by Stefan Hedlund
The attempted military coup in Turkey arrived as yet another nasty surprise for a Europe in desperate need of stability. The initial response from Western governments was relief that it had not succeeded. But that relief was soon to be laced with increasing apprehension about the potentially negative geopolitical consequences.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a long established record of jailing journalists, suppressing human rights and cracking down on anyone whose “conspiracies” undermine his authority. His present implementation of sweeping purges of opponents across the board will add to Western concerns over this slide toward authoritarian rule.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, in contrast, has reason to look at the future with grim satisfaction. The immediate effect will be distraction, to take Western eyes off events in Ukraine and to dampen tensions over security in the Baltic that came to the fore at the NATO Summit in Warsaw in early July.
Looking a bit further ahead, Mr. Putin may nourish hopes that growing estrangement between Turkey and the West will create new opportunities to do what the Kremlin does best, namely, to divide and conquer. On the day after the coup, one of Russia’s main propaganda outlets, Sputnik News, ran a gleeful banner headline proclaiming: “Failed Turkey coup may signal the beginning of the end for NATO and the European Union.”
Relations between Turkey and the EU have long been marred by mutual suspicion, and the prospects of the country being allowed to join the EU any time soon have generally been viewed as slim. The migration crisis did for a time hold the promise of being a game changer. The deal on returning migrants that was cobbled together by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk entailed not only money but also concessions that had been coveted by Ankara, including visa-free travel and a new impetus for membership negotiations.
If the Turkish authorities continue on the current path of dealing extremely harshly with any form of opposition, many European lawmakers and governments will find further cooperation unpalatable. The final straw would be if Mr. Erdogan, against all odds, were to follow through on talk of reintroducing the death penalty. Unless the EU drops its existing rules, that would force Turkey to leave the Council of Europe and effectively kill any lingering ambition of joining the bloc.
Even short of such an outcome, a likely casualty is the migration accord. The scrapping of that agreement would unleash a new wave of refugees into Europe at a time when Brexit has already given a boost to right-wing populist parties. Over the coming year, these groups are set to contest a series of potentially crucial elections – in Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany.
While a total breakdown of the EU is clearly not in the cards (yet), Russia may realistically expect to advance its policy of seeking piecemeal normalization with Europe. Instead of dealing with the community as a whole, it will exploit emerging divisions by courting individual countries. Signs are already evident that the united front on maintaining sanctions is cracking up.
Turning to NATO, the geopolitical implications of estrangement between Turkey and the West are even more disturbing. The Turkish military has by tradition acted as a defender of democracy and the secular heritage of Kemal Ataturk. Mr. Erdogan’s policy of steadfast Islamization collides directly with this tradition. As old scores are now being settled, in a rather conclusive manner, NATO must adjust to working with an ally possessed by growing anti-American sentiment.
When news of the coup broke, President Erdogan was quick to blame his erstwhile associate Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamic cleric who now lives in exile in Pennsylvania. The Gulen movement had substantial support both within the military and the judiciary, and the current wave of repression is obviously aimed at rooting out any remnants of the Gulenist “virus.” Pointed demands have been made that Mr. Gulen be extradited to face justice in Turkey, and Turkish Labor Minister Suleyman Soylu has gone so far as to accuse the United States of complicity in the coup.
To this may be added the arrest of General Bekir Ercan Van, the commander of the Incirlik air base, who was among the top military leaders to be accused of complicity in the coup. Incirlik is the main hub of NATO air operations in the Middle East, from the 2003 invasion of Iraq to the current air strikes against Daesh in Syria and Iraq. It is home to some 2,500 U.S. military personnel and an estimated 90 tactical nuclear warheads. According to recent reports, the F-16 fighters used by the putschists were refueled by two airborne tankers based at Incirlik.
The recriminations have been mutual. Secretary of State John Kerry has retorted that extradition of Mr Gülen requires solid evidence that will stand up in a U.S. court. He also suggested that if Turkey failed to live up to its commitments to democratic principles and the rule of law, it could be simply expelled from NATO.
If Turkey were to withdraw or be ousted from the Western alliance, it would be a blow that makes the Brexit pale in comparison. Just as in the case of a possible breakdown of the EU, this is the worst case and not a baseline scenario. NATO would not willingly drive Turkey into the arms of Russia, nor is Mr. Erdogan ready to place his trust in an anti-Western alliance with Mr. Putin. That said, there are good reasons for the Kremlin to be pleased about how events are playing out.
