Turkey seeking to balance relations with U.S., NATO, and Russia – former Turkish FM

Recent events have demonstrated that Turkey wants to maintain a delicate balance in its relations with the United States and NATO on the one hand, and Russia on the other, wrote former Turkish Foreign Minister Yaşar Yakış on Sunday.

Ankara’s relations with Washington and Moscow were “a zero-sum game” for decades, Yakış said in his editorial in Arab News, with Turkish-Russian relations improving whenever Turkish-U.S. and Turkish-NATO ties declined, and vice versa. 

Today, Turkey is eager to establish a more independent policy within NATO, according to the former foreign minister, however, this policy “pushes it into a corner”.

“NATO, mainly on Washington’s instigation, presses Turkey to adopt a more clear-cut policy and properly determine the position it wants to hold in the NATO-Russia balance,” he wrote. “Moscow, for its part, does not expect Turkey to adopt such a clear-cut policy. It is happy with Ankara’s slightly independent policy, as long as this does not encroach on its interests.” 

Recent events indicate that Turkey’s policies have indeed encroached on Moscow’s interests. 

The most “sensitive issue” Yakış identifies in Turkish-Russian relations at present is the crisis in Ukraine. Russia is critical of Turkey’s rhetoric regarding its annexation of Crimea and its growing military ties with Kyiv. 

Aside from joining the international consensus in condemning Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ankara has also raised the case of the Crimean Tatars. This ethnic group have ethnic and cultural ties to Turkey. Last month, the Turkish Foreign Ministry claimed that the Crimean Tatar Turks face hardships due to Russia’s annexation and that Turkey stands by them. 

Russia’s reaction to this was strong. Its foreign ministry spokesperson even went so far as to warn that Russia could “pay attention to similar problems in Turkey” if Ankara persisted in issuing such statements about Crimea, in what Yakış maintains “must be a clear reference to Turkey’s Kurdish problem.” 

Yakış affirms that the Tatars suffered “untold hardship” and asserts that this problem existed before Russia’s 2014 annexation when Crimea was part of Ukraine. 

“Whether Crimea’s annexation by Russia caused additional hardship to the Tatars is questionable,” he wrote. “Independent of the unacceptability of the annexation, we do not know whether they would be happier as Ukrainian or Russian citizens.” 

Yakış strongly doubts that, given its naval strategy, that Russia will ever leave Crimea. In light of this reality, he posits that if Turkey wants to safeguard Tatar rights and their cause, “the most reasonable policy would be to cooperate and negotiate with Russia.” 

Another spoiler in relations between Ankara and Moscow he identifies is Turkish-Ukrainian military cooperation. Turkey recently sold armed drones to Kyiv, much to Moscow’s chagrin. 

In response, Russia suspended civil flights to several tourist destinations in Turkey. Moscow officially claims this is in response to the number of Covid-19 cases in Turkey, which Yakış believes was merely an excuse. Flights were supposed to resume on June 1, but Russia extended their suspension until June 21. Yakış predicts that “Any further suspension would cause considerable damage to Turkey’s tourism industry.” 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will meet his American counterpart Joe Biden at the June 14 NATO summit. Ahead of that summit, Yakış writes that Turkey calculated it needed to make gestures “however cosmetic, to rebalance its relations with Russia.” 

Consequently, Turkey advocated that NATO “tone down” its criticism of Belarus, a close Russian ally, for its recent interdiction of a passenger plane to arrest an opposition journalist. That was seen as a “goodwill gesture to Moscow” amid frayed relations. 

On the other hand, to balance relations with the U.S. ahead of Erdoğan’s June 14 meeting with Biden, Turkey claimed that Russian technicians helping it operate its Russian-built S-400 air defence system were sent home as a goodwill gesture to Washington. However, Russia contradicted this claim, saying they were leaving Turkey because they had finished their job. 

“Biden was probably not impressed by these cosmetic gestures,” Yakış wrote.