Decoding the New Turkish Activism
Adversarial relationships have been reset, and Ankara has consciously put itself at the center of regional diplomacy. This new activism is not just aspirational bluster. It reflects the depth of Turkish stakes in crises animating European security. Türkiye is highly exposed to the consequences of the ongoing war in Ukraine, to the growing Russian-Western confrontation, and to unresolved crises elsewhere. At the same time, the country is experiencing a profound economic crisis, with the potential for a change of political leadership on the horizon.
This phase of Türkiye’s international assertiveness differs substantially from previous periods of activism, which were driven by economic dynamism in a more benign setting. The current policies are inspired by an edgier mood at home and abroad. Thus far, Ankara’s new activism has done little to repair deeply troubled relations with partners on both sides of the Atlantic. And a question remains as to whether it will it impress a Turkish public more concerned with troubles at home.
Insecurity at Home
Türkiye’s official inflation rate stands at roughly 80 percent. Observers put the real figure closer to 100 percent, or perhaps more. High inflation is affecting economies in Europe and the United States, driven above all by increases in energy and food prices. Emerging markets in general have also taken a beating. But in the Turkish case the crisis has been greatly exacerbated by political pressure on the central bank to suppress interest rates even as inflation roars away and the lira continues its multiyear slide. Many analysts ascribe this eccentric approach to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s obsession with interest rates and to the demands of populist politics. As the value of the lira has fallen and the country’s hard-currency reserves have declined, it is surprising that Türkiye has so far avoided a default or resorting to support from the International Monetary Fund. For the moment, and with a presidential election looming in the spring of 2023, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government seems bent on pursuing a populist economic agenda, come what may.
Türkiye’s official inflation rate stands at roughly 80 percent. Observers put the real figure closer to 100 percent, or perhaps more.
Erdoğan and his circle are right to be concerned about their political survival. Publicly available polls suggest that he faces an uphill battle to remain in power in the election due next year. Many Turks view this election as the most serious challenge to the AKP government since coming to power 20 years ago. The opposition—an odd alliance of nationalists, liberals, disaffected Islamists and, informally, Kurdish political elements—lacks a unifying ideology or a clear leader. So far, they have held together. Few believe that Erdoğan and his government will go without a fight. If the result is close, there is a very real risk of electoral irregularities. And, even without this, the media environment and legal pressure on the opposition mean that the playing field is hardly level. But if current polls are accurate, there is every possibility that the result will not be close, and that a post-AKP, post-Erdoğan era looms.
Nationalism has long been the center of gravity in Turkish politics, as much for secular republicans as for Islamists. Under the current conditions, it is not surprising that Ankara would stir up sentiment around traditional nationalist causes, including Cyprus and the Aegean Sea, and the struggle against terrorism by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Energy exploration in disputed waters, aggressive overflights, and comments questioning Greek sovereignty over islands close to the Turkish mainland—even threats of military action—have been part of the equation in recent months. And Ankara has shown little inclination to accommodate US and European concerns, whether on the purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, on regional policy, or on questions of democracy and the rule of law. Erdoğan’s own outlook and the sovereignty consciousness prevailing across the political spectrum make these policy choices easy to defend inside the country. Still, however provocative its external policies may appear—and brinkmanship in the Eastern Mediterranean carries real risks—Türkiye has not been inclined to push matters beyond a certain point.
Under the current conditions, it is not surprising that Ankara would stir up sentiment around traditional nationalist causes.
Elsewhere, recent Turkish policy has been aimed at resetting some of Ankara’s most troubled relationships. In an extraordinary wave of activism, Türkiye has taken steps to normalize relations with Armenia; to end its estrangement from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates; and to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Israel. Most recently, Erdoğan has even hinted at the need to live with the Assad regime in Syria, an extraordinary reversal after years of active opposition. In Libya, Türkiye, a key supporter of the Government of National Unity, has started to engage also with elements close to General Khalifa Haftar. The motives for these openings are diverse, and each has a logic of its own. With the Gulf states, it is arguably about the critical need for foreign investment. The process with Armenia has hardly progressed. With Egypt and Israel, the positive shift is likely aimed at forestalling the consolidation of a regional alignment on energy and security that has pointedly excluded Türkiye. The approach to Libya may be influenced by the nascent rapprochement with Egypt. And in Syria, it is all about leverage over Kurdish militias and a modus vivendi with Russia.
Exposure and Opportunity in Ukraine
It is easy to be cynical about Türkiye’s approach to the war in Ukraine. It openly attempts to balance its political and commercial ties with Russia with its NATO membership and a significant relationship with Ukraine. Turkish firms supply highly capable Bayraktar drones and naval assets to the Ukrainian military while also working to increase the country’s trade and investment with Russia. Western governments have few expectations regarding Turkish implementation of economic sanctions against Moscow, and Washington has warned that growing Turkish-Russian trade and financial cooperation risks the imposition of secondary sanctions. Concern about this issue is also growing in Europe. To be sure, Ankara has long been allergic to sanctions as a policy instrument, whether for Iraq, Iran or, indeed, Türkiye. The incentives for it to fill the gap left by Russia’s constrained trade and financial transactions with the West are obvious, especially against the backdrop of a deepening economic crisis.
