After months of carefully navigating a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin during Russia’s war in Ukraine, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan seems to be coming to a halt.
Only last week Erdogan dropped his opposition to Sweden joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a move that is sure to irritate Putin, and announced his interest in reinvigorating Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union.
He also hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Istanbul and helped send Ukrainian fighters from Azovstal captured by Russia back to Ukraine, reneging on an agreement between Ankara and Moscow to detain the men until the end of the war.
The series of snubs at Putin last week come just days after Yevgeniy Prigozhin and his Wagner mercenaries launched a failed mutiny against the Kremlin. The insurgency failed, but shook Putin’s grip on power and likely forced Erdogan to question his alignment with Putin and reflect on his partnerships with the West as one of the greatest NATO members.
Even for all the work Erdogan has done to navigate his relationship with Putin and Western nations during the war in Ukraine, Erdogan is likely looking for a way to diversify his allegiances after the failed coup, said Selim Kuneralp, former Turkish Ambassador to Sweden.
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“Erdogan probably doesn’t see this as a sign of strength for Putin, rather the opposite,” Kuneralp told The Daily Beast. “He thinks he has everything he can get from Putin after all. Putin is in a rather weaker position than before, so he may not be in a very good position to provide material aid to the Turkish economy, etc. So maybe he’s looking elsewhere.
And while Turkish media touted last week’s diplomatic dance as a major victory for Turkey, the behind-the-scenes calculations to support Sweden’s NATO membership are probably not so rosy.
The decision to pivot to the West is perhaps more a matter of perspective and distancing from Putin than obtaining concrete and immediate political results.
While Erdogan linked Turkey’s efforts to join the EU to his support for Sweden’s NATO bid and obtained assurances from Sweden regarding Turkey’s EU bid, he promised that Swedish support alone would not give a significant boost to Turkey’s EU process.
Turkey’s European plans have fallen flat in recent years. Following an attempted coup on his grip on power in 2016, Erdogan cracked down on constitutional reforms, raising red flags about Turkey’s human rights and legal records and stalling the process of accession to the EU. Germany and France have long watched with dismay at Turkey’s interest in joining the EU, and there is a range of criticism Turkey has faced over the years, from questions of judicial independence to Erdogan’s purge of conspirators.
According to Marc Pierini, former EU ambassador to Turkey, Sweden’s agreement to push Turkey to join the EU will not bring Turkey to the finish line. Sweden’s support for the process does not appear to go beyond EU leaders’ agreement of June 30, which stated that consideration of “options identified by the European Council” for EU-Turkey relations should continue, and that EU-Turkey relations should be developed in a strategic way.
European Council President Charles Michel summed up the current status of Turkey’s EU bid earlier this week, noting that he supported efforts to “reinvigorate our relationship” and bring it “to the foreground”.
Erdogan’s decision to push Sweden into the EU process is likely more a PR stunt repeating old promises to rally national approval than a strategy to extract major concessions from Sweden or hurdles to EU membership.
“The last-minute addition of a ‘European Concession’ was basically an exit ramp to sell the decision to the Turkish public,” Pierini told The Daily Beast. “Sweden has nothing to do with it, it is simply a repetition of the conclusions of June 30.”
Sweden’s statements that it will support Turkey’s bid mean next to nothing, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who previously served in Turkey’s permanent delegation to the European Union.
“It’s absolutely nothing. It’s totally window dressing,” Ulgen told The Daily Beast. “For those of us familiar with the dynamics and diplomacy surrounding it, see this very clearly as empty Swedish support for Turkey’s new path…an empty promise.”
European officials are also unconvinced about linking Turkey’s EU accession process to Sweden’s NATO process.
“You can’t link the two processes,” European Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant said.
Likewise, Sweden has long supported Turkey’s efforts to join the EU, so the statement is anything but a platitude, according to Kuneralp, who also served as head of Turkey’s permanent delegation to the EU. .
“Sweden has traditionally supported Turkey’s interests in the European Union…so there’s nothing very new about that,” Kuneralp told The Daily Beast. “And of course, Sweden is only one of 27 countries in the European Union.”
Sweden’s statements may be out of line, especially since Turkey does not seem ready to make any changes that would help it join the EU, Kuneralp added.
“There is no indication that President Erdogan plans to fulfill any of the conditions set by the European Union,” Kuneralp said.
Other promises Erdogan secured from Sweden this week may also not bring sweeping changes.
One of Turkey’s main obstacles in Sweden’s bid for NATO membership was its claim that Sweden allows members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to operate freely. And although Erdogan received assurances that Stockholm would work to expand “its counter-terrorism cooperation”, many negotiations with Sweden took place months ago.
Sweden previously amended its constitution and changed some of its anti-terrorism laws in response to Turkish requests to help suppress the PKK.
But even so, it is possible that Sweden does not suppress in a manner satisfactory to Turkey. Many questions remain as to whether Sweden’s cooperation with Turkey in the fight against terrorism will fulfill all the hopes and dreams of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP) in Turkey, which has focused very much on the issue of terrorism, Ulgen warned.
Sweden will “of course not” do everything Turkey wants in terms of “counter-terrorism”, Ulgen said. “Everything Sweden does will be in line with the concept of European standards.”
Already, the MHP leadership has lambasted Erdogan for looking beyond Sweden’s approach to counterterrorism, saying their objections to Sweden’s NATO membership were legitimate.
“How are we going to unite with a country that embraces and tolerates terrorist organizations that directly threaten our national security,” said Devlet Bahceli, the head of the MHP.
The Kremlin also retaliated this week to Turkey’s moves west. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Turkey should not hope to join the EU.
“Nobody wants to see Turkey in Europe, I mean the Europeans. And here our Turkish partners should not wear rose-tinted glasses,” Peskov said.
But even though it looks like Erdogan is walking away from Sweden with just talking points, he has won in other ways.
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Reading between the lines, it’s clear that Putin will continue to try to lean on Erdogan, who has now gained a little extra boost in his influence over Putin over the past few days, Ulgen said.
“The asymmetry has shifted to Erdogan’s advantage, because now Putin needs Erdogan much more than in the past in the sense that Turkey is the only NATO country that has this political dialogue of high level with Russia. Turkey is the only NATO country not to impose sanctions on Russia. Turkey is the only NATO country that has kept its air corridor open to Russia,” Ulgen said. “Maintaining this access to the Western world – to Turkey – is vital for Russia’s leadership, and it’s what allows Erdogan to act in ways he couldn’t before.”
What Erdogan really wants – F-16 jets from the United States – still seems to be in play.
Jake Sullivan, national security adviser to President Joe Biden, indicated on Tuesday that the Biden administration will pursue the transfer of the F-16s, albeit pending congressional approval.
“President Biden has been clear and unequivocal for months that he supports the transfer of F-16s to Turkey,” Sullivan told reporters. “He has not placed any warnings…He intends to go ahead with this transfer.”
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