What Can Russia do With Erdogan

By Timofey Bordachev


By Timofey Bordachev – Our discussion on the Turkish issue is now a combination of two opposing points of view. One believes that Ankara is an insidious and dangerous adversary, stretching out the tentacles of its influence to the Muslim-majority countries of the former USSR and, in the long-term, even to certain regions of Russia itself. Another point of view is based on a fairly strong degree of arrogance, which is quite natural and is generated by Moscow’s massive military superiority over Ankara.

Sometimes we see a combination of these approaches. Then a rather phantasmagoric picture arises before our eyes – fear mixed with arrogance towards this foreign policy partner. Both points of view contrast the official approach, as defined by the head of state at Valdai Club a meeting on October 22: “Cooperation with Turkey is comfortable and reliable,” although there are serious disagreements.

Still, Russia hardly needs to worry too much because one of the most prominent troublemakers in contemporary international politics is its immediate neighbor. Ankara’s own military capabilities and its ambiguous position in Western security structures make it an ideal partner and a potential adversary. Russia can use a full range of diplomatic instruments against Turkey, bar military ones, without risking creating conditions for an escalation towards a general bloody conflict. The notorious “red line” in relations between Russia and Turkey was passed in October 2015, when a Russian attack jet was shot down over Syria. In February 2020, Russia used force in Syria, and Turkish servicemen were most likely killed.

But this mode of interaction does not pose a serious threat. Even second-class regional power, Poland, as a neighbor, is more dangerous – it does not speak with its own voice, but is the most important US outpost on Russia’s borders. If Moscow finds itself in a situation where it becomes vital for it to “punish” Warsaw, then this, of course, will carry certain risks. Moreover, the territory of one of the major NATO countries and leading European powers, Germany, is right next to Poland.

Nobody (friendly) stands behind Turkey. This country balances on the frontier of the European international order, where it has not been accepted despite nearly 50 years of attempts and the endless chaos of the Greater Middle East. Erdogan’s foreign policy behavior is causing colossal irritation in Europe. Several decades of the mutual opening of markets have certainly brought something to Ankara. The most significant acquisition is strong ties with Germany. For the sake of their preservation, Berlin, as we see, easily neglects the wishes of its allies in Paris or Athens. But that’s all there is to it. The Arab world and Iran also have no brotherly feelings towards Turkey. Four of the five Central Asian countries, as well as Azerbaijan, need it only as a balancer for Russian domination and the growing influence of China. Compared to Beijing, Turkey is good for that, even theoretically, although it cannot count on complete control of the economies and politics of these independent states. They, unlike NATO vassal Georgia, are simply too big.

Therefore, the general external conditions for Turkey, of course, cannot be called favorable. But despite such a tragic international situation, Ankara was able to achieve something. Thanks to its foreign policy activity under President Erdogan, the Republic of Turkey is present in several conflicts outside its own borders. By the way, in all cases, except for the Eastern Mediterranean, it does this in parallel with Russia. The price is the reputation of the troublemaker and the question “what to do with Erdogan”, which the leaders of the Western countries are tormented by. We can be sure that the arrival of the Biden administration to the White House does not mean anything good for Ankara. Several regional conflicts and poor relations with Europe have become the price of admission to a new round of great power politics. In the coming years, Ankara will face a rather severe struggle, and if it fails, Western institutions are unlikely to be ready to accept it even on relatively fair terms.

In the fall of 2020, Turkey was able to ensure that its voice is heard when discussing the problems of the border region of the Caucasus. Resolute and consistent support for Baku’s military efforts to take lost territories has made Turkey an important player in this area of ​​the post-Soviet space. Also to the obvious frustration of the West. The military solution to the Karabakh issue made the Minsk Group symbolic – a relic of international politics in the 1990s, when Russia was forced to come to terms with the presence of not only the United States, but also of France, which had nothing to do with the affairs of the region. The number of territories where the possibilities of decisive intervention by Russia remained hypothetical was reduced. Even if in five years the Russian peacekeepers leave Karabakh, it will be impossible to return to the state that arose during the time of Russia’s greatest foreign policy humiliation.

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Over the past decades, a generation of politicians and diplomats has grown up in Turkey, whose actions and rhetoric of the West no longer cause indignation, but indifference and a calm readiness to act contrary to the interests of their former patrons. The author of these lines is personally acquainted with some of them. Turkey, disenchanted with Europe, became under Erdogan one of the most active destroyers of the international order that emerged after the Cold War and was based on the complete triumph of the United States and its allies. Moscow was dissatisfied with this order even more than Ankara, but Russia’s role on the global level was still guaranteed by its nuclear weapons.

Turkey did not have such guarantees. No one in Washington and Europe was going to give it anything just for its loyalty. Now they have to take it all by themselves. Buying air defense systems from Russia is, in fact, a much more significant decision than sending the military to one of the neighboring countries or supplying its own new weapons there. The reduction of US military-technological control over one of the key countries of the Russian perimeter is much more important for its national security than even a geographically remote military base. The base, like allied commitments, is our problem. The Turkish opposition to Washington or Europe is a problem of the West and a visible indication of the decline in its global power. Unlike the Cold War period, Ankara is no longer a vehicle for their interests.

The humiliating defeat of Armenia made obvious not only the destructiveness of inflated self-importance. It once again proved the irresponsibility of betting on the West – in recent years, the United States and Europeans have not saved a single client. Pursuing its own goals, Ankara has solved another foreign policy task for Russia in the post-Soviet space.

So let Turkey continue to do this. And the longer this behavior continues, the better for Russia. Thank God, Russian military and diplomatic capabilities are large enough to restrict Turkish desires where they cause Moscow even the slightest discomfort. We saw this in the example of bilateral contacts last week. Excessive self-confidence in relation to Turkey is erroneous, because it will become a repetition of the Europeans’ policy towards this country. But there is absolutely no need to fight Turkey in all areas or to strive for its destruction. It makes no sense to grab hot potatoes out of the fire for the benefit of Macron and his clientele in the countries of southern Europe and the Transcaucasus of Russia.

It is much more important to leave Turkish affairs to the diplomats and the military, and at the level of public discussion focus on the restoration of Armenia’s strength, solidifying relations with Azerbaijan and integrating both countries into the common space of cross-border economic cooperation.
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