Deep tensions developed in Erdogan’s relations with his NATO partners due to his hugs with Russia and his adventurous and belligerent activities across the Mediterranean region.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan does not take criticism lightly. Last Saturday, in an outburst of anger, he ordered his Foreign Office to expel ambassadors from the United States and nine other Western countries. The reason? They had demanded the release of philanthropist Osman Kavala, a contributor to numerous civil society groups who has been in prison awaiting trial for four years, accused of funding nationwide protests in 2013, a accusation he denies. In a joint statement on October 18, the ambassadors of Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Finland, New Zealand and the United States called for a settlement speed of Kavala’s case and his “urgent release”. .
It’s not just Kavala who is being held for defending Erdogan. The number of political prisoners in Turkey has skyrocketed in recent years, following a failed military uprising in 2016 that left hundreds dead, deeply traumatized Turkish society and sparked a crackdown on opposition leaders. A massive expansion of Turkey’s prison network has taken place and the prison population has grown from around 180,000 in 2016 to over 300,000 today, making Turkey’s incarceration rate the highest of the 47 states members of the Council of Europe. To cope with the rising number of new political prisoners, Turkey’s justice ministry has previously freed some 190,000 criminals, many of whom are violent offenders who subsequently committed a wave of feminicides and domestic violence. For these prisoners of conscience, international and local rights groups have documented stories of torture and abuse with dazzling frequency. They describe beatings by guards, violent threats, sexual assaults, rapes and humiliating and repeated strip searches of inmates.
But it is not only the erosion of democracy and human rights by Turkey that worries the West, nor the non-diplomatic treatment of their ambassadors; it is Erdogan’s strong sense of foreign policy that worries the most. Turkey is a long-standing member of NATO and is viewed in Europe and the United States as a strategically important member, whose cooperation is vital on issues ranging from defense and counterterrorism to migration. But in recent years, deep tensions have developed in Erdogan’s relations with his NATO partners due to his hugs with Russia and his adventurous and belligerent activities across the Mediterranean region.
Turkey’s repeated forays into the eastern Mediterranean waters claimed by Cyprus, as well as its clashes with Greek and French warships in the region, have exacerbated tensions and alarmed its allies. Throughout 2020, Turkey has followed through on its sweeping claims over the rights to drill oil and gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan was particularly hostile to Greece and Cyprus, accusing the former of trying to transform the Aegean into a “Greek lake”, because of its multiplicity of Greek islands and their exclusive economic zones. Earlier this year, he strongly rebuffed Greece’s claims by deploying exploration vessels on the high seas in the disputed waters escorted by elements of the Turkish Navy. Other NATO countries, particularly France, responded by sending their own warships to aid Greece and Cyprus, which created tensions and even raised fears of a military altercation at sea.
President Erdogan even seems to have done everything possible to insult the EU. Last April, by receiving in Ankara the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Layen, and the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, he assumed the presidency of the two men while von der Layen, whose diplomatic status is same as that of the two men, was left standing humiliating. This led Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi to call Erdogan a “dictator”. Harsh words between supposed allies.
Erdogan upped the stakes with NATO again last month when he met President Vladimir Putin at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi. In comments that alarmed his NATO partners, Erdogan said after the meeting that he and Putin used a “sincere and productive” meeting to discuss possible joint defense and security projects, including construction. new Russian nuclear reactors in Turkey. The proposals covered plans to work on warplanes, jet engines, shipbuilding, submarines and even space rockets. He reiterated his promise to move forward with the purchase of a second batch of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, despite warnings from Washington that the move could trigger state imposition. – United additional sanctions in Ankara in addition to those announced last year.
Although Turkey’s hope of joining the European Union has been dashed by Erdogan’s autocratic behavior, Turkey’s NATO membership remains highly regarded among members. However, if Turkey’s relationship with Russia turns into a formal defense pact, the outcome for NATO could be catastrophic. Turkey has NATO’s second largest army after the United States and is one of the top five contributors to alliance missions and operations. This gives Erdogan a strong hand in his relationship with Washington, which may soon be tested.
Following Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 in July 2019, Washington suspended Turkish involvement in the F-35 next-generation aircraft program, claiming the Russian system would compromise F- military secrets. 35, an accusation Ankara denies. Turkey has now requested F-16 fighter jets from the United States, which many observers see as Erdogan’s test of confidence with the Biden administration, arguing that the administration could convince Congress to approve the sale if he really cares about preventing Turkey from gravitating around Russia. This request is seen as a kind of junction, with Ankara gearing up for a new strategy, depending on Washington’s response.
Many in Turkey are now wondering if the devious Erdogan made the F-16’s request to be rejected, in a calculated move to lay the groundwork for negotiations with Russia on his fifth-generation Sukhoi Su-57. But the switch from NATO planes to this Russian alternative would lead to extremely complex problems of interoperability of weapons systems. It would also be a risky decision for Turkey, as the reaction of member states would surely end any collaboration, complicating its relations within NATO. Some members are said to demand expulsion from Turkey, although there is currently no mechanism for this.
President Erdogan is well aware that the deadlock is damaging his relations with NATO allies, but for political reasons he prefers to keep Turkish public opinion firmly focused against the West, believing that this is vital to strengthen its support and maintain its grip on power. Blaming the West for Turkey’s problems, which in reality were largely caused by its mismanagement, Erdogan’s harsh anti-Western rhetoric has led as many as 48% of Turks to now identify the United States. United as the greatest threat to their country, although they are an ally. In this, he uses the same political playbook as Russian President Putin. Not only did they both blame the others for their incompetence, but they also used the mirage of external threats against their country to build support inside, locked up all political rivals under false pretenses and even changed the Constitution. of their country to stay in power. It has been 17 years since Erdogan came to power on a wave of popular support, and 21 years since Putin convincingly won the Russian presidential election. Thanks to a constitutional referendum in 2017, Erdogan effectively wiped out the slate and is currently in the middle of a five-year term with the option of running for re-election. In 2020, Putin amended the Russian Constitution, allowing him to remain in power until 2038. Both are electoral autocrats, although in Turkey the elections are closely watched and are mostly free and fair, unlike to the false elections in Russia.
So, with so much in common, could Erdogan metaphorically go to bed with Putin, endangering NATO’s future? After his major overhaul of the Turkish political system in 2017, Erdogan cemented his near-total control over the country. But the shock of the worst electoral setback of his career in the Istanbul municipal elections in 2019, as well as a plummeting economy last year exacerbated by the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, suddenly made him vulnerable. A series of scandals within his party, a surge in prices (the inflation rate soared to 19% in June, the highest level in two years), a free-falling currency and an economy that is set to go downhill. top speed in 2022, saw its popularity drop. Little by little he realizes that he will not be able to deflect the blame for his own mismanagement and his choices. A poll last month found that if the presidential election takes place today, Erdogan would lose to one of the top three potential candidates.
Desperate autocrats are doing desperate things, and although Erdogan last Tuesday withdrew his threat to NATO ambassadors, his savage behavior shows that his ambitions in the Eastern Mediterranean and a possible defense pact with Russia could be out of control. The question for the United States and its NATO allies is whether they are prepared to stand up and put an end to these ambitions before Erdogan pulls the trigger, or whether they will hesitate until ‘that a resolution of the problem is either much more expensive, or even overpriced. to reach. Their choice will determine NATO’s future.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998.