Deep strains have developed in Erdogan’s relationship with his NATO partners because of his cuddling up to Russia and his adventurous and bellicose activities across the Mediterranean region.
Turkey’s President, Tayyip Erdogan doesn’t accept criticism lightly. Last Saturday, in an explosion of anger, he ordered his foreign ministry to expel the ambassadors of the US and nine other Western countries. The reason? They had demanded the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala, a contributor to numerous civil society groups who has been in prison awaiting trial for four years, charged with financing nationwide protests in 2013, a charge which he denies. In a joint statement on 18 October the ambassadors of Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and the United States had called for the speedy resolution of Kavala’s case, and for his “urgent release”.
It’s not just Kavala who is being detained for holding views against Erdogan. The number of political prisoners in Turkey has ballooned in recent years, following a failed military uprising in 2016, which killed hundreds, deeply traumatised Turkish society, and triggered a crackdown on opposition leaders. A massive expansion of Turkey’s prison network has taken place and the prison population has risen from about 180,000 in 2016 to more than 300,000 today, making Turkey’s incarceration rate the highest among all 47 member states of the Council of Europe. To accommodate the surge in new political prisoners, Turkey’s Justice Ministry earlier released some 190,000 felons, many of whom are violent offenders who have gone on to commit a rash of femicides and domestic violence. For those prisoners of conscience, international and local rights-groups have catalogued tales of torture and abuse with skyrocketing frequency. They describe beatings by guards, violent threats, sexual assault, rape, and humiliating and repeated strip searches of female inmates.
But it’s not just Turkey’s erosion of democracy and human rights which is worrying the West, nor is it the undiplomatic treatment of their ambassadors; it’s the direction of travel of Erdogan’s muscular foreign policy that alarms most of all. Turkey is a long-standing member of NATO and is seen in Europe and the US as a strategically important member, whose cooperation is vital on issues from defence and counter-terrorism to migration. But in recent years, deep strains have developed in Erdogan’s relationship with his NATO partners because of his cuddling up to Russia and his adventurous and bellicose activities across the Mediterranean region.
Turkey’s repeated incursions into waters in the Eastern Mediterranean claimed by Cyprus, as well as its stand-offs with Greek and French naval vessels in the region, have escalated tensions and alarmed its allies. Throughout 2020, Turkey acted upon its expansive claims over drilling rights for oil and gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan has been particularly hostile towards Greece and Cyprus, accusing the former of trying to transform the Aegean Sea into a “Greek Lake”, owing to its multiplicity of Greek islands and their exclusive economic zones. Early this year he pushed back hard against Greece’s claims by deploying deep-sea exploration vessels to disputed waters escorted by elements of the Turkish navy. Other NATO countries, particularly France, responded by sending their own naval vessels to aid Greece and Cyprus, raising tensions and even sparking fears of a military altercation at sea.
President Erdogan even appears to have gone out of his way to insult the EU. In April this year when receiving in Ankara the European Commission President, Ursula von der Layen, and the European Council President, Charles Michel, he provided chairs for the two men while von der Layen, whose diplomatic status is the same as that of the two men, was left humiliatingly standing. This led to Italy’s Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, calling Erdogan a “dictator”. Harsh words between supposed allies.
Erdogan upped the ante with NATO yet again last month when he met President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. In comments that alarmed his NATO partners, Erdogan said after the meeting that he and Putin used a “sincere and productive” meeting to discuss possible joint defence and security projects, including building further Russian nuclear reactors in Turkey. Proposals covered plans to work on warplanes, jet engines, shipbuilding, submarines and even space rockets. He repeated a pledge to push ahead with the purchase of a second batch of Russian-made S-400 air defence systems, despite warnings from Washington that the move could trigger the US imposing further sanctions on Ankara on top of those announced last year.
Although Turkey’s hope of joining the European Union has been ruined by Erdogan’s autocratic behaviour, Turkey’s membership of NATO remains highly valued among members. However, if Turkey’s relationship with Russia develops into a formal defence pact, the result for NATO could be catastrophic. Turkey has the second largest army in NATO after the US and is one of the top five contributors to the alliance’s missions and operations. This gives Erdogan a strong hand in his dealing with Washington, which could soon be tested.
Following Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 in July 2019, Washington suspended Turkish involvement in the F-35 next-generation aircraft programme, claiming the Russian system will compromise F-35 military secrets, a charge that Ankara denies. Turkey has now requested F-16 fighter planes from the US, which many observers see as Erdogan’s test of confidence with the Biden administration, arguing that the administration could convince Congress to approve the sale if it truly cares to keep Turkey from gravitating to Russia. This request is seen as a kind of junction, with Ankara bracing for a new strategy, depending on Washington’s response.
Many in Turkey now wonder if the devious Erdogan made the F-16 request only to have it rejected, in a calculated move to lay the grounds for negotiations with Russia on its fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57. But switching from NATO aircraft to this Russian alternative would bring immensely complex problems in the interoperability of weapon systems. It would also be a risky move for Turkey, as the backlash from member states would surely bring an end to any collaboration, complicating its relationships within NATO. Some members would demand Turkey’s expulsion, although currently no mechanism for such exists.
President Erdogan knows full well that the standoff is damaging his relations with NATO allies, but for political reasons he prefers to keep Turkish public opinion firmly focused against the West, believing this to be vital in shoring up support and maintaining his grip on power. By blaming the West for Turkey’s problems, which in reality have been largely caused by his bad management, Erdogan’s harsh anti-West rhetoric has led to no less than 48% of Turks now identifying the US as the biggest threat to their country, despite being an ally. In this he is using the same political playbook as Russia’s President Putin. Not only have they both blamed others for their incompetence, they have also used the mirage of external threats to their country to bolster support at home, locked up any political rivals under false pretences and have even changed their countries’ Constitution to stay in power. It’s been 17 years since Erdogan swept to power on a wave of popular support, and 21 years since Putin convincingly won the Russian presidential election. Thanks to a constitutional referendum in 2017, Erdogan effectively wiped the slate clean and is currently in the middle of a five-year term in office with the option to run for re-election. In 2020, Putin changed the Russian Constitution, allowing him to stay in power until 2038. Both are electoral autocrats, although in Turkey elections are monitored carefully and are mostly free and fair, unlike the phony elections in Russia.
So, with so much in common, could Erdogan metaphorically get into bed with Putin, putting NATO’s future at risk? Following his sweeping overhaul of Turkey’s political system in 2017, Erdogan cemented his near total control over the country. But the shock of the worst electoral setback in his career in the Istanbul mayoral elections in 2019, as well as a tail-spinning economy last year exacerbated by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, has suddenly made him look vulnerable. A series of scandals within his party, surging prices (the inflation rate shot up to 19% in June, the highest level for two years), a tumbling currency, and an economy forecast to shift into a lower gear in 2022, has seen his popularity plummet. It’s gradually dawning on him that he will not be able to deflect blame from his own mismanagement and choices. A poll last month revealed that if the presidential election were to be held today, Erdogan would lose to any of the three main potential candidates.
Desperate autocrats do desperate things, and although last Tuesday Erdogan withdrew his threat to NATO ambassadors, his wild behaviour shows that his ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean and potential defence pact with Russia could be out of control. The question for the United States and its NATO allies is whether they are willing to stand up and shut down those ambitions before Erdogan pulls the trigger, or whether instead they will dither until a resolution of the problem is either far more costly or even out of reach. Their choice will determine the future of NATO.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998.