Despite the apparent shift in Turkey’s foreign policy towards a more ideological stance under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s geopolitics remain inherently pragmatic. It is true the Turkish government’s close relationship with Russia has undermined its partnership with NATO countries while its obstruction of Sweden’s and, until recently, Finland’s accession to the alliance has raised further questions over security and unity. However, these positions should not be considered a permanent turn away from the West.
Over the past ten years, Turkey’s involvement in the Russia-Ukraine war and Syrian conflicts has proven that its geopolitical importance cannot be underestimated. Ahead of the country’s 2023 presidential and parliamentary elections in May, Western policymakers have an opportunity to reset their approach. With a view to incentivising Turkish realignment, regardless of which political party wins, Western leaders should consider a new platform for engagement – underpinned by strong institutional mechanisms – which acknowledges the country’s strategic position in the world.
Prior to 2022, Erdogan’s Turkey had been seen to be distancing itself from Western partners, a policy symbolised by its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system and its subsequent exclusion from Western defence projects, most notably the F-35 fighter-aircraft programme. While these events undoubtedly pushed the country out of step with Western interests, they should be understood in the context of Turkey’s decades-old pursuit of autonomy.
Indeed, dramatic developments in 2022 were indicative of a different repositioning. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last February, Turkey has attempted to juggle its deep economic and security ties with Russia and its NATO membership. A dramatic reopening of diplomatic relations with Israel and the Gulf states followed in the summer, adding to speculation that Turkey was pursuing a new foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond. Most recently, the Turkish government’s praise of Saudi Arabia for being one of the first to send humanitarian aid in response to the devastating earthquakes of February 2023 is further evidence of its desire to encourage this rapprochement.
While inconstant, Turkey’s pragmatic foreign-policy and context-dependent alignment with the West has continued under Erdogan. Although the president has shrewdly used the country’s Islamic heritage as a tool for leverage when Turkey has found itself in conflict with the West and allied Gulf nations, its approach has remained deeply opportunistic, at times strategic and, above all, pragmatic.
So, are we seeing the emergence of a Turkey gradually pivoting back to a “bridge” role between the East and West? And, if so, what opportunities does this present to Western partners seeking to stabilise their relationship with the country and draw it back into their orbit?
Through the long arc of Turkish geopolitics, this report analyses foreign-policy doctrines such as “strategic autonomy” and “zero problems with the neighbours”, which have underpinned periods of both close Western cooperation (the 1990s) and strengthening ties with Russia (the 2010s). While Turkey should still be generally considered a member of the Western alliance, it has at times drawn on its relationship with Russia to advance its autonomy.
Across the Middle East and beyond, Turkey’s roles – from backing the Government of National Accord during the Libyan civil war to supporting Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict as well as its deep security interests in Iraq and Syria – are considered through the prism of Western and Russian interests – and the foreign-policy doctrine of autonomy. These positions highlight how its approach to geopolitics has been shaped by pragmatism rather than by dogmatic ideology – whether Islamism or a quest to replicate the might of the Ottoman Empire – or even steadfast loyalty to either East or West.
Against this backdrop, Western policymakers have an opportunity to take proactive steps to develop a more durable relationship with Turkey rather than reacting with reflexive hostility when the country’s positioning comes into conflict with or varies from their own. Russia’s faltering war in Ukraine cannot be solely relied upon to guarantee that Turkey will transition away from the Russian sphere of influence. Potential routes to cultivating this relationship are institutional mechanisms, economic policy and investment.
New Platform for Engagement
In the absence of any likelihood that Turkey will join the European Union in the immediate future, an alternative institutional arrangement could be based on enhanced investment and trade developed on the back of the existing customs union between Turkey and the European Union. This arrangement could be extended to involve the United States and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom is well placed to serve in a mediating role between Turkey and the United States to pave the way for such stronger investment and trade ties.
A potential model for such an approach is the recently created Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity. Led by the United States and launched in 2022, the 14-member framework focuses on enhanced trade, supply-chain resilience, infrastructure and clean energy as well as anti-corruption. While this framework does not explicitly mention China, the platform is undoubtedly underpinned by the US desire to better compete with Chinese influence in that region.
Similarly, a new framework with Turkey in partnership with the European Union and the United Kingdom could serve to reduce Turkey’s economic reliance on Russia and build a durable alliance that transcends ad-hoc geopolitical interests.
Foreign-Policy Insights Ahead of the 2023 Elections
There also needs to be a better understanding of the challenges facing the country’s foreign-policymakers, whichever direction Turkey takes during the elections. The following insights are crucial to this understanding:
Turkey’s close relations with Russia will continue regardless of the election results. However, if the opposition alliance wins the elections, Western policymakers can expect Turkey to become a more reliable NATO member and ally.[_] The leader of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, promises to implement democratic reforms to establish closer links with the European Union if he comes to power[_] while Meral Aksener, head of the Good (IYI) Party, has described a future partnership with the European Union as “strategic”.[_] This does not mean that EU membership is a pressing priority for either the European Union or Turkey, however. In fact, neither believes there is a real possibility of Turkey joining the bloc in the immediate future, with issues such as migration, populism in Europe and authoritarianism in Turkey all stumbling blocks. This is why opposition leaders are not campaigning on this issue. And while the opposition has adopted more of a pro-Ukrainian stance on the Russia-Ukraine war, it is still unlikely to be outwardly hostile to Russia. This is because Turkey is dependent on Russian tourism, energy and trade. If the existing government – run by the eight-party Cumhur Alliance of which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) is the biggest – wins again, Turkish pragmatism and foreign-policy opportunism will continue. In this scenario, the AKP will retain close ties to Russia unless Turkey is able to secure major concessions from the West, especially support for its faltering economy.
Turkey will continue playing an active role in the Russia-Ukraine war. As one of the few nations that can still talk to leaders in both Ukraine and Russia, its position here should not be undermined or underestimated. As the war in Ukraine escalates, Western policymakers should look for ways to leverage this Turkish role, specifically its ability to speak to both parties.
Opposition leaders, namely the CHP, will continue improving Turkey’s relationships with neighbours in the Middle East. Deputy Chairperson Unal Cevikoz has presented the party’s Middle East Peace and Cooperation Organisation plan according to which it will aim to increase dialogue with Iran, Syria and Iraq.[_] This initiative could attract support from the European Union, which needs to stem refugee arrivals caused by instability in the Middle East. However, a possible rapprochement between Turkey and Iran could anger the Republicans in the United States as well as Israel and the Gulf nations.
Turkey is likely to continue stalling Sweden’s membership of NATO in the short term while it seeks additional concessions and because this position shores up support for the AKP among nationalist and anti-West Turkish voters at home. Ankara wants Sweden to declare certain Kurdish groups terrorists and extradite people belonging to the Gulen movement, which is outlawed in Turkey. While Sweden has agreed to withdraw an arms embargo it imposed on Turkey in 2019, it has proved more reluctant on the Kurdish and Gulenist questions. The Turkish government also aims to secure concessions from the United States, ranging from approval for a Turkish military operation against the Syrian Kurds to approval of a proposed billion-dollar modernisation to its F-16 fleet. While the United States had been reluctant to move on these points, instead offering security partnerships to both Sweden and Finland, and therefore weakening Turkey’s negotiating position, new developments as of April 2023 indicate a shift. In return for Turkey’s approval of Finland’s NATO membership, which it had also been stalling, the US State Department has accelerated its approval of sales of selected kits needed to modernise Turkey’s F-16 fleet. Further movements on the issue of Sweden’s accession ratification is also expected soon after the Turkish elections, notwithstanding the results.
Turkey’s main concern in Syria has shifted from regime change to the neutralisation of the Syrian Kurds. Western policymakers should assuage Turkish concerns on security. Otherwise, recent Turkish military operations in Syria could intensify, endangering advances that had been made against the Islamic State (ISIS). A land operation against the Syrian Kurds remains a major risk factor.