Turkey has worked to maintain a neutral position between Russia and Ukraine during the ongoing war but it should be working to rebuild relations with the West in any Cold War, said analyst Asli Aydintasbas in an op-ed published in the Washington Post on Saturday.
Under Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, relations with Russia have improved as Turkey’s longstanding ties to the West have frayed. Yet despite this, Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), argues that Turkey remains a critical partner as a member of NATO with its own complicated relationship with Russia.
In line with its attempts to balance all sides during the war, Turkey has contributed to Ukraine’s defence with military exports of armed Bayraktar TB-2 drones and has acted to restrict the access of more Russian warships entering the Black Sea under the 1936 Montreux Convention. At the same time, Erdoğan has made clear that he will not “abandon” Russia or Ukraine and his representatives voted to abstain from a Council of Europe vote to suspend Russia alongside its European partners.
Aydintasbas argues that Erdoğan increased his reliance on Russia’s President Vladimir Putin by increasing the amount of investment and energy Turkey has taken on from its historic rival. However, she adds that “Russia-romanticism” in the wake of the failed July 2016 coup attempt has withered after repeated clashes between the two sides in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. This includes the alleged Russian airstrike in February 2020 that killed 34 Turkish soldiers in the Syrian province of Idlib.
Yet Aydintasbas maintains that the current conflict has placed Erdoğan in a position where he may want to pivot towards the West, but without “returning to the club of democracies”. To do this successfully though, she advocates for Turkey to begin a return to more democratic governance and take “baby steps” like renewing negotiations over its possession of the Russian S-400 missile system as well as other symbolic steps like releasing political prisoners like civil society activist Osman Kavala.
None of these promise to be easy, but the analyst says it is necessary for any “grand bargain” to involve democratization of Turkey’s political system because “the alternative for Ankara is being left with Putin, and that certainly is unsafe.”