Turkey’s balancing act between the US and Russia

Onur İşçi and Samuel J. Hirst write: "Unless someone in Washington publicly provides a vision of a solution for the Syrian crisis different from the Russian-backed one, sanctions against Turkey will be punitive rather than an attempt to draw Turkey to a U.S.-led program."

Onur İşçi & Samuel J. Hirst

Is Turkey pivoting away from the U.S. and moving towards Russia? Many observers began to wonder whether Ankara was abandoning its traditional alliance with NATO and the West last July when the Turkish government purchased S-400 anti-aircraft missiles. The agreement reached by Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Sochi on Oct. 22, offered more evidence for the idea that Turkish foreign policy is at a turning point. Joint patrols by Russian and Turkish troops in northeastern Syria have produced dramatic images of a new military partnership. In fact, however, Turkey has long maintained a relationship with both Russia and the West. Strong economic ties mean that Ankara will not pivot away from the West by choice. What threatens the balance now are discussions in Washington of new sanctions, and U.S. politics are currently driven more by domestic concerns than any actions Turkey itself can take. 

Washington’s frustration with Ankara is older than Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and dates from the anti-government Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013. Since then, Western media has consistently associated Erdoğan with rising authoritarianism. The attempted coup in Turkey in 2016 and mutual recriminations over the U.S. refusal to extradite Fetullah Gülen exacerbated tensions. The NATO alliance that has long been the anchor of U.S.-Turkish relations has been tested by disagreements in Middle Eastern conflicts – in particular, due to the current Syrian crisis - but even before that during the invasion of Iraq. Until now, however, Washington and Ankara have managed their differences. Russian-Turkish military cooperation that suggests an authoritarian convergence has introduced a new element into the U.S.-Turkey relationship.

U.S. senators began to consider punishing Turkey in 2018, after Ankara announced its intention to go through with the acquisition of the S-400 missile system from Russia. When the missiles arrived in July 2019, Washington took concrete steps to limit military exchange and expelled Turkey from the F-35 program. Donald Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria then opened the way for Turkey’s 'Operation Peace Spring' against Kurdish YPG fighters in northern Syria. Domestic criticism forced Trump to announce a vaguely-worded sanctions package, but it did not quell a growing call in Washington for even harsher measures. Although the U.S. president announced that he would lift sanctions after Ankara curtailed Operation Peace Spring, Congress continues to discuss punitive economic measures directed at Turkey. On October 29, the House of Representatives approved a wide-ranging bill that was framed as a response to the Turkish operation in Syria but also forbids future weapons sales to Turkey because of the S-400 purchase from Russia.

Given the ongoing Russia-Turkey rapprochement, further U.S. sanctions will push Ankara closer to Russia than it has ever been and closer than Erdoğan wants to be. Turkey will not return the S-400s and the Erdoğan-Putin agreement reached in Sochi means that the U.S. has little leverage over Turkey’s actions in Syria. But there are still conventional policy-makers in Erdoğan’s circle, who, if the U.S. gives them the opportunity, are likely to strive to improve relations with Washington. 

Endgame in Syria 

Over the past month, the widespread focus on the Turkish government’s pursuit of Kurdish militants has underestimated the Syrian crisis’s significance for Ankara. For Turkey, Syria was never solely a Kurdish issue. In 2011, then Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and his supporters got caught up in the excitement of the Arab Spring and gambled against President Bashar al-Assad. While Davutoğlu was in office, Ankara hoped for the triumph of the moderate Sunni opposition and the emergence of an ally in Damascus. At that moment, Turkey was frustrated with resistance to its accession into the European Union and looking for a less Western-centered foreign policy – one that prioritized strong relations with neighbors in the Middle East. As the war in Syria escalated, Turkey was forced to deal with consequences of its misplaced bet at home. First it was ISIS attacks but it then became the millions of refugees who are now an outlet for popular anger about the country’s economic recession. Davutoğlu’s term as prime minister ended in disgrace in 2016 and Ankara has since sought to minimize the damage that Turkey invited upon itself. The timing of the most recent military operation is linked to the erosion of support for Erdoğan, as the opposition has just won municipal elections in the majority of Turkey’s major cities for the first time in two decades. Ankara calculated that 'Operation Peace Spring' might break the impasse in Syria and rally doubters at home. 

