In the business of political risk and analysis, there is always a danger of seizing upon a single event and extrapolating wildly without a full measure of the circumstances, issues or players. In many ways, the pundit industry tends to reward this kind of behaviour; as the media penetration of a particular event or issue increases, the greater the market value for related analyses – particularly the sort with the boldest, even most shocking claims.
This has the practical effect of incentivizing commentary for its own sake – as a brand maintenance or business development exercise, rather than for the purpose of offering important and credible contributions to the dialogue. This dynamic also inadvertently grants a considerable advantage to those commentators whom prioritize the sensational over the true, and the short-term memory of the news cycle typically allows for the charlatans to evade any sort of analytical responsibility. Of course, no analyst gets it right every time (nor necessarily should), and analytical modesty has its limits too – the art of deduction and forecasting would be an empty pursuit in the perfect knowledge of all the relevant facts – but too often opinion is offered as analysis, and analysis as fact.
This is a circuitous way of prefacing a discussion about Turkey and its post-coup strategic role. Specifically, in the wake of the failed July coup, the idea that Ankara would backtrack from its geostrategic competition with Russia transmogrified from a novel observation to a kind of analytical conventional wisdom. From there, the over-churning of this idea has made it something of a truism: that awfully convenient friendship between Turkey and Russia is back, according to some segments of the international media. By some interpretations, Ankara and Moscow are forming a nascent anti-Western axis against which the Euro-Atlantic West has no recourse.
This notion does have some analytical basis, and it certainly holds a certain simplistic appeal, but it is also almost certainly overwrought. In my column earlier this summer, I wrote that while the Turkey and Russia relationship would see a boon in the post-coup environment, it does not mean that Ankara has reconciled its “geopolitical aspirations with Russian pretensions to regional primacy”. In other words, Turkey’s views of Russia have not necessarily changed so much as its priorities have shifted. Russian sabre-rattling in the Black Sea and Syria remains a kind of threat to Turkish strategic interests, but Ankara is no longer under any illusions over its ability to independently challenge Moscow directly.
Contrary to some media crowing, the Turkey-Russia rapprochement is hardly the fruits of a mutual admiration society, but a pragmatic development for both sides. For Russia, which continues to reel from the effects of low energy prices and the extended pain of Western sanctions – not to mention the costs of its adventures in Ukraine and Syria – the Turkey conflict was seen as an unnecessary compounding factor. For Turkey, which has its own suite of problems abroad and a major political crisis at home, as the attempted putsch clearly underscored, open military competition with Russia was as dangerous as it was expensive.
The seeming resolution of their open conflict should be seen as a face-saving exercise on both sides. Russia never truly retaliated against Turkish forces for shooting down its SU-24 and the death of its military personnel, accepting the barest of minimums in an official Turkish apology. Turkey, for its part, had to openly admit to wrongdoing, but was able to intimate some kind of Gulenist conspiracy behind the SU-24 shooting-down and the resulting Turkey-Russia cold war.
Of course, even if there were some truth to this accusation, scepticism between Ankara and Moscow did not pop into existence the moment the Russian jet was shot down. Instead, it had been building in various ways for years, with serious tensions heightened over the course of many months that only culminated in the shooting-down. For example, the Turkish government had already been extremely unhappy with the gradual escalation of Russian involvement in the Syrian civil war, which was apparent well before the Moscow’s hand became more overt in mid-2015. Turkish anger was further repeatedly tested over Syrian loyalist and Russian attacks on Ankara-backed ethnic Turkmen and other allied formations in Northern Syria.
More broadly, Russia’s forceful revisionism and irredentism in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region was (and is) seen in Turkey as serious, long-term challenges and a potential threat. Russian adventurism also brushed up against regions where Turkey had its own claims of historical or strategic interest: the Russian annexation of Crimea, and its subsequent repression and periodic expulsion of the local Crimean Tatar minority; tightening Russian control over the Georgian separatist regions of South Ossetia and particularly Abkhazia; and Moscow’s extensive overtures to Azerbaijan. Combined with sprawling Russian garrisons in Armenia and Moscow’s budding relationship with Iran, the expanded Russian footprint in Syria gave Turkey every reason to feel increasingly surrounded.
Before the SU-24 downing, Turkish unhappiness with Russia and its constellation of satrapies circumscribing Turkey’s periphery was already relatively well known. The difference was that Ankara, for all its frustration with Russia’s role, was not keen to openly challenge Russia in these locales, mindful of Russia’s perceived conventional superiority. However, Ankara lobbied effusively for greater US and Nato involvement in Syria and the broader region – including for Georgian membership into NATO – which could be regarded as not only an effort to marshal support for its preferred outcome in Syria, but for the broader region (while enhancing its own role in the process). While the exact circumstances of the downing of the SU-24 remain somewhat opaque (was it approved along the chain of command, or not?), it compelled Turkey to be more open about its perceptions of Russia’s potential threat.
Easing post-coup ties between Moscow and Ankara are not the germ of a nascent Russo-Turkic alliance, but a return to the status quo ante of mutual benefit – and mutual suspicion. Ankara, being more fixated on internal issues, will be much quieter about its misgivings over Russian regional influence, but it does not entirely undo that broader sense that Russian primacy is a long-term challenge.
Even with Ankara taking a step back from its rivalry with Moscow, there are good reasons to believe that, structurally, Turkey’s Western moorings remain largely robust. Despite populist musings in the Turkish media in the aftermath of the coup, there appears to be no genuine appetite in the Turkish government for paring back the country’s Euro-Atlantic ties. This makes sense, as the post-coup Turkish government’s search for stability is not only limited to repairing ties with Russia, only for it to jettison its longstanding and eminently far more crucial security and economic linkages with the West. It is worth pointing out, for example, that Ankara’s reconciliation process with Israel was in full swing well before the attempted coup, whereas its normalization efforts with Russia only gained any real traction in its aftermath.
In some ways, Turkey is at least temporarily returning to a “zero problems” posture, in that it seeks to recalibrate its ties with regional powers. However, this iteration of zero problems is not necessarily rooted in the “strategic depth” concept (and mocked by its critics as “neo-Ottomanism”) pushed by ex-premier Ahmet Davutoglu, which sought to establish Turkey as an independent pole of power. Instead, this post-coup “zero problems” is an instrument to cool regional tensions and allow Turkey the time and space to focus on a series of domestic crises: internal political conflict, an unsteady economy, Kurdish insurrection, terrorism, and the like.
One interesting by-product of the Gulenist purge in Turkey is the government’s increased reliance on the Kemalist cadres that continue to populate broad swathes of the country’s civil service. Systematically marginalized and diluted over the years since the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) accession in 2002, the Turkish secularists now command relatively greater authority over the organs of state power with the massive liquidation of the Gulenists, which had previously partnered with the AKP. The Kemalists’ revival, however limited, represents an added bulwark against forces agitating for Turkish distance from Nato, the US, and Europe.
Turkey’s irritation with the West, and its rekindled affair with Russia, have been broadly overblown. To be sure, Turkey’s Western partnerships face a variety of very real challenges, but Ankara will address them as a member of the Euro-Atlantic community, not as an outsider.
Michael Hikari Cecire is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the Colchis columnist. Follow him on @mhikaric.