By Katya Mavrelli,
The North Atlantic Treaty Organizing (NATO) might currently be facing one of the greatest challenges to European defense and stability, ever since the end of the Cold War. This escalation of geopolitical tensions has led to a confrontation along political, strategic, and economic frontiers. The status quo defined by American hegemony and unipolarity is crumbling, and new actors are seeking a spot for themselves in the new world order that is emerging.
And, while at the center of this pivot is Putin’s Russia, Erdoğan’s Turkey is also rising as a state that the international community should pay attention to. In the past, Turkey proved to successfully execute political maneuverings and handle geopolitical crises effectively, but what will the Ukraine-Russia conflict essentially imply for Turkey?
With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, war has broken out between two of Turkey’s key partners to the north all the way to the Black Sea. While Erdoğan had actively tried to mediate the conflict and prevent any military and strategic escalation, the efforts did not produce fruitful results, and world leaders are now dealing with Pandora’s box, which has shattered both European and international stability. But the conflict is important for Turkey, not only because of the regional instability that this will cause and the subsequent consequences that it will have along political and strategic lines, but also because the crisis in Ukraine has the potential to upset the international equilibrium.
The current crisis proves that American hegemony is under threat. The world order developed along the lines of the Washington consensus, and the ideals of the post-Cold War order is shattering, as new actors are emerging. China, which was perceived as a promising future liberal democratic state and string economy, is the biggest concern for the U.S. now. Iran is becoming increasingly more confident and assertive, and it is employing its soft power tools more and more openly. Russia is finally addressing its own concerns regarding encirclement and western interference in the east. And among all these big players, Turkey is emerging as a force to be reckoned with, given that the Ukraine-Russia war will redefine the role that it will play in the geopolitical, geoeconomic, strategic, defense, and diplomatic sectors.
The current crisis is of vital importance for Erdoğan’s Turkey. The relationship between Putin and Erdoğan has been hard to define: they may have developed a symbiotic relationship when it comes to the energy sector, since Turkey now receives almost 1/3 of its natural gas supplies from Russia, but their divergent strategic approaches in military conflicts in Libya, Syria, and Azerbaijan prevents the international community from considering them as “friends”, or at least allies. While Erdoğan has tried to cultivate a relationship with Putin, he is also trading heavily with Ukraine, and wishes to foster greater defense and industrial cooperation.
However, as the crisis develops further, Turkey is leaning more towards Ukraine, following the behavior of other NATO members, and is standing more firmly against Russia. While Erdoğan has not openly picked a side, his decision to limit the transit of Russian warships from the Dardanelles Straits seems to be siding with Ukraine. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also used the word “war” when describing the conflict, which is contrary to the word “special operation” (spetsoperatsiya) that the Russian government used.
There are evident efforts of alignment with the decisions of the west and the policies that other NATO members are implementing, given their vital significance. In the past, Erdoğan has implemented policies that aim to make Turkey a prevalent power in the greater Middle East again. Just as Ebrahim Raisi’s Iran is doing, Erdoğan’s Turkey is actively seeking to become a representative of the Muslim and Middle Eastern world. Its greater involvement in regional military conflicts, its efforts to mend broken diplomatic ties, and its willingness to fortify newly emerged alliances show that Turkey wishes to become a strong and capable representative of the region.
Erdoğan’s desire to mediate in the resolution of the conflict is also linked to the idea of turning Turkey into a regional leader in geopolitical and geostrategic terms. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has warmly welcomed this offer, in search of a strategy to block Russia’s further military escalation, and Turkey’s long history of cooperating and confronting Russia does not seem to stand as an obstacle in this process. Turkey was an outspoken critic against Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and developed significant military cooperation programs with Kyiv on military technologies.
Yet the significance of the conflict can be explained in simpler terms. With the global geopolitical equilibrium shifting and the U.S. being called to defend its global hegemony, Erdoğan finds himself able to further shake the regional, European, and global political order. After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. exerted significant influence over European politics and economic affairs, forming this semi-symbiotic and semi-dependent relationship between the two. Now, however, that the “Pax Americana” system is collapsing, the U.S. is actively turning its focus away from European affairs and Middle East developments and is becoming more interested in what is happening at the other side of the world, the Pacific. With China taking a different turn than excepted, away from liberalism and towards a competitive style of results-driven communism, the U.S. is becoming increasingly more worried. Given this political orientation, the different challenges that have emerged are now finding it easier to carve a place for themselves.
And this is exactly what Erdoğan is doing. He would like to see Turkey becoming a destabilizer of European affairs, an actor that would create a new focus. Poised between the east and the west, caught between geopolitical interests and economic gains, Erdoğan is now in the best position to benefit from this crisis. As the European response arrives late, and the American stance is not as strong as many expected it to be, Erdoğan is left in an advantageous regional position to influence regional stability, ally closely with fellow NATO members, and emerge as a force to be reckoned with. When the world’s hegemon finds itself trying to untangle internal and external political nets, new actors that are more able – and willing – to instill global stability emerge and claim a place for themselves.
This conflict can become a turning point for Turkey. Despite its economic interests and existing economic partnerships with both states, it finds itself able to emerge as a leading regional actor, a stronger force in the Middle East, and a player that Europe needs to monitor more closely. The decisions will be shaped by the state of the energy market that will affect international markets, the initiatives that other NATO states will take, and Erdoğan’s willingness to determine the state of affairs on his own. In short, the Ukraine-Russia crisis can be the key for Turkey to become stronger geopolitically, geoeconomically, and strategically. Whether Erdoğan will take the leap towards this direction is something that Putin’s actions and Zelenskyy’s determination will shape.
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