Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has had an uneasy dance with both NATO allies and Russia for years. The ongoing war in Ukraine has accentuated Turkey’s ambiguous position in international relations, as Ankara criticizes Russia’s invasion and continues to sell armed drones to Ukraine while also taking distance from Western sanctions against Moscow.
This ambiguity is sometimes useful, as can be seen in Turkey’s hosting of peace talks for Russia and Ukraine. NATO allies, however, should now strive to bind Turkey closely to the alliance, through positive economic incentives.
One might wonder why NATO allies need to coax Turkey, a formal military ally since 1952, into solidarity, especially when Turkey’s largest external threat is invading Ukraine, a Black Sea neighbour of Turkey. The answer lies in Turkey’s geopolitical position and the recent history of Russia’s wedge strategy – the “attempt to prevent, break up, or weaken a threatening or blocking alliance at an acceptable cost.”
Turkey plays a critical role in the region around the Black Sea, where ten wars have been fought since the end of the Cold War. Moreover, within NATO, Ankara has demonstrated its foreign policy autonomy from Washington and European allies on issues such as the Cyprus dispute, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, treatment of Kurds, and civil wars in Libya and Syria.
Taking advantage of the frictions between Ankara and other NATO member capitals, Vladimir Putin has been driving a wedge between Turkey and NATO allies in recent years.
Moscow has a variety of tools to pressure Ankara because of the two countries’ economic ties and involvement in various conflicts. After Turkey shot down a Russian Su-24 fighter jet near the Syria–Turkey border in November 2015, for instance, Russia imposed economic sanctions on Turkey in tourism and agricultural trade and raised military pressure against Turkey in Syria. The pressure forced Erdoğan to send a letter of apology.
Then came the July 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan, after which Putin immediately expressed support for the Turkish president in contrast to the muted response from NATO allies. Turkey subsequently made a deal to purchase Russia’s S-400 air-defense system, reportedly worth US$2.5 billion, despite U.S. objections.
Arguing that Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 system creates security risks, Washington imposed sanctions on the Turkish defense industry in December 2020 and expelled Ankara from its F-35 fighter jet program. Due to concerns over further U.S. sanctions, Turkey has yet to fully activate the S-400 system.
In an international environment where Erdoğan was increasingly isolated, Putin offered precious diplomatic victories to him. Some Turkish analysts, for instance, suspect that Putin allowed Ankara to become a power broker in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Azerbaijan and Armenia “to keep driving a wedge between Turkey and other members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.” Turkey’s current role as the mediator between Russia and Ukraine, of course, is also a big boost for Erdoğan in the field of diplomacy.
The West has greater leverage
The West, however, has its own tools to bind Turkey to NATO. Most importantly, the West has a superior power to reward Turkey. For instance, analysts often refer to close economic ties between Turkey and Russia, but the EU is by far Turkey’s largest trading partner and main source of investments, accounting for 33.4% of Turkey’s imports and 41.3% of its exports in 2020 (and 21 out of the 27 EU member states are also members of NATO).
Military relations between Turkey and NATO also favour the West. NATO’s collective defense protects Turkey, and the decades-old alliance ties have made Turkey far more dependent on the West than on Russia.
The S-400 system is expensive, but the delivery to Turkey began only in 2019, and Russia accounts for only 5% of arms import by Turkey in the last ten years between 2012 and 2021. During the decade, Russia ranked below other weapons suppliers of Turkey such as the United States (51%), Italy (16%), Spain (13%), and South Korea (6%) according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s Arms Transfers Database.
For binding Turkey to NATO and wedging Turkey away from Russia, we recommend reward-based strategies rather than coercion. Academic literature suggests that positive sanctions work better and that a coercive approach is chosen by those with weaker reward power. A coercive strategy can easily antagonize the target, whereas a reward-based strategy is unlikely to worsen the status quo.
Reward-binding is particularly important in relation to the Turkish public, who have resented the West’s treatment of their country in the aftermath of the Syrian refugee crisis and the 2016 coup attempt against Erdoğan. This anti-Western sentiment has been further exacerbated by pro-government Turkish media. In fact, unlike the seemingly neutral position of the Turkish government in this Russia-Ukraine war, Turkish mass media is dominated by anti-Western discourse and criticism against NATO.
A poll in March revealed that 48.3% of Turks blamed the United States and NATO for the current situation in Ukraine and only 33.7% thought Russia was responsible. In the same poll, 51.7% of Turks see the United States as the biggest threat to their country as opposed to Russia (19.4%). As a Turkish scholar points out, anti-Western sentiments that developed for years will not easily disappear from the Turkish public opinion even after Erdoğan’s recent U-turn.
In international security and diplomacy, NATO allies have already begun taking a conciliatory approach toward Ankara. This can be seen in the recent Franco-Turkish rapprochement and the Biden administration’s support for “appropriate U.S. defense trade ties with Turkey.”
Economic reward-binding by NATO allies is likely to be appreciated by Erdoğan, who faces the presidential election in 2023. More importantly, this is a chance for the West to offer the olive branch to the Turkish public as Turkey experiences the highest level of inflation in 20 years, with Erdoğan’s economic mismanagement, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the war in Ukraine creating a perfect storm for the economy.
Deepening of the EU-Turkey customs union and other positive economic incentives are useful tools to improve media freedom and human rights in Turkey, and the West should ask for domestic political concessions from Erdoğan. Rather than using Turkey’s political problems as excuses to keep Turkey at distance, however, economic rewards should be employed to bind the hearts of the Turkish public to NATO.