The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration’s diplomatic overtures toward Russia in recent weeks have been watched by the West with increased unease, and have sparked speculation over a possible shift in regional alliances.
While there may indeed be a negative trend in relations between the U.S. and Turkey, pragmatic necessities will not allow for a full reorientation. Questions have arisen over the future of Turkey’s NATO membership; yet history tells us that an improved friendship with Russia does not preclude U.S-Turkey ties.
Historical US-USSR tussles over Turkey
This can be evidenced by historical precedents illustrating Turkey’s attempts to balance its foreign policies toward great powers. Post-World War I, Soviet Russia’s leader Vladimir Lenin had very cordial relations with the newly-founded Republic of Turkey and its President Kemal Atatürk. During the preceding Turkish Revolution, when Atatürk was still a military officer at war with foreign troops occupying Anatolia, Lenin even helped supply his rebel army with desperately-needed arms.
One of modern Istanbul’s most important landmarks, the Republic Monument (Cumhuriyet Anıtı) completed in 1928, depicts Soviet General Mikhail Frunze and Marshal Kliment Voroshilov standing alongside Atatürk in a testament to this cooperation.
After the passing of Vladimir Lenin however, the Soviet Union took an expansionist turn under the leadership of Joseph Stalin. Although during Atatürk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) administration, Turkey re-established positive ties with Western countries, relations with the United States took on a new priority for the proceeding CHP administration led by İsmet İnönü.
Turkey took great efforts to dissuade any possible invasion by the Soviet Union after increasingly aggressive demands to Ankara regarding the Bosporus Straits, the establishment of a military base near Turkey, and even territorial concessions. To counter Stalin’s aggression, the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan of the late 1940s established a security-based relationship between the United States and Turkey that endures today. Despite its staying power, this alliance is not immune to respective public perceptions of sincerity or shifting conditions in the international arena however.
The Soviet administration’s aggressive foreign policy toward Turkey, driven largely by Stalin, was heavily reformed and moderated following the latter’s death in 1953. By then, Turkey’s new Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his Democrat Party had unilaterally provided troops to South Korea in its violent conflict with the Soviet-backed North, and joined the country to NATO in 1952.
It should be noted that the reign of Menderes, beginning in 1950, undid many of the Turkish republican reforms meant to promote secularism and social modernization. Having campaigned on a conservative platform, the Menderes administration encouraged the Islamization of the public sphere through the use of government institutions such as the Diyanet (Directorate of Religious Affairs) and became highly intolerant of opposition.
In essence, Menderes and his constituents did not share the same social or cultural values of the United States or other Western countries, yet this was not an obstacle to Turkey’s membership in NATO, an organization based first and foremost on collective defense.
Turkey in NATO: previous spats
According to Senem Üstün in Turkey and the Marshall Plan: Strive for Aid, during the Cold War, there was still a fear within the U.S. administration that Turkey “might turn to the Soviet Union if she thought her Western alliances were not strong enough.” The relevance of this dynamic from the Turkish perspective has likewise lasted to today, regardless of the political orientation of any given Turkish administration.
The realization of this is one factor explaining why recent statements from NATO and Ankara have sought explicitly to negate media speculation regarding a possible cancelation of security arrangements with Turkey. Despite the AKP administration attempting to rebuild its relations with Moscow, which collapsed on November 24, 2015 with the shooting down of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey, it seems clear that a leap from strained relations to a divorce in NATO’s current security arrangement would also be at the expense of long-term Western interests.
Moreover, this is not the first time Turkey’s membership has been troubled. In 1975, the United States imposed a three-year arms embargo against Turkey, then led by Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit and the CHP, after its invasion of Cyprus following a Greek-backed military coup on the island.
It was an awkward time for all three NATO bedfellows. While Turkey was not expelled from NATO, the Soviet Union did try to use the opportunity to develop closer relations with Ankara, which also began looking into arms independence from the United States. This was the historical low-point in U.S.–Turkish relations, and hype surrounding the consequences of current disagreements between Washington and Ankara should be mollified by comparison with this period.
Syria: a crucible of shifting relations with Russia and the US
Heightened disagreements between the United States and Turkey recently have partly to do with the former assisting the mostly-Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the YPG, in Syria. Not only does Ankara traditionally affiliate them with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), designated a terror organization by the U.S and Turkey, at least one official U.S. government website did so as well until the relevant page was suddenly removed when PYD-PKK ties attracted international consternation earlier this year.
It is important to note that while the AKP has very positive relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) administration in Iraq, the PYD and YPG are in theory on amicable terms with the Syrian government and President Bashar Assad, which the AKP has been attempting to remove since the onset of the Arab Spring in 2011.
While a significant source of the AKP’s ire toward the U.S. may be based on the PYD’s lack of hostility towards the Syrian government, for most Turks, even those in the opposition, its affiliation with the PKK alone is cause for frustration. The AKP’s conciliatory overtures toward Russia may incentivize Moscow to drop its own support for the PYD/YPG, and also lead U.S. decision-makers to seriously question whether its military aid to them is worth Ankara moving closer to Moscow.
The AKP has probably realized by now that the Syrian government will most likely survive the multinational effort to collapse it, and having lost hope for a much-desired U.S. military intervention in Syria, would presumably prefer to ensure that at least the latter’s territorial integrity remained intact.
Faced with growing domestic instability, the ruling party’s newfound acceptance of Russia’s agenda in the Middle East may be a means of allowing itself some breathing space. The AKP won slightly less than half of the vote in the November 2015 elections, and has been heavily criticized for failing to prevent an increasing number of terrorist attacks in the country.
Domestic concerns still significant for AKP
When considering its own precarious domestic circumstances and its new approach to the region, the party will have to convince its conservative voters that its hand was forced to adopt such drastic changes. The same political bloc it demonized for years, namely Russia, Iran, Syria, but possibly Russia’s other partner, Egypt, as well, will be presented as Turkey’s only alternative to the West.
The West in turn will need to be portrayed in the most negative way possible. Thus, much of the unusually anti-American and anti-Western language being used by media outlets close to the AKP and by party officials themselves is for domestic consumption.
The Turkish perception of Western governments and media outlets having an unfair attitude toward them is becoming more mainstream rather than diminishing, even among those in the opposition. In the security sphere, perceived double standards in arms trade-related technology transfers have increased discussions over opportunities emerging from Russia and China, often seen as being more preferable in that regard.
Before the AKP came to power in 2002, a Eurasian reorientation toward Russia and China was a commonly floated idea among secularist civilian as well as retired military circles in Turkey. Some speculate that when much of the military establishment was being purged during the “Ergenekon” trials, the secularists’ lack of enthusiasm for the Iraq War in contrast to the AKP’s more positive approach toward the U.S. and European Union at the time was behind the West’s somewhat muted response.
Internationally, the current Turkish administration has a long history of making bitter enemies out of friends and friends out of enemies. Its main continuities (and points of conflict with the West) have been cementing its own power domestically, often nefariously, and introducing religiously conservative reforms. The former element especially could very well drive a realignment of Turkey’s relationship with Russia, although possibly with the intention of simply increasing its value within NATO and to the U.S. rather than withdrawing from them entirely. Traditionally, Ankara’s flexibility to maintain a certain degree of non-cooperation with great powers such as Russia and the United States has rested upon it having positive relations with both.