Ukraine's impact on the US-Turkey alliance

6 min read
09 March, 2022
Analysis: The bilateral relationship has faced serious issues in recent years, but could the conflict in Ukraine lead to a potential strengthening of Ankara and Washington's alliance?

Throughout this century, Turkey has diversified its partnerships away from Ankara’s traditional western allies, approaching Eurasia with a less western-centric foreign policy.

Turkey wants to continue its careful balance between the West and Russia in this increasingly multipolar world.

Russia attacking a NATO member such as Poland would constitute a geopolitical nightmare for Turkey. In such an extreme scenario, Ankara would probably have no choice but to pick a side.

The mix of diplomatic and military tools that Ankara is using to address the Russian-Ukrainian war highlights Turkey’s interests in minimising the risks of such a catastrophic situation from unfolding.

Despite Ankara and Washington’s decades-old alliance, the bilateral relationship has faced serious issues in recent years.

"The Ukraine war has been catapulted to Washington's number one concern, which gives Turkey leverage it didn't have before"

According to a 2020 poll, 70 percent of Turkey’s population views the US as a threat. The Turkish citizenry sees the US-YPG relationship as the number one problem in bilateral affairs.

In addition to Washington’s support for the YPG, other delicate issues such as America’s alleged role in the failed 2016 coup, the US’s refusal to extradite Fethullah Gülen, and the Mehmet Hakan Atilla file have led many Turkish government officials and citizens to see the US as untrustworthy.

Against this backdrop, Ankara has leveraged Turkish-Russian relations to make Ankara more autonomous from Washington.

On the other side, many Americans argue that Turkey is guilty of maintaining an ambiguous relationship with the Islamic State. Also, the S-400 missile defence saga has raised doubts in Washington about Ankara’s commitment to NATO.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has skilfully exploited all these problems in the US-Turkey alliance to try to remove Ankara from the NATO fold as much as possible. The Kremlin’s response to the failed coup of 2016 was a case in point.

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Likewise, rising tensions between Washington and Moscow have given President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government chances to play the US and Russia off each other to Ankara’s advantage.

Within this context, it is worth asking how the Russian-Ukrainian conflict could change Washington and Ankara’s relationship as well as Turkey’s position between its NATO allies and Moscow.

Today, warfare in Ukraine is Washington’s main international focus, giving Ankara some new forms of leverage vis-à-vis America.

“The Ukraine war has been catapulted to Washington’s number one concern, which gives Turkey leverage it didn’t have before,” Dr Joshua Landis, Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told The New Arab. “The US needs Turkey to squeeze Russia.”

While seeking to weaken and isolate Russia, the White House needs to approach Turkey differently to mend fences with Ankara.

“The US must be solicitous of Turkey’s concerns, whether they are in Syria, Libya, or the Mediterranean,” explained Dr Landis.

“In the Kurdish issue as well, Washington will have to be more attentive to Ankara’s demands. Erdogan has been a master strategist at leveraging Turkey’s pivotal position between Russia and the US. This war will give him greater influence.”

The conflict in Ukraine could potentially lead to a strengthening of the US-Turkey alliance. [Getty]

Bringing US-Turkey relations back on track

The conflict in Ukraine could potentially lead to a strengthening of the US-Turkey alliance mindful of Ankara’s pro-Kyiv position, especially underscored by Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones making a difference in the war. Yet at this point, it might be premature to reach this conclusion.

“I believe that it’s early to judge whether the alliance is growing stronger or not [as a result of the Russian-Ukrainian war],” said Dr Ali Bakir, Research Assistant Professor at Qatar University's Ibn Khaldon Center for Humanities and Social Sciences, in an interview with TNA.

“This is a great opportunity for both parties to coordinate, cooperate, and advance their mutual interests and bilateral relations. Unfortunately, the US and their European partners missed such an opportunity in 2020 when Turkey engaged in a war with Assad, and indirectly with Iran and Russia, in Idlib. [Ankara’s western allies] just kept watching.”

Other experts assess the situation similarly. “Turkey’s geostrategic importance is a key enabler of its value to the NATO alliance, but that by itself is not sufficient to bring all issues to a compromise between the US and Turkey,” Serhat S. Çubukçuoğlu, a senior researcher in geopolitics and a doctoral candidate in International Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, told TNA.

"While seeking to weaken and isolate Russia, the White House needs to approach Turkey differently to mend fences with Ankara"

“Yes, [Russia’s war against Ukraine] creates some areas of cooperation -perhaps on intelligence and various arrangements within NATO for arms and supplies to Ukraine. But it remains to be seen how far that goes.”

There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty as to how the Russian-Ukrainian war will eventually end. There are also many open questions surrounding Washington’s commitment to mending the US-Turkey alliance.

“We need to see some concrete steps as to what direction Washington is willing to take,” explained Çubukçuoğlu.

“Now we are in the fog of war. We are not very clear what Washington is willing to do and how far it is able to go. At this stage I don’t think Turkey is, for instance, ready to send back the S400s or cancel the deal altogether. This is probably on the bargaining table. But Turkey needs to get something in return in order to maybe ship them back or put them in a third country,” added Çubukçuoğlu.

Turkey's critics in Washington

The extent to which this alliance will improve because of the war in Ukraine remains unclear. But it can safely be concluded that US policymakers will take far less seriously voices in Washington who advocate expelling Turkey from NATO.

“[The Russian-Ukrainian war] is going to put a quick stop to any chatter about Turkey being kicked out of NATO,” explained Dr Monica Marks, an Assistant Professor of Middle East Politics at New York University, Abu Dhabi.

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“I don’t think that that was ever a realistic option, but now it looks utterly fantastical and nonsensical as an option because Turkey is obviously a very important part of the NATO coalition. NATO is going to be focusing on maintaining its unity and maintaining its defences. The last thing it’s going to be considering now is rethinking the possibility of upending their union which is what would happen if Turkey left,” added Dr Marks.

That said, this war probably won’t suddenly end anti-Turkish discourse in Washington.

“I don’t expect them to stop because of the current war between Russia and Ukraine,” maintained Dr Bakir.

“I hear some of them trying to downplay the Turkish military support to Ukraine when it comes to the Bayraktar TB2. They’re trying to explain Turkey’s current position as if it’s pro-Russia. This gives you a glimpse of how these [voices] think and what circuits they try to influence. I’m not expecting them to be silent anytime soon.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero