The Ukraine crisis offers Turkey a way back with the West, will Erdoğan take it?

The Russian government has reacted strongly to suggestions Turkey could sell armed drones to Ukraine. The vehemence of their opposition tells us a few things about the Russian-Turkish relationship and may provide an opportunity for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to re-animate positive relations with the West. It won’t be easy, however, as Erdoğan has alienated many, it not most, of Turkey’s traditional allies. 

First, Turkey’s successful use of drones against the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, General Khalifa Haftar’s fighters in Libya, and Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh has revealed the technology’s military potency.

The Russians have taken note of the game-changing utility. Turkish drones make it impossible to hide the movement of personnel, including in inclement weather and at night, as Ahval recently covered in the Anatolian Dispatch podcast.

For tactical and operational reasons, Russia does not want Ukraine to use Turkey’s moderately priced yet highly effective drones against the forces it supports in eastern Ukraine. 

Second, Russian President Vladimir Putin is not stupid. He knows that Turkish aid to Ukraine creates an opportunity for Erdoğan to revive the rather moribund NATO-Turkey relationship. He also surely realises this will not be sufficient to overcome the difficulties in the relationship Erdoğan has created in the last decade. But why stand by and say nothing when Erdoğan may be finding a way out of dependency on Russia’s goodwill? 

Third, as strongly as U.S. President Joe Biden opposes Erdoğan’s domestic policies on human rights, press freedom, election manipulation, and anti-Kurdish rhetoric and conduct, Biden’s foreign policy team is led by pragmatists who accept the geostrategic importance of Turkey. They therefore value it inside the NATO tent, acting in solidarity with other members, than outside undermining NATO solidarity.

But there are complications. Turkey’s flagship Bayraktar TB2 drones use Canadian produced components, specifically sensors built by L3Harris Wescam. But Canada suspended sales of the technology on April 12. This was in part due to its use outside of the end-user agreement’s provisions. But was also possibly in response to the Canadian-Armenian community’s outrage at the Bayraktar being used to devastating effect against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Ironically, this has in effect suspended Canadian arms sales to Ukraine, which may be contrary to the wishes of a sizable number of Canadian-Ukrainians. Turkish defence company Aselsan is working on an indigenous replacement to the Wescam sensors, but that will take some time. Acquiring sensors from another vendor and integrating them into the Bayraktar system would also take time – and how much time does Ukraine have?

With NATO solidarity needed to blunt Russian pressure on Ukraine, we find NATO divided. This will only increase with the completion of Nord Stream 2. The pipeline will give Putin more leverage in Germany, and thus the European Union, while bypassing Ukraine and Poland, undermining their leverage as well as reducing their income from transit fees.

At the same time, Turkey’s ability to allow hundreds of thousands of Syrian and other refugees to enter Europe must give Germany and the EU pause. What calculus is there between access to Russian natural gas and controlled migration? How much value does Germany attach to solidarity with non-NATO Ukraine? 

Open war between Turkey and Russia is not on the horizon, but a sort of struggle for mastery of the Black Sea and influence over its littoral nations is already underway.  Putin will use economic pressure – cutting off tourism, slowing or blocking exports from Turkey etc. – to remind Erdoğan that he, not his Turkish counterpart, has the final say on what the Russians for centuries have seen as their lake.

Alone, Erdoğan cannot have parity with Russian influence over the Black Sea region. But a Turkey allied with NATO powers could. A rotating deployment of NATO’s ample naval assets to the Black Sea could stymie Putin’s efforts to bring Ukraine under Russia’s controlling influence.

Going it alone seemed to work for Turkey for several decades, but only because major external threats were blunted by its status as a NATO Ally. Having poked most NATO members in the eye, nearly come to blows with Greece and France in the waters of the coast of Cyprus, threatened Germany with massive inflows of refugees, and ignored Western sensibilities about human rights, it will take several course corrections by Captain Erdoğan to steer the Turkish ship into calmer and friendlier waters. 

It will require humility for Erdoğan to admit that Turkey needs the West more than the West needs Turkey. However, this reality needs to be acknowledged for Turkey to formulate a sensible foreign policy. And though Erdoğan has rarely exhibited humility, or publicly admitted he erred (politicians rarely do), he has pivoted away from failing strategies in the past.

If he now tries to pivot back towards the West through support for Ukraine, he might find a receptive U.S. president, who attaches little weight to personal ties between national leaders, and a U.S. secretary of state distinguished by his calm, pragmatic demeanour.