Analysis: the war, a missed opportunity for Turkey’s westward expansion

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  • Imprisonment of philanthropist heightens tensions between Turkey and the West
  • Ruling undoes goodwill created by Erdogan’s Ukrainian mediation
  • Ankara wants to lift restrictions on its own defense industry
  • Western countries are reluctant to revive Erdogan before the elections
  • Turkey says courts are independent, rejects criticism

ANKARA, May 5 (Reuters) – Before heading to Moscow last week, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stopped in Ankara to meet Tayyip Erdogan and hail the Turkish leader’s diplomatic efforts to end to the war in Ukraine.

Less than two hours after the two shook hands, much of the goodwill Ankara has engendered in the West through its unique role as mediator between warring parties has been undone, undermining Turkey’s chances of capitalize on the thawing of links.

The turning point came when an Istanbul court sentenced a philanthropist, Osman Kavala, to life in prison for his role in anti-government protests in 2013, defying Western calls to release him in a closely watched case that many consider as politically motivated. Read more

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A Western diplomat who watched headlines on his phone in surprise on April 25 said the decision underscored how Erdogan’s government ‘cannot be trusted on some issues’, despite scoring some points policies on Ukraine.

Another envoy called the verdict “a worst-case scenario”.

Eight diplomats told Reuters the decision was a blow to Turkey’s ambitions to heal frayed economic and political ties with Western countries while remaining close to Moscow – Erdogan opposes sanctions against it.

It also dampened Western hopes for rapprochement, they said.

It’s a turnaround for Turkey, which is alone in hosting wartime talks between Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers and peace negotiators. Ankara wants the West to prepare for an end to the war, including the gradual lifting of sanctions, and the lifting of restrictions on its own defense industry.

He also wants more cooperation with his NATO allies, including the United States, France and Italy, and to ease existing tensions with the West ahead of elections amid growing economic difficulties.

Fear of bolstering Erdogan ahead of the 2023 election that recent polls suggest he could lose has also undermined chances of striking any meaningful trade or investment deals, including progress in updating a customs union. of the European Union, several diplomats said.

Erdogan and officials say the war has made allies aware of Turkey’s geopolitical importance and that Ankara’s balanced policy towards Ukraine has been welcomed, even admired. The diplomats interviewed share this assessment.

The West understands Turkey’s stance on sanctions and Ankara will not become a haven to escape them, Turkish officials add.

This weekend, Erdogan’s spokesman and chief foreign policy adviser Ibrahim Kalin paid a surprise visit to Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He later said he discussed ways to end the war.

THINGS CAN GET MORE DIFFICULT

If Russia’s attacks on Ukraine last through the summer, Turkey, with NATO’s second-largest army, will likely come under increasing pressure from Washington and Brussels to bolster its support for Ukraine, they said. said the diplomats.

He has already sent armed drones to kyiv, blocked some Russian naval passages to the Black Sea and banned Russian flights to and from Syria.

Turkey’s stance of facilitating negotiations and opposing Moscow sanctions on principle “can only last for a while”, a third diplomat said.

A move to Ukraine in the conflict could prompt Russia to punish Turkey’s economy by cutting off important tourism and energy flows, or both, the person said, highlighting how the opportunity could turn into a crisis for Ankara.

Soaring energy costs due to the war have already exacerbated Turkey’s currency crisis and pushed inflation to 61%, complicating Erdogan’s prospects in the mid-2023 elections.

Some analysts said Kavala’s ruling, handed down by courts some critics say Erdogan influenced, served as a warning to the opposition ahead of the vote. The president may have been emboldened by the diplomatic cover the war afforded him, they added.

“Erdogan does not want to be excluded by the West but he wants him to accept him as he is: as the strongman of Turkey,” said Birol Baskan, a non-resident researcher at the Institute of Middle East based in Washington.

Throughout the second of Erdogan’s two decades in power, Western leaders have criticized Turkey’s crackdown on rights and dissent. Germany summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Berlin over Kavala’s verdict, which Washington also called “unfair”, prompting Ankara to summon the German ambassador in response. Read more

Turkey says its courts are independent and is taking steps to improve the rule of law, but also dismisses domestic and international criticism of its justice system as interference in its internal affairs.

SANCTIONS AND WEAPONS

Turkey’s stance on the war, including allowing flights from Moscow, has made it a prime destination for Russian citizens, funds and even sanctioned assets such as the yachts of the oligarchs.

Three Western diplomats said it could prompt the United States or Europe to adopt “secondary sanctions” against those who do business with Moscow. Read more

“We ask Ankara to enforce our sanctions. If it becomes clear that they are being violated, secondary sanctions would be likely,” one of the envoys said.

Another potential tension is Turkey’s desire, shared by the United Nations, to immediately end the fighting in Ukraine and return as much as possible to a world in which Ankara balances its relations with the West and Russia.

The United States and some other countries want the war to end on the right terms instead. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said last week that Washington wanted to see Moscow “weakened” so it could no longer invade.

Yet Turkey should rethink its relationship with Russia.

Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 defenses prompted US sanctions against Turkey in 2020 and chilled ties.

Still, his demand for 40 US-made F-16 fighters last year, combined with cooperation over Ukraine, could pave the way for a compromise on Washington’s demand that Turkey drop the S-400s, said three diplomats. Read more

They said the intensification of talks on the possible purchase of Franco-Italian SAMP-T missile defenses from Eurosam also reflected new and more focused NATO cooperation. Read more

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Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Mike Collett-White and William Maclean

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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