Russia caused a seismic shock throughout the World by invading Ukraine. Nothing will be the same again and the Ukraine crisis will be recorded in history as a milestone in international relations. A new generation cold war we all knew had started before the Russian attack on Ukraine, once again dividing East and West, will now further intensify. And the stance that different countries take with regard to this crisis will determine their place in the new global order that is now being shaped.
For at least two years now, Turkey is on a mission to repair its image in the West and to break away from its self-inflicted isolation in global politics. Will Turkey now be able to leverage the Ukraine crisis in the right way? Can Turkey turn this crisis into an opportunity? Will it be able to get its relationship with the US and the EU back on track? Will it manage to overcome the stalemate it is suffering in its relationship with the West? These are some of the questions that are frequently raised these days.
Managing the Crisis
Since the early days of the crisis we witnessed a dramatic change in Turkey’s foreign policy. The government is mining its soft power and has seemingly moved away from the anti-Western rhetoric we had grown accustomed to. It is now following a much more balanced foreign policy compared to the recent past despite that sentiment still being very much alive among its own political base.
On a grass roots level constituents do not fully grasp what the real dynamics are and what is at stake. Domestic discussions revolve around questions about whether Turkey should trust the West and where it really belongs ideologically and historically. Even so-called experts and journalists have divided in those propogating aligning with the East or with the West based on political morality rather than the simple fact at that Russia – among others – has violated one of the most sacred principles in international law, namely the sovereignty of another state.
Did American actions force Russia to attack Ukraine?
Those in the Eastern camp are falling over each other to argue that American actions have forced Russia’s hand; Putin had no choice! Consequenlty, while a large majority of AKP constituents disagree with Turkey’s official policy, the government has so far ignored these voices. It almost feels as if President Erdogan and his inner circle have finally realized that the price of international loneliness is higher than they are willing to pay. Pragmatism prevails; for now at least.
However, the government has other problems. It is basically stuck between past mistakes and the position it is now trying to leverage. Old ill-adviced decisions such as the purchase of the S-400 are now preventing the government from maximizing its unique geopolitical advantages. For now, the government is stuck trying to balance its vital interests with Russia, such as energy supply, while pursuing its stated position of supporting Ukraine.
Predictions in the West
While Putin managed to unite most Western countries, Turkey remains one of the few odd men out. As a result the Biden administration is trying to work with Turkey without asking for things they know will be difficult to grant for Turkey. While ideas about getting rid of the S400 air defense system Turkey procured from Russia are carefully floated behind closed doors, it is no secret that the U.S. wants Turkey to refrain from becoming a financial safe haven for Putin and his allies.
The skies are clearer with regard to Turkey’s relationship with the EU. The fact that Turkey was one of the first to issue a very clear condemnation of Russian aggression and its unhesitating activation of the Montreux treaty to block Russian warships from entering the black sea was very pleasingly welcomed in Brussels. The number of visits by numerous European leaders in the last ten days and their statements praising Turkey speak for itself.
What if the Ukraine crisis extends beyond expectations
While the government is pulling off this game of balance for now, it is obvious that continuing this delicate balancing act will prove much more difficult as the 2023 elections are nearing. Firmly siding with the West at a time that grassroots sentiment against the West is peaking will not be easy and the longer this war lasts, the less manoeuvrability the government will enjoy. Despite this domestic political implications, it has become painfully clear to policy-makers on both sides that Turkey’s natural place is with the West and President Erdogan has learnt – the hard way – that he needs to stay away from confrontational policies and focus on implementing confidence-building steps with his Western allies.
One-man rule and democracy
The Ukraine crisis may also create a deeper understanding of the disadvantages of one-man rule in general. It is no secret that the appeal of a strong-man politician has disappeared together with whatever credibility Russian President Vladimir Putin had left in the West. Regardless of how the Ukraine crisis ends, there will be no room for Russian President Putin in the new world order that will undoubtedly emerge. And it will be very difficult to maintain a close personal relationship with him.
The revival of rule of law and a reform of the justice system, especially regarding fundamental civil rights, is essential if Turkey wants to rebuild trust with the international community. And the only way for President Erdogan to consolidate the good will Turkey is now enjoying as a by-product of this crisis is to once again restore our democracy. I am joined by millions of Turks who are praying this opportunity will not be wasted.