Written by Alper Cezmi Ozdemir
Turkish general elections concluded on May 28th, with incumbent President Recep Tayyip Erdogan defeating his opponent Kemal Kilicdaroglu by securing 52.2% of the vote. President Erdogan's People’s Alliance also secured a comfortable lead in the Turkish Grand National Assembly, despite consensus among pollsters and many analysts that his 20-year rule could come to an end. Indeed, the elections took place in the shadow of unprecedented inflationary pressures plaguing the country’s economy and a disastrous response to the February 6th earthquakes that decimated the country’s southern and central Anatolian region.
President Erdogan securing another five-year term will help cement his legacy in Turkish politics. His electoral victory will also serve as a reaffirmation of Turkey’s foreign policy transformation, which is largely defined by a turn towards strategic autonomy, the adoption of transactional relationships with Western partners, and a more assertive and military-focused regional posturing in the Middle East and the Mediterranean. While observers should expect the continuation of these themes, the extent of Turkey’s balancing act may be limited.
Turkey's Quest for Strategic Autonomy
Turkey’s foreign policy under President Erdogan’s 20-year rule can be defined as a pursuit of strategic autonomy through the balancing of partners and diversifying dependencies. Analyses that depict Turkey “divorcing” from the Western alliance in favor of the rivals of the Western-led order are misguided. Rather, it is the case that Turkey is leveraging emerging rivalries and great power competition to carve out its sphere of influence and advance its interests abroad. Turkey’s unilateral military intervention in Syria, the expansion of Turkish military presence in Iraq, and the balancing between Russia and the West during Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine are all manifestations of this rebalancing.
Turkey deepened its relations with Russia at the expense of its long-standing strategic alliance with the United States. In 2017, Turkey purchased the S-400 missile defense system from Russia which led to its expulsion from the F-35 program. However, Turkey also remains outside the sanctions regime implemented by its Western allies to punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. Instead, its trade volume with Russia has grown since February 2022, according to a report by the Atlantic Council. The same report also outlines how Turkey helped Russia evade Western sanctions by exporting Western-made critical dual-use technology, such as integrated circuits and semiconductors.
Meanwhile, Turkey deepened its defense cooperation with Ukraine even before Russia invaded the country. This cooperation extends well beyond the immediate humanitarian, financial, and defense aid Turkey started to provide following the invasion. The two countries inked a joint production agreement for Turkish Bayraktar drones days before Russia’s full-scale invasion began. Turkey’s drones provided much-needed aerial capabilities to the Ukrainian defense effort during the initial phase of Russia’s offensive in February 2022. Furthermore, Turkey has supported Ukrainian territorial integrity since 2014 and is a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s NATO accession. Most recently, Turkey repatriated the captured leaders of the Azov battalion following Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s visit to Ankara, despite Russia’s objections. In addition, Turkey remains deeply reliant on its Western allies for aerial capabilities and critical technologies to advance its own defense industrial base. Turkey’s economic integration in European markets, and the fact that the European Union is Turkey’s largest trade partner make a total divorce unlikely.
For its part, Turkey is essential for advancing transatlantic security. It is a serious security provider to the Alliance as well as being among the largest contributors to NATO’s collective defense from a manpower perspective. Turkey has the second-largest standing army among NATO Allies and boasts the fifth-largest military ship inventory within the Alliance, including the TCG Anadolu, the country’s first-ever helicopter carrier and amphibious assault platform, which was unveiled by the Turkish Navy in April 2023. Turkey is also an essential pillar of NATO’s defense of its eastern and southern flank, especially considering the rising geopolitical importance of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Moreover, Turkey hosts the Maritime Security Centre of Excellence which acts as a hub to advance NATO’s efforts in maritime security and is a main contributor to NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian where it led multiple rounds of operations, exercises, and capacity-building activities. The NATO Response Force, located in Istanbul, is a key pillar in ensuring NATO’s rapid response capacity on the eastern flank in the event of an attack against the Alliance.
