A poll conducted in December 2022 by the Turkish company Gezici found that 72.8% of Turkish citizens polled were in favor of good relations with Russia. By comparison, nearly 90% perceive the United States as a hostile country. It also revealed that 24.2% of citizens believe that Russia is hostile, while 62.6% believe that Russia is a friendly country. Similarly, more than 60% of respondents said that Russia contributes positively to the Turkish economy.
Turkey began to distance itself from the United States as early as 2003, when it refused the passage of American troops to Iraq. In 2010, it destroyed the U.S.–Israel–Turkey triangle, breaking up with Israel. In 2011, Turkey implemented a policy in Syria that was hardly in line with U.S. interests. The final distancing took place in 2016, with the July coup, for which Turkey blamed the United States.
Turkey considers itself very important to the United States but declares that Ankara can live without Washington. This concept has become the point of departure for Turkey in its quest to reconstitute the Ottoman Empire. Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu declares that the Turkish government will design the new world order with the help of Allah, and Western powers will eat the dust behind almighty Turkey (December 8, 2022).
According to a RAND Corporation volume on Turkey, there are four scenarios for the future of Turkish strategic orientation: 1) Turkey will remain a difficult partner for the United States; 2) Turkey will become democratic and unite with the West; 3) Turkey will be between East and West, but have better relations with powers such as China, Iran, and Russia, than with the U.S. and the EU; and 4) Turkey will completely abandon the West.
From the evidence in the case of the Russian–Ukrainian war, Russia, China, Turkey, and Iran justify the Russian invasion since NATO and the EU have designs on their neighborhood. Above all, they are united by a common hatred for the West. They are frenemies and they know it: on the contrary, the U.S. tends to invest in frenemies as if they were true friends.
The U.S. observed the rapprochement of Turkey and Russia without renouncing the traditional alliance with Turkey, which today has no longer such importance. Turkey was useful when it was an “enemy” of the USSR and the U.S. made far too many concessions for the sake of this useful enmity. In short, there is some inertia in the modification of the principle “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” as of course “the friend of a friend is my friend.” Turkey’s role in NATO worries the U.S., as Ankara–Moscow relations have acquired some shared strategic characteristics.
Τhe attraction between the two countries lies in their equally authoritarian governance models and the fact that their strategic culture and operational codes bear similarities: Both countries are revisionist, aggressive, and assertive in their regions; both countries claim to be encircled, which they use as a pretext for their unilateral actions; and both countries have militarized their foreign policy, waging hybrid warfare, resorting to proxy warfare, and blackmailing countries that offer resistance. Russia and Turkey cooperate on natural gas and oil pipelines; Russia has sold weapons such as the S-400 missile system to Turkey; Russia has provided technical assistance in the construction of Turkey’s nuclear plants; the two nations have collaborated in Central Asia (i.e., Azerbaijan); they import and export each other’s commodities; and Turkey has illegally transported Russian fuel to China and Iran, thereby bypassing sanctions on Russia, to mention only a few.
But the big issue for U.S.–Turkey relations against the backdrop of the Russian–Ukrainian war has four strands: First, the issue of the important role Turkey plays in the grain export agreement, which if cancelled will create a food crisis in Africa. Second, Turkey’s blackmailing of the NATO candidacies of Sweden and Finland. Third, the Turkish application to purchase the F-16 and the possible conflict between Congress and the Biden administration over the administration’s request to grant Turkey the license to do so. Finally, Turkey’s non-adoption of NATO sanctions against Russia. The possibility of Erdoğan using a strategy of tensions with Greece (e.g., multiple violations of Greek airspace, aggressiveness in the Aegean, weaponization of immigration, threats of bombing Athens with the new “Tayfun” short-range ballistic missile) to rally the electorate around his party and detach it from any opposition—all recent polls have AKP trailing the opposition—prior to the June election is one explanation for Turkey’s behavior that is being considered by the U.S., which nonetheless is angered that Turkey is the only NATO country that has not adopted the sanctions against Russia.
The latter is one of the main arguments of many congressional lawmakers to block the Turkish government’s request for the purchase of F-16s from the United States.
But what about enemies of friends? Turkey is an “enemy” of Greece and an “ally” of the U.S. in NATO. And here we see dysfunction on the U.S. part: it favors Turkey as always.
The triangle of relations between Greece–USA–Turkey has troubled the governments of the three countries since 1952 when Greece and Turkey entered NATO. Monteagle Stearns in his famous book Entangled Allies: U.S. Policy Toward Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus (1992) thoroughly analyzed the very difficult equations with numerous variables that American foreign policy has to solve towards two of its important NATO allies. After all, the last thing the U.S. would want to see during the war in Ukraine would be a rift in NATO’s S/E wing.
Turkey’s threats towards Greece are of particular concern to the United States, which recognizes that these threats are also related to U.S.–Turkish relations, as the U.S. is often included along with Greece in the rhetorical attacks launched by Turkish officials. The Turks accuse the U.S. of spoiling the Greeks and furthermore, they claim that America is behind every move that does not coincide with their interests, such as the new U.S. bases in Greece at Alexandroupolis and Larissa.
So this is where the F-16s come into the American picture, with Congress and especially the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, headed by Robert Menendez (D–NJ), adamantly insisting that such a move would not only reward the authoritarian and anti-ally Erdoğan, but also risk a military clash over the Aegean. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu last December threatened Greece with retaliation if Athens proceeded with any expansion of its territorial waters south of Crete, saying that it would still be seen as a casus belli justifying military action. The first casus belli emerged from a parliamentary declaration in 1995, when Turkey said such an extension in the Aegean would be seen as a cause of war. In addition to the Aegean, Turkey threatens Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, in contravention of current international maritime law (UNCLOS) that allows Greece to extend its territorial waters up to 12 nautical miles. Are all these issues small and trivial for the White House in the face of the big stakes? It’s more important that American diplomacy believes that it can smooth out the friction points on both sides—especially those of the Greeks and Turks—and promote the selling of American jets to both countries.
But is there a convincing argument for the “legitimate” security concerns of Turkey that need to be eased by procuring cutting-edge F-16V fighter jets? The Syrian refugees? The stateless Kurds?
The American operation to restore Turkey to NATO normalcy is in full throttle. Normality, however, without abandoning the Turkish strategy of revisionism at the expense of Greece, is not feasible. Are Americans capable of pulling it all together? It remains to be seen.
The assessments and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author himself and in no case of the Hellenic Ministry of Foreign Affairs.