The coup came at a time when NATO is under severe pressure to demonstrate resolve and unity in standing up against Russian aggression in Europe. The alliance is now being distracted from that task by the danger of Turkey wavering in its support for the common struggle against Daesh, also known as Islamic State, and by fears that Ankara may increasingly turn to Russia as a new friend and ally, even if it hesitates to switch sides altogether.
These prospects vindicate Mr. Putin’s belief that his intervention in Syria has on the whole been a success. It has shored up the Assad regime, thus cementing a role for the Kremlin in the Middle East, while forcing the Americans to finally engage in serious talks. In this way, Mr. Putin’s long-cherished ambition of being treated with respect, as an equal partner, has been realized. The geopolitical transformation is striking.
The coup arrived at the tail end of a seven-month diplomatic crisis between Russia and Turkey, triggered on November 24, when a Turkish F-16 fighter jet downed a Russian SU-24 bomber operating out of Syria. The Kremlin’s diplomatic response was fierce, including a ban on tourist charter flights to Turkey and on import of Turkish agricultural produce. At the peak of the standoff, some even feared that NATO might be dragged into a shooting war with Russia.
What served to change the scene was a letter sent by Mr. Erdogan in late June, apologizing for the incident and deploring the loss of a pilot’s life. That apology was well received, paving the way for a cautious normalization of relations. Presidents Putin and Erdogan agreed via phone to lift the ban on charter flights, to work to resume trade and to meet in person in the near future. This in turn made it possible for the Kremlin to show support for Mr. Erdogan.
In a phone call on July 17, Mr. Putin noted that “Russia found anti-constitutional acts and violence unacceptable and is hoping for the restoration of order and stability in Turkey.” The two leaders are now set to meet face-to-face in August, with the aim of fully normalizing bilateral ties. According to the Turkish Hurriyet newspaper, the Putin-Erdogan meeting could “start new era in Turkey-Russia ties.”
At stake in this “new era” are matters that go beyond tourism and trade. One possibility is the resumption of long-term energy cooperation. Gazprom has said it is ready to resume talks on Turkish Stream, an underwater pipeline that would ship Russian gas to Europe beneath the Black Sea. This is unwelcome news to the EU, which had waged a long and apparently successful campaign to counter Russia’s energy influence in Europe by blocking pipeline projects such as Turkish Stream.
Turkey also plays a key role in the security architecture of the increasingly tense Black Sea region. According to the Montreux Convention, it has the right to close the Bosphorus to naval vessels. Even short of closure, Turkish control of the strait remains a bulwark against Russian expansion into the Mediterranean, where the Russian warships have become increasingly active.
The U.S. Navy has been determined to counter this growing influence by showing its flag in the Black Sea. There have already been incidents involving Russian jet fighters making low passes over US naval vessels. The recent entry into the Black Sea of the USS Porter, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, trigged a hostile reaction from Russia, which claimed that this was yet another example of NATO encroaching on its borders.
Fearful of an escalation, Bulgaria has already declared it will not support Romania’s request for NATO to create a permanent Black Sea Fleet. If Turkey wavers in its support, the U.S. will find its regional clout severely diminished.
While Western governments have reason to be anxious, there may be equally good grounds for concern on the part of the Kremlin. Befriending Ankara means aligning with a regime that has antagonized practically every other power in the Middle East. Mr. Erdogan has rekindled the civil war in Turkish Kurdistan, and continues to support Turkmen opposition groups in Syria targeted by Russian air strikes.
Closer ties between Moscow and Ankara will complicate an already delicate situation in the South Caucasus. The Kremlin’s default policy has been to support Armenia, which views Turkey as its archenemy, against Azerbaijan, Turkey’s only remaining friend in the neighborhood (setting aside Ankara’s recent rapprochement with Israel).
Fundamentally, Turkish-Russian relations must now be viewed through the personal relationship between Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin, who have much in common. Both preside over deeply divided societies prone to eruptions of mass protest. Both harbor the same fears of regime change. Both have tried to repress and control the mass media, and both stubbornly refuse to listen to their opponents. Each president has also faced the same lack of understanding from the West when they have responded to terror and rebellion.
But Western governments still have a choice. The Russian-Turkish rapprochement is very much a marriage of convenience. Mr. Putin has certainly not forgotten the incident with the downed aircraft, which he condemned as a “stab in the back.” Mr. Erdogan, for his part, knows very well that he would play second fiddle in any partnership with Russia.
Consequently, the opportunity to divide and rule cuts both ways, and the West has cards to play. Yet the most likely outcome is that Europe and possibly the U.S. will maintain a deeply ingrained policy of moral condemnation. That would only drive Moscow and Ankara closer together, with serious implications both for the war against Daesh and for the integrity of NATO and the EU.