The obligations Russia undertook in Sochi, whether or not they help Erdoğan to solve his problems, do not isolate Turkish-Kurdish issues. Putin and Erdoğan committed to concerted efforts that address Ankara’s concerns about Kurdish militants, but they also took on a joint obligation to work towards the return of some of the estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey. Although it was not stated explicitly, Ankara departed significantly from its earlier position and opened the way for reconciliation with Assad. The Russian and Turkish negotiators cited the 1998 Adana agreement signed between Turkey and Syria, reaffirmed their support for Syrian territorial integrity, and have prepared the ground for a statist settlement that involves Damascus. Turkey seeks a return to the status quo antebellum – to the moment before Davutoğlu’s adventurism. Ankara’s support for anti-Assad forces will not be forgotten easily, but Turkey is abandoning an ambitious Middle Eastern agenda and returning to a more traditional policy that seeks balanced relations with the West and Russia. 

In contrast with the Russian-Turkish agreement, current U.S. policies do not offer a tangible solution for the Syrian crisis. Instead, they are shaped by domestic considerations. President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops fulfilled a campaign pledge to limit involvement in foreign wars. His harshest critics tie the withdrawal to charges of gross abuse of power in pursuit of impeachment and invoke a moral argument – their protests center on his betrayal of Kurdish partners. Those who relate the removal of U.S. troops to the broader situation in Syria warn that Turkey’s operation will allow for ISIS to return. In less emotional terms than those calling for impeachment, they too advocate continued support of the pro-Kurdish People's Protection Unis (YPG). Unless someone in Washington publicly provides a vision of a solution for the Syrian crisis different from the Russian-backed one, sanctions against Turkey will be punitive rather than an attempt to draw Turkey to a U.S.-led program. Yet sanctions are a distinct possibility. Turkey’s association with Russia makes it all the more likely that Congress will decide to punish Turkey as a protest against Trump’s policies.

The historical precedent for sanctions 

When the U.S.-Turkey relations were last as strained as they are now, a 1975 U.S. arms embargo pushed Ankara towards the Soviet Union. Tensions in the preceding decade arose over Cyprus not Syria, but Moscow was also the critical third party in those years. Turkey seemed on the verge of a military operation on the island already in 1964, driven by concerns about violence among Greek and Turkish Cypriots. President Lyndon B. Johnson sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister İsmet İnönü that was more diplomatic than Trump’s “tough guy” letter to Erdoğan, but it had much the same effect on Turkish public opinion. Johnson forbade Ankara from using U.S. equipment in any Cyprus operation and warned that Washington would not intervene if the Soviet Union responded militarily; Turks saw his letter as an offensive and heavy-handed enforcement of geopolitical alliance that ignored legitimate Turkish concerns. As with the Syrian case today, Washington seemed to be demanding loyalty without offering much in return. The Johnson Letter contributed to the rise of anti-Americanism in Turkey and encouraged Ankara to lessen its dependence on the West. Just three years later, Moscow pledged 200 million dollars in aid to Ankara. Despite the fact that Turkey remained a NATO member, in the early 1970s the Soviet Union built Turkey’s largest oil refinery, largest steelworks, and a number of other major plants. 

Turkish-Soviet relations expanded from economic to military affairs only when the U.S. Congress imposed an arms embargo on Ankara in 1975. The White House and the State Department opposed actions that would alienate a NATO ally, but Congress, driven in part by domestic concerns, sought to punish Turkey for its operation on Cyprus in 1974. Moscow did not criticize Ankara’s actions and welcomed the Turkish chief of staff, Kenan Evren, when he chose to visit Moscow in 1976. Evren’s Red Army counterpart, Nikolai Ogarkov, came to Ankara in 1978 and observers were faced with the strange sight of a NATO ally embarking on what looked very much like military cooperation with the Soviet Union. Just months after Ogarkov’s visit, Washington resumed arms sales to Ankara. Soviet-Turkish military exchanges in the 1970s never get off the ground, but Washington reconciled itself to working with a Turkish ally whose economic connections to the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia have only grown stronger with time.

