If Western leaders were surprised to see Turkey throw a diplomatic wrench into plans to admit Finland and Sweden into NATO, they should not have been.
Throughout the last decade, President Tayyip Erdogan has been relentlessly consistent in attempting to take almost any international crisis or dynamic and make it more about Turkey than any of the other players wanted or expected.
It’s an approach that has drawn Turkey into in conflicts in Libya and Syria and become a resurgent player in Africa and the Middle East – last month also saw Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu touring Latin America. Turkish weaponry, particularly unmanned drones, turned the tide of the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as more recently in Ethiopia and Ukraine.
But Turkey has also often been rebuffed. As fighting raged in the coastal Ukrainian city of Mariupol this month, Turkey attempted to position itself to negotiate a civilian evacuation – but appeared to play little real role in the final endgame.
Still, along with China, Turkey is one of the few nations that has kept good relations with both Kyiv and Moscow throughout.
Turkey’s rejection of an otherwise unanimous NATO decision to admit Sweden and Finland is officially down to long-running Turkish anger over what Ankara perceives as their support for separatist Kurdish groups.
That is likely partly genuine. Ankara has long been frustrated by Nordic nations offering asylum to Kurdish and other individuals that it wants deported. But it also has roots in other long-running disputes, not least Turkey’s moribund European Union accession hopes and anger at Western responses to its post-2016 coup crackdown.
Prime minister from 2003 and then president since 2014, Erdogan has long been a somewhat idiosyncratic and unpredictable presence on the international stage, sometimes cosying up to fellow authoritarian leaders in Moscow and Beijing while stopping short of outright destroying Turkey’s status as a Western ally.
Ankara’s increasingly assertive foreign policy over that period – dubbed “neo-Ottoman” in reference to Turkey’s former empire as a mark of its ambition – has never been characterized by particular consistency. In 2018 and 2019, Erdogan was amongst the harshest early critics of Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and China over its treatment of its ethnic Turkic minority Uighur population before managing a dramatic rapprochement with both nations.
Also in 2019, Turkey infuriated the United States and NATO allies with its purchase of Russian S-400 air defenses, costing it its position in the US-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. At the same time, however, Turkish proxies have been waging periodic war against those of Russia in both Syria and Libya.
Turkey has taken a similarly complex position on the conflict in Ukraine, maintaining an ongoing dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin even as it has remained similarly close to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones – named for and reportedly designed by the Turkish leader’s son-in-law – first delivered to Ukraine last year have been particularly effective, destroying Russian tanks, trucks and gunboats.
Simultaneously, however, like multiple other emerging market states such as India, the United Arab Emirates and China, Turkey has avoided imposing stringent sanctions on Moscow, with Russia this week announcing a bilateral deal on use of bank cards and flights that will give Moscow another modest economic lifeline.
Turkey’s opposition to NATO expansion to Finland and Sweden wrecked what alliance officials had hoped would be a quick, easy and well-publicized decision to accept their applications, imposing another diplomatic cost to Russia. Instead, Turkish Foreign Minister Cavusoglu wound up in what some officials who attended said was an unseemly row with European counterparts.
According to one account to Reuters from a Western official, Cavusoglu raised his voice to Swedish counterpart Ann Linde and criticised what he allegedly described as Sweden’s “feminist foreign policy.” Turkish officials reject that account, and say that characterisation came from Linde.
Clash of world views
“We were trying to understand what our Turkish colleagues wanted – you know, really wanted,” one diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity, describing a tense atmosphere at the German Foreign Ministry where the meeting took place, with many countries opting to stay silent. “It was embarrassing.”
Such sentiments, however, may simply feed mutual antagonism. Turkey is particularly irritated at what it sees as the borderline racist refusal of European nations to allow it to enter the European Union, and infuriated by what it perceives as European and Western bias towards Greece and Cyprus in their ongoing disputes with Ankara.
Erdogan faces what could be closely contested elections in 2023, and taking a tough line with Western counterparts is seen by some as an electoral strategy to cement his support amongst moderate Islamists and nationalists.
But there is also genuine anger and frustration within the Turkish state at Sweden in particular, both over an arms embargo on Turkey following its incursions into Syria and a refusal to extradite 33 individuals of mostly Kurdish extraction it accuses of terrorist offences. Sweden is likely to continue to refuse this.
Turkey also remains angry at several Western states, including the Nordics and Germany, that offered asylum to some former Turkish military officers wanted by Ankara for alleged involvement in a 2017 coup attempt that almost swept Erdogan from power.
But none of these dynamics is binary. Tuesday also saw Cavusoglu meeting US counterpart Antony Blinken, with Turkish media rife with speculation Erdogan could yet drop its objections to Finnish and Swedish membership of NATO in return for F-16 jets or readmission to the F-35 program.
For modern Turkey, everything is about negotiation and prestige – and this week’s NATO expansion spat will again have ensured that this does not get forgotten. [Reuters]
Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.