Only Hungary’s Viktor Orbán comes anywhere near to exasperating Western allies as much as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Anyone reckoning on longevity in office diminishing the Turkish president’s skillful unpredictability would have been disabused by his tour de force at NATO’s annual summit in Vilnius this week.
Erdoğan jolted Western allies — and Vladimir Putin — with his outspoken support for Ukraine’s bid to join the 31-nation military bloc, saying the war-torn country “deserves NATO membership.” He followed that quickly by adding a new, impossible condition on dropping his veto on Sweden joining NATO: that the European Union must first advance Turkey’s long-stalled bid to be admitted.
It looked like the summit would be totally sidetracked from its planned focus on Ukraine. “Nobody should expect compromise nor understanding from me,” Erdoğan declared as he set off for Lithuania.
And then suddenly he pirouetted. After hours of frenetic diplomacy, the Turkish leader shook hands with a relieved-looking NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Sweden’s Ulf Kristersson. He had dropped his veto on Swedish membership, after blocking it for months on the grounds that Stockholm had been harboring Kurdish activists who Ankara describes as “terrorists.”
Even by his own mercurial standards, Erdoğan caught everyone by surprise.
Through this succession of policy twists and U-turns, Turkey secured substantial concessions, said Rich Outzen, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “You have to acknowledge that Erdoğan played his hand well in terms of protecting Turkey’s national interests,” he said.
Meanwhile, Russia was wrong-footed, too. Erdoğan abruptly decided to free commanders of the Ukrainian Azov Regiment being held under a prisoner swap deal. Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, complained of “a violation” of trust. “No one informed Russia about the transfer,” Peskov grumbled. “They were supposed to stay in Turkey until the end of the conflict.”
At first glance Erdoğan’s machinations look mercurial and even chaotic. But his behavior has all the hallmarks of the Ottoman etiquette and ritual of haggling at Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, only with much bigger stakes. For Outzen, Erdoğan this week was doing what he always does — playing all sides off, capricious bargaining to get what he wanted, and not only to keep Sweden’s feet to the fire when it comes to Kurdish activists.
When it came to NATO expansion and Swedish accession, Washington and Brussels were in some ways misreading Erdoğan, he said. They see him as being “uniquely bad and for no good reason haranguing Sweden about its entry and only finally giving in after he was badgered appropriately and energetically by the West.”
But Outzen, who served in the U.S. Department of State as both a military and civilian adviser, working in the Policy Planning Office, says this is wrong. Erdoğan likely was always intending to eventually allow the Swedes to join, he was just after a better deal.
Being a member of NATO, the world’s premier security organization, enhances Turkish power, Outzen said, and they are always happy in principle at it being enlarged. “I actually think Erdoğan was playing a game based on the knowledge that ultimately he would let Sweden in but knowing that with the summit coming up he could maximize good optics and extract more concessions,” said Outzen.
New jets, please
Among the concessions was the sale of 40 new American F-16 warplanes to Turkey as well as the kit to upgrade the planes already in the country’s possession.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has dismissed suggestions there was any link between Turkey’s backing down over Sweden and the F-16s. But as any good detective knows coincidences are rare. And U.S. lawmakers who have long opposed the sale to Turkey of the F-16s have come under pressure in the past two weeks from the Biden administration to lift their objections with the efforts intensifying as the summit neared.
The concessions the Turkish leader secured go well beyond fighter jets. Western powers are poised to lift a slew of defense and aviation sanctions that were imposed on Ankara from 2019, said Emre Uslu, a Turkish academic. The sanctions were a reaction to Turkey’s purchase of Russian weapon systems and in response to Ankara’s military incursion into northern Syria.
In the NATO statement released after Erdoğan’s meeting with Stoltenberg and Kristersson, the alliance committed “to the principle that there should be no restrictions, barriers or sanctions to defence trade and investment among Allies. We will work towards eliminating such obstacles.” That was a big win for the Turkish leader.
He has long lobbied for Western sanctions on the country’s aviation and defense sectors to be lifted for both state and family reasons. “Turkey’s aviation industry is critical in Erdoğan’s endeavor to build a strong military-industrial complex, much of which belongs to businesses owned by his cronies and his son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar,” Uslu added.
While Western powers may still be smarting from Erdoğan’s hardball tactics, Moscow’s reaction has also been tetchy, and for the first time in public the Russians criticized Turkey’s supplying of Bayraktar armed drones, which the Ukrainians have been using to good effect. The Kremlin says it expects clarification over Turkey’s release of the Ukrainian PoWs, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov complained to his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan this week about the “destructiveness” of Turkey’s military supplies to Ukraine.
Erdoğan’s actions prompted some to wonder whether he’s about to throw his lot in with the West. Western officials and geopolitical analysts have long questioned whether the Erdoğan-Putin friendship is sustainable. It started in earnest after a Turkish Air Force jet shot down a Russian warplane near the Syria–Turkey border in 2015. Some have questioned whether the friendship risks collapse because of the grandness of their geopolitical ambitions, which are often at cross-purposes. They were on opposing sides in Syria and Libya, for example.
But Putin and Erdoğan have been able to compartmentalize flashpoints in the past that threatened to upend their partnership. Erdoğan has a trump card in his hand — he’s refused so far to join the West in imposing economic sanctions on Russia. He hopes to host Putin in Turkey soon to discuss extending the deal to allow for the export of grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and he’s likely to repeat his offer to act as a mediator between Moscow and Kyiv.
According to Outzen, Erdoğan is likely to continue to play both sides, in keeping with traditional Turkish foreign policy. “For him to decide he is totally on board with the West now would be out of character,” he said.