Türkiye itself is highly exposed to risks emanating from the war in Ukraine. Many of the flashpoints for incidents and escalation with Russia involve it directly or indirectly. Turkish and Russian forces face each other in and over the Black Sea, in Syria, and in Libya. A deepening and durable confrontation between Russia and NATO will have profound consequences for Turkish security. Ankara’s preference for what is essentially a nonaligned posture—a good description, even if Turkish policymakers do not use this nostalgic term—is likely to become less and less tenable over time. With multiple open-ended conflicts in its neighborhood, the country’s NATO link cannot be taken for granted. It is an asset no Turkish government can afford to neglect.
Ankara’s preference for what is essentially a nonaligned posture is likely to become less and less tenable over time.
Without question, Türkiye caused great dismay inside the alliance with its brinkmanship over membership for Sweden and Finland. The agreement at the Madrid summit was not a foregone conclusion. Skillful diplomacy by the NATO leadership clearly played a role. So, too, did the prominent opportunity offered to Erdoğan to make his point about cracking down on PKK supporters abroad. For Sweden in particular, there will be a fine but important line between cases Ankara perceives as support for terrorism and cases of legitimate political expression. The agreement reached in Madrid will most likely be implemented to a degree acceptable to Türkiye. It, too, has a stake in NATO cohesion and the predictability of Article V guarantees, which, in the end, depend on political decisions and the goodwill of allies.
Ukraine also holds some opportunities for Türkiye. One aspect of this has already been made clear through its diplomatic activism in relation to the war. Turkish officials speak of Ankara’s ability to broker negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv. Facilitation is probably a more accurate description of Türkiye’s role. But, no matter, with its connections to both sides and its geographic proximity it has been able to bring the parties together, and with some real success. Alongside the UN, Ankara has played a key role in arranging for shipments of badly needed foodstuffs from Ukrainian ports. If that agreement holds, it should be applauded as a success for Turkish diplomacy. Erdoğan’s August meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Lviv, following on from his meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, underscores the significance of Ukraine as a source of risk but also as a potential source of political and economic opportunity for Türkiye. As planning for a massive Ukrainian reconstruction effort—a “Marshall Plan for Ukraine”—gets underway, Ankara has an eye on the substantial role it could play. Turkish companies have been very active in reconstruction in Iraq. The scale of the effort in postwar Ukraine would be far larger.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine also suggests some further opportunities for Türkiye. At the strategic level, the war has spurred far greater attention to the Black Sea as a geopolitical theatre. Ankara exercised its rights under the Montreux Convention to limit the passage of naval vessels through the Turkish straits in time of war (a constraint on NATO as well as Russia). Future NATO strategy for the Black Sea will depend critically on Turkish cooperation. For all the talk of European strategic autonomy, the advent of a true existential threat in Europe is more likely to yield, first and foremost, a strengthening of allied commitments to NATO. Under these conditions, scale and capabilities matter, and Türkiye has assets in abundance. Its capacity in drone warfare, already having a transformational effect in several conflict settings, will be in demand as NATO members and partners seek to modernize their forces. From Ankara’s perspective, the war in Ukraine points to a future in which NATO rather than the EU retains its primacy in political-military terms, and NATO is the place where Türkiye has a full seat at the table.
For all the president’s unpopularity in Europe and across the Atlantic, the idea that a post-Erdoğan Türkiye would immediately put the country on a congenial, convergent course with its Western partners could be mistaken. Much depends on who would assume the presidency. Some of the contenders are no less nationalistic, and the prospects for stable governance, including foreign policy, are unclear given the diverse ideologies represented in the opposition alliance. The rhetoric may be less inflammatory and relations with Moscow may be more reserved. On issues such as Cyprus or the Eastern Mediterranean, it is hard to imagine a very different course. If a new government is prepared to abandon decisions like the S-400 acquisition, this will surely make a difference in Washington. Greater attention to internal reform, including on the Kurdish issue, freedom of expression, and the rule of law will surely help, not least in Brussels and key European capitals.
Less obvious, but potentially meaningful, a change of government could spell a return of professionals to the center of Turkish diplomacy and security policy. Türkiye has a highly capable corps of career diplomats and a substantial foreign and defense policy community. Over the years, these elements have been marginalized in favor of more doctrinaire political appointees (Türkiye is not the only country to suffer from this problem). A new government, understandably focused on internal challenges, may well be inclined to leave international policy to the experts. From the perspective of its European and transatlantic partners, this could put Türkiye on a more comfortable if less active course. In the meantime, Erdoğan is no doubt banking on the new Turkish activism to reinforce his prestige at home and abroad. The stakes are high for Türkiye and Euro-Atlantic interests.
This article is based on an article that will appear in an upcoming issue of Aspenia, Aspen Institute Italia’s journal on international affairs.