Ukraine has been a game-changer for Europe's security architecture and Ankara and many other capitals are attempting to navigate the new geopolitical dynamics"

Ankara sees a threat from Russia and joins other NATO members in believing that Putin needs to be decisively countered.

We’ve seen this before from Turkey in Libya and Syria, so it is not surprising to see Ankara stand by Kyiv as Russia invades and occupies parts of Ukraine.

Yet with an economy in bad shape Turkey is cautious about how it goes about challenging Russia’s foreign policy. Since the 1980s, the Turks have been big importers of natural gas from the USSR/Russia.

They also want Russian tourists to continue taking vacations in Istanbul, Izmir, and other parts of their country. Bilateral trade in the agricultural sector is also important to Turkish-Russian relations.

All these factors contribute to Ankara’s determination to prevent its tensions with Moscow from spiralling out of control.

“Ukraine, Turkey, and countries in our region should have a balanced foreign policy with everybody,” was how Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu put it last month at the Doha Forum.

“The unwritten rules governing the Turkish-Russian brinkmanship of conflict and cooperation prevent both nations from a collapse in relations while forcing both sides to discuss differences,” foreign policy and security analyst Ömer Özkizilcik told The New Arab.

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A skilful mediator

Officials in Ankara have taken it upon themselves to attempt to play a mediating role. Since last month the Turks have been hosting peace talks between the Russians and Ukrainians in Istanbul.

Although it’s too early to tell whether this Turkish mediation can succeed, it’s safe to say that it has been useful in terms of bringing the two sides together to put ideas on the table.

“At the end of the day, it’s rationality and wisdom that pushed Turkey to hold a linkage with both countries and be a type of exit gate,” Dr Murat Aslan, a researcher at the SETA Foundation and a faculty member at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, told TNA.

“It’s about complying with the new prerequisites of diplomacy…Once you have a problem with any other actor, that means you have to manage it.”

The war in Ukraine has been a game-changer for Europe’s security architecture and Ankara and many other capitals are attempting to navigate the new geopolitical dynamics.

When understanding Turkey’s approach to dealing with Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, it is important to maintain a historical perspective.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks ahead of the peace talks between delegations from Russia and Ukraine at Dolmabahce Presidential Office in Istanbul, Turkiye on 29 March 2022. [Getty]

“Turkey has used extremely skilful diplomacy to win the trust of both Russia and Ukraine,” said Matthew Bryza, the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan, in an interview with TNA.

“It’s a diplomacy that I say is skilful because it’s based on centuries of experience in dealing with Russia in both confronting and cooperating with Russia,” he added.

“Turkey, of course meaning in the Ottoman Empire…fought many wars - 10, 11 wars - with Russia since the 18th century [but had] to co-exist along the Black Sea as neighbours with Russia constantly dreaming of getting control of the Turkish straits and access to the Mediterranean Sea that it can control by itself versus at the same time seeing tremendous opportunities for economic cooperation with Turkey.”

Mending fences with multiple countries

Turkey is taking major steps to mend fences with a host of countries that have had tense relations with Ankara in recent years. These include Armenia, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

“What I observe is a selective, and gradual de-securitisation of [Turkey’s] previous foreign policy disagreements with a number of regional states,” Nesibe Hicret Battaloglu, a Research Assistant at the Gulf Studies Center, Qatar University, told TNA.

An important factor in this picture has been the change in US leadership. While Donald Trump was in the White House his administration’s foreign policy encouraged Turkey to be more bold, confrontational, and hawkish.

"Turkey is taking major steps to mend fences with a host of countries that have had tense relations with Ankara in recent years"

At the same time, Trump’s presidency had a similar impact on some Arab states seeking to counter Turkey, such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. With Biden in the Oval Office, Turkey has somewhat recalibrated aspects of its foreign policy, and so have the Emiratis and Saudis.

One consequence has been a reduction of tensions between Turkey and these two Gulf Arab powerhouses which have also approached Iran more diplomatically since Trump’s presidency ended.

Of course, Turkey’s own economic problems have contributed to this de-escalation of tensions between Ankara and various other countries in the neighbourhood with a greater focus being on economic, investment, and trade cooperation rather than ideological tensions.

“Turkey’s current attitude is to see first if the other country steps forward to have a good relationship with Turkey,” explained Dr Aslan.

“If they don’t, Turkey is not interested. If they do, that means Turkey takes two steps forward just to facilitate better relations…If the peaceful way of engaging with each other is an option, and it must be preferred, then Turkey appears open to any sort of dialogue. Otherwise, Turkey is hesitant.”

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Implications for US foreign policy

The war in Ukraine is the top priority of the Biden administration. Thus, Ankara working to mend fences in the neighbourhood while continuing its delicate balancing act with Russia and Ukraine could possibly have major implications for US interests throughout Europe, the Middle East, and the Caucasus.

“With Turkey playing such an important role in providing Ukraine the political, military-technical support that it needs, that would help the Biden administration appreciate the potential strategic value of Turkey in a new way,” said Bryza.

“The fact that that coincided with Turkey mending its fences throughout its neighbourhood, including with Greece, has opened the way for a reinvigoration of the strategic partnership between Turkey and the United States that befits NATO allies.”

That said, not all in Washington want to see the US-Turkey alliance improve, nor do they value Ankara’s role in the Russian-Ukrainian war.

“There are [many] members of Congress that still want to punish Turkey for its sins and its more confrontational period,” explained Bryza.

“There are certain members of the Congress like Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who blocked my nomination as ambassador to Azerbaijan through utterly false claims—either that I’m a denier of the Armenian genocide or my wife is somehow making me unqualified because she was born in Turkey.”

"As the conflict rages on, it is difficult for officials in Washington to deny the importance of Turkey in terms of defending NATO's eastern flank"

As the former US ambassador to Azerbaijan said to TNA, lawmakers like Menendez will consistently fight tooth and nail to prevent the US-Turkey alliance from improving in any meaningful way for reasons that seem related to the campaign contributions which they receive from certain anti-Turkish lobbying groups.

“There are people like that in Washington that’ll always oppose strong US-Turkey relations. But I think they’re now going to be on the losing end of the equation as Turkey’s strategic importance in the most pressing issue in the world today confronting us - stopping Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine - becomes more significant.”

To be sure, there are many sources of tension between Washington and Ankara that current circumstances in Ukraine have not and will not remove.

This alliance will continue to have many difficulties. There are a host of American and Turkish interests which do not align. Nonetheless, as the conflict rages on, it is difficult for officials in Washington to deny the importance of Turkey in terms of defending NATO’s eastern flank.

Within this context, in which there is a bipartisan consensus in the US about the need to stop Putin’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine, lawmakers who want the US to stop viewing Turkey as an important ally will probably have their arguments dismissed right off the bat by Biden administration officials who favour strengthening, not weakening, the NATO alliance.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero