Uriel Araujo, researcher with a focus on international and ethnic conflicts
Tensions between Washington and Turkey were visible in the November 16 meeting in Bali, when US President Joe Biden supposedly “snubbed” his Turkish counterpart. Washington has been pressing Ankara to approve the Swedish and Finnish bids, but Turkey remains inflexible. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan arguably has been playing NATO quite skillfully, while there are signs the alliance is losing unity over a number of issues. However, Ankara faces many challenges as it struggles to balance its complex relationship with its NATO allies and with Eurasian powers Russia and China.
Finland is currently considering arms exports to Turkey, hoping the country will ratify its NATO membership. Turkey, a NATO member, has also demanded both Finland and Sweden take a tougher stance against Kurdish rebels. In November, the Swedish parliament in turn approved an anti-terror law, as demanded by the Turkish authorities in Ankara. Although Ankara is the only state opposing the two countries’ membership, Hungary has not ratified it yet either.
For NATO, the two Nordic countries are not the only issue involving Ankara. With the change in the Mediterranean power balance, tensions between Greece and Turkey (who have a decades-long territorial dispute) have been escalating since at least 2020, and experts have warned that this too could disrupt the North Atlantic unity. Greece has been supported by France in this matter – the former traditionally has entertained the ambition of a more independent Europe.
Amid such quarrels, Ankara has sometimes been described as masterfully balancing its relationship with both Washington and Moscow, remaining “neutral” in the current conflict in Ukraine while benefiting from this stance. For example, even American companies have been counting on Turkey as a conduit for trade with Russia (bypassing sanctions), and, in September, with the opening of the Black Sea corridor, a Russia-Turkey deal was sealed to ensure poorer countries would receive grains. The reality, in any case, however is that while being relatively isolated from the West, Ankara also has at times difficult relations with both Russia and China.
It is true that, amid the ongoing New Cold War, even though bipolarity seems to be back, many emerging powers today are increasingly building on multi-alignment, non-alignment and multilateralism. They often do so by pursuing mutually beneficial bilateral relations with Beijing and Moscow, on the one hand, while balancing their relationship with Washington, on the other hand.
This way, a power such as India for instance, has been projecting itself as a kind of diplomatic giant, with a focus on its balancing power. However, as I’ve written, one can only “balance” and “reconcile” so much, and there are limits and challenges to “neutrality” and pragmatism. In India’s case, a more integral approach to Eurasia is needed.
Ankara in turn seems to attempt to position itself in a way that is, in some ways, analogous to India’s approach – by advancing Turkish-Chinese partnership on the Middle Corridor-BRI cooperation, for instance.
However, while India still can boast of being, to some extent, trusted by both sides in the Ukrainian conflict, Ankara’s situation is more complicated. Its relations with Moscow have always been complex (one can recall the 2015 crisis), and already in early 2021 showed signs of deterioration.
For example, it is widely understood that Russian peacekeepers in Artsakh (Nagorno-Karabakh, in the Armenia–Azerbaijan border) have been acting as a kind of shield against the expansion of Ankara-promoted pan-Turkism in the Caucasus, a region where Turkey has visibly played a clearly destabilizing role. Turkish aggressive policies arguably threaten stability in Eurasia as a whole, as can be seen not only in the aforementioned Armenian border, but also in the disputed Aegean Sea islands, in Kashmir, Iran, Syria, and even in the Russian borders.
Turkish interests pertaining to enhanced cooperation with China and other states are part of its larger aspirations for becoming a new hegemon in its region. These ambitions however, including Ankara’s promotion of Pan-Turkist and Turanist concepts (amid neo-Ottomanist ambitions) have destabilizing potential and thus trouble key partners in Eurasia, including China itself. Geopolitically and geostrategically, the interests of Turks clash with those of Russians and the Chinese in Central Asia and the Caucasus. There is also a Moscow-Ankara rivalry in the Middle East, their proxy competition in Libya being notorious.
Both Russia and Turkey have patrolled the northeast of Syria, cooperating in the struggle against terrorism. However, Turkish support for Ukrainian moves in the Donbass region remains a major issue and so is Turkey’s NATO membership, as Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu stated in March, remarking it is an impediment to cooperation.
While an organization such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), for instance, focuses more on security and stability issues, NATO, on the other hand, increasingly sees its mission as being the defender of certain (Western) values. Turkey is a Dialogue Partner of the SCO. It is a very difficult task “balancing” healthy Eurasian-Turkish relations with, on the other hand, remaining a member of an organization almost solely devoted to antagonizing Moscow and Beijing. India, for example, is both a full-member of SCO and a QUAD member and, that being so, already faces many challenges to its “balancing” role. Turkish status as a NATO member is even more complicated in that regard.
Amid such a complex geopolitical game, it remains to be seen how long an aggressive Ankara will manage to balance its intricate relations with both the West, and with China and Russia.
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