Transactional Relations under Erdogan
Turkey’s relationship with its transatlantic partners under President Erdogan’s rule has devolved into a transactional relationship. Turkey often leverages international crises such as the migrant crisis in Europe in 2015 or Russia’s renewed invasion of Ukraine in 2022 to advance its own interests. A key part of this changing relationship is Turkey’s use of international platforms such as NATO as bargaining tools to extract concessions from its alliance partners.
The transactional nature of relations became most evident surrounding Sweden’s accession to NATO. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Sweden along with Finland applied for NATO membership. Whilst initially blocking the accession proceedings for both countries, Turkey eventually approved Finland’s NATO accession in March 2023 but continued its opposition to Sweden’s membership. In doing so, President Erdogan repeatedly cited Sweden’s alleged support for the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) – an armed insurgent group recognized as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. Erdogan called on Sweden to reform its counterterrorism policy in exchange for Turkey’s support for accession.
However, Sweden’s approach to the PKK was only an ancillary concern behind Turkey’s opposition. Up until the lead-up to the NATO summit in Vilnius in July 2023, Turkey used its veto power to extract concessions from the United States regarding the purchase of F-16s. Turkey wanted these fighter jets to compensate for being kicked out of the F-35 program. However, the US Congress has been blocking major arms sales – worth upwards of $20 billion – to Turkey citing Turkey’s unilateral intervention in Syria and its brinkmanship in the Eastern Mediterranean. Access to these defensive capabilities mattered much more to President Erdogan than any concession Sweden could make in its counterterrorism policy.
US President, Joe Biden, explicitly linked these two matters and voiced support for Turkey’s purchasing of F-16s. However, he alone cannot force a vote in favor of the sales in Congress where opposition to Turkey remains strong. Despite Turkey’s last-second approval of Sweden’s NATO bid in Vilnius, Bob Menendez, the Chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, continues to oppose the sale of the fighter jets to Turkey. And President Erdogan does not want to surrender Turkey’s biggest leverage, its veto power, without assurances that the sales will indeed materialize. Despite Erdogan’s public endorsement, the Turkish president has the power to delay Sweden’s accession through the Turkish parliament if it allows him to extract concessions from Western Allies.
The Future of Turkish Strategic Autonomy
For President Erdogan, the results of the May 2023 elections are evidence that his foreign policy vision is popular among the Turkish electorate. Thus, he now believes he has the mandate to further build on the policy of strategic autonomy and chart an independent path for Turkey’s future. Key appointments in his cabinet also signal continuation rather than a drastic change. Hakan Fidan, the former intelligence chief who is the architect behind Turkey’s intelligence-supported drone warfare in Syria and Iraq, became the country’s new foreign minister. Ibrahim Kalin, who replaced Fidan as the head of the Turkish intelligence services, served as the presidential spokesperson for Erdogan for nearly a decade before his new role. Appointments like Fidan and Kalin, among others who were responsible for overseeing efforts to transform Turkish foreign policy, signal President Erdogan’s intention to stay the course.
However, Turkey’s bid for strategic autonomy is bound to be limited. The purchase of S-400s from Russia failed to produce the independence President Erdogan envisioned: whilst it created new dependencies for the Turkish defense industry, it did cost Turkey access to advanced F-35 fighter jet systems. Russia’s reckless invasion of Ukraine also demonstrated that Russia’s regional ambitions may one day pose a threat to Turkey. Security assurances provided by NATO are, therefore, more valuable now than since the end of the Cold War. Furthermore, due to economic mismanagement, the Turkish lira has depreciated drastically and the country’s foreign reserves have cratered, which makes Turkey’s access to US-led financial markets and mechanisms essential for its economic survival. In short, Turkey remains an important element of the transatlantic alliance, even if it plays an outsider role within it.
About the author: Alper Cezmi Ozdemir
Alper is a researcher of international affairs and security. He was a researcher with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly where he worked on transatlantic relations, climate security, and the civil dimension of security. Prior, he held other research assignments in the United States and Turkey on Middle East studies and security studies. Alper has a number of publications on Middle East politics, Turkish foreign policy, and transatlantic relations. He holds an MA in International Relations from the University of Chicago in the United States, and is also a Fulbright alumnus.