Turkey’s foreign policy as a balancing act 

The sense that Ankara has an unqualified commitment to its Western alliance emerged from an anomalous period in Turkish history. U.S.-Turkish partnership was born of a Soviet threat in the aftermath of World War II, but, since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey’s leaders have more often preferred to balance relations with the West and Russia. In the 1920s and 1930s, Ankara bought arms from communist Moscow and capitalist London at the same time. As the Soviet Union built textile factories in Anatolian cities, the United Kingdom developed coal mines on Turkey’s Black Sea coast. The Soviet threat died with Stalin, and the Johnson Letter in 1964 returned Turkey to a position like that of the interwar period – pursuing good relations with opposing blocs of the Cold War. 

Erdoğan’s and Putin’s press statements in Sochi did not signal a fundamental transformation of relations or the birth of an authoritarian alliance. Both placed military cooperation in Syria in the context of existing economic exchange. The figures for that trade explain why talk of a full-blown Turkish pivot towards Russia is misguided. In 2018, Turkey did import more from Russia than from any other country, 22 billion dollars worth of goods compared to 12.4 billion from the U.S. Yet in that same year, Russia accounted for only two percent of Turkey’s total exports. The U.S.  accounted for twice as many Turkish exports as Russia, and, together with Germany and the United Kingdom, bought twenty-one percent of Turkey’s total exports. Turkey has a strong relationship with Russia, but pays for that relationship with an export market that is largely in Europe and the U.S. 

Turkey’s economic ties make sanctions an extremely potent weapon. Nevertheless, the leadership of every major political party in Turkey, with the exception of the Kurdish HDP, supported 'Operation Peace Spring'. Rising nationalism and economic woes have created a widespread desire not only to reverse the deterioration of Turkey’s Kurdish problem but also to return refugees to Syria. Precisely because the Russian-supported solution in Syria addresses so many of Turkey’s key political issues, Turkish politicians of various affiliations have supported actions they know will anger the U.S. At this point, sanctions are more likely to feed anti-Americanism and push Turkey even closer to Russia than they are to pull Turkey back towards the West.

While politicians in Washington debated retaliation for Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles in early September, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross spent five days in Istanbul and Ankara. The U.S. frames competition with Russia for Turkish arms purchases as an either-or affair, but in trade it accepts that Ankara is involved with both sides. Russia is building a nuclear plant on Turkey’s Mediterranean Coast and gas pipelines stretch underneath the Black Sea. Turkey cannot be expected to abandon these commitments and Ross did not ask Ankara to do so. He conveyed a U.S. desire to quadruple the existing trade volume and was greeted with enthusiasm. 

If Turkey is allowed to choose, the balancing act is likely to continue. The polarization of U.S. politics under Trump, however, introduces a new factor. More sanctions, especially if they are cast broadly enough to significantly harm the Turkey economy, will dramatically strengthen anti-Americanism. If Turkey’s relationship with the U.S. deteriorates to the extent that the political benefits outweigh the economic costs, then we may indeed see a pivot towards Russia.


Onur İşçi is assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara and is the director of Bilkent’s Center for Russian Studies. His articles on Russian-Turkish relations have appeared in leading academic journals and he has recently published two books – Turkey and the Soviet Union during World War II (London: I.B. Tauris, 2019) and Rusya İmparatorluğu’nun Çöküşü (İstanbul: Kronik, 2019). You can follow him on Twitter: @Onur_Isci

Samuel J. Hirst is assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara and is the director of Bilkent’s Center for Russian Studies. He has published numerous articles on Russian-Turkish relations, including in Slavic Review, Kritika, and Toplumsal Tarih. You can follow him on Twitter: @Samuel_J_Hirst.