US Woos Estranged NATO Ally Turkey – OpEd

Washington has dusted up its old toolbox to re-engage its cold-war ally Turkey and resuscitate their moribund alliance to serve the US’ geo-strategic interests in the rapidly changing regional environment. This stems out of a realisation that no matter the demonisation of President Recep Erdogan as an outlier, Turkey’s potentials as a “swing state” remains a geopolitical reality.

Arguably, this realisation follows the grudging recognition by Washington that the old dogma of ‘you are with us, or against us’ cannot and should not apply to emerging countries like Turkey — or India, Indonesia, Brazil, etc. for that matter — at a time of diminishing US influence in global affairs.

Indeed, Turkey’s importance to US global policies has sharply risen in direct proportion to the US’ confrontation with Russia, which has leaped out of the proxy war in Ukraine which began in 2014 and has turned into the First Circle of American foreign policies and diplomacy currently, when the Sino-Russian has reached the level of a quasi-alliance and the transatlantic alliance system has come under stress.

Yet, in this paradigm, Russia continues to seek an intrinsic, mutually beneficial partnership with Turkey in a historical context rather than as a fallout of the vicissitudes of the Turkish American relationship. Indeed, such an approach is also prudent because Russia and Turkey had a difficult common history.

Moscow’s focus is on injecting as much positive content to the relations with Ankara, especially in the conditions under sanctions, which has created interest groups on the Turkish side and significantly boosted Russia’s “soft power” in Anatolia. (A similar phenomenon appears vis-a-vis India, too.)

Thus, while Erdogan may find Russia to be a useful balancer vis-a-vis the US, Moscow sees no reason to feel perturbed by the recent thaw in Turkey’s ties with the US. Possibly, this could be one reason why President Vladimir Putin is yet to schedule his long overdue visit to Turkey although Erdogan has been manifestly eager for it to take place before his own forthcoming visit to the US on May 9.

That said, Russia cannot but be intensely conscious that Turkey is a unique NATO member country which is genuinely seeking an expansion of the relationship with it and is committed to a dynamic partnership on a broad spectrum ranging from energy to missiles to tourism — and, equally, has a finely balanced relationship with Iran, Russia’s most important West Asian partner.

Of course, the personal equation between Erdogan and Vladimir Putin has been a key factor here although its sheen has somewhat worn off after Turkey’s recent trade-offs with the US over Sweden’s NATO membership, which is a severe setback to Russia’s core interests in the Arctic north, an area of deep strategic concern for Moscow as it is where the Russian nuclear-armed submarine fleet is based.

From the American perspective, the Russo-Turkish cooperation is crucial to the security of the Black Sea region, which is at the vortex of the Ukraine conflict. Under the Montreaux Convention (1936), Turkey controls the straits of Dardanelles and Bosporus, access to which could be a game changer for the US’ expansionist strategies for NATO currently. Of course, Turkey’s closure of Bosporus to western warshipsin the prevailing war conditions in Ukraine tilts the balance of forces in the Black Sea in favour of Russia.

Besides, the security of the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean impacts Russia’s growing presence in North Africa, Sahel region and the Central African Republic as a whole, which are rich in minerals. Having succeeded in bringing Armenia into the western orbit and remove the Russian peacekeeping force in Nagorno-Karabakh, the next phase could well be a NATO push to shut down the Russian base in Armenia. Therefore, Turkey’s influence in Transcaucasia is potentially a game changer in the long term, where Russia’s restive Muslim republics in North Caucasus are in the West’s crosshairs.

Broadly, Turkey becomes an indispensable participant in NATO’s “out-of-region” expeditionary agenda which reaches into Transcaucasia and the Caspian and further lurching toward Central Asia and Afghanistan in a wide arc that could bring the western alliance system right into India’s extended neighbourhood in a great Eurasian pivot harking back to Mackinder’s Heartland Theory — “Who rules East Europe, commands the Heartland, Who rules the Heartland, commands the World Island, Who rules the World Island, commands the World.” (1904)

Mackinder tended to be overly Eurocentric, but the importance of Eurasian heartland has not only not diminished — home to most of the world’s remaining mineral resources — but may have only increased after the rise of China as a superpower and its Belt and Road Initiative.

Although Russia lost her political grip over East Europe in the 1980s, it still controls the Heartland. The former US national security advisor and informal Obama/Biden advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski drew heavily on Mackinder’s theory in his 1997 book The Grand Chessboard where he wrote with great prescience,

“Geopolitics has moved from the regional to the global dimension, with preponderance over the entire Eurasian continent serving as the central basis for global primacy. The United States, a non-Eurasian power, now enjoys international primacy, with its power directly deployed on three peripheries of the Eurasian continent …. But it is on the globe’s most important playing field –-Eurasia –- that a potential rival to America might at some point arise.”

Suffice to say, Erdogan’s trip to the White House on May 9, the first such event during the Biden presidency, will be keenly watched. Biden thought he was punishing Erdogan for his independent foreign policies by ignoring him but is now stooping low since Turkey’s cooperation can be a “game changer” for the advancement of US interests on a range of issues.

It is another matter, though, that Erdogan also will have a wish list to discuss with Biden and is certain to be an exacting and exasperating interlocutor. The bottom line is that any Turkish-American bonhomie will be delimited by emergent war clouds in West Asia over and above the trust deficit in the relationship stemming out of the failed 2016 military coup attempt against Erdogan and the Pentagon’s subsequent alliance with Kurdish militants in Syria, who are fuelling separatism inside Turkey.

Turkey refused to sanction Russia and has instead shown readiness for an expansion of relations with it. Over 6 million Russian tourists visited Turkey last year. On major regional and international issues, Turkey’s stance is increasingly at variance with Washington’s.

Thus, notably, Turkey did not join the US-led coalition confronting the Houthis in the Red Sea. During the past week, it was disclosed that Turkey has applied to participate in the International Lunar Research Station jointly initiated by China and Russia (in preference to NASA’s moon exploration programme known as Artemis.)

Again, Turkey strongly condemned the Israeli air strike against the Iranian embassy compound in Damascus on April 1, whereas, Ankara’s response to Iran’s airstrike against Israel on April 13 was delayed and was in a subdued tone with the primary concern being the potential spread of Israel’s Gaza conflict throughout the region, followed by the apprehension that international attention may shift from the Gaza tragedy.

Indeed, Turkey is the only NATO country which refused to support the US-sponsored joint statement on Thursday against Iran over its retaliatory strike against Israel.

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