In the wake of the July 15 coup attempt, Turkey’s relations with its Western partners have taken a nosedive, while the acceleration of efforts at Turkish-Russian normalization has triggered a debate about a possible shift in Turkish foreign policy.
Turkish-Russian rapprochement has gained momentum after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan extended regrets and an apology for the downing last year of a Russian plane in a letter to President Vladimir Putin.
The coup attempt provided an opportunity for the Turkish government to keep a tally of friends and foes both at home and abroad. Compared to the cautious stance of its Western allies, which was perceived as ambivalence in Ankara, Iran and Russia were among the first to offer solid support and condemn all sorts of military interventions in the early hours of unrest.The day after the coup, Putin personally called to offer condolences for the loss of soldiers and civilians in the coup attempt, and the two leaders scheduled a meeting in Moscow on Aug. 9.
Disillusion with the United States and the European Union, combined with a sense of betrayal, leads Turkey to question the significance of the Western alliance and NATO in particular, pushing Ankara closer to Russia.
But the critical question to be raised here should be whether or not jeopardizing ties with the Western allies serves Turkey’s interests at a time when it has been recovering from its not-so- precious loneliness.
Turkey and Russia, as neighbors, have a shared interest in maintaining cordial relations, which is why rapprochement efforts should be welcome.
Their economic interdependence fostered the compartmentalization of bilateral relations, insulating economic interests from political disputes. Thus, until the downing of the Russian jet, Ankara and Moscow managed to weather their policy divergences in Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
But the crisis last year also showed that economic interdependence worked against Turkey. Now, the wise approach would be to establish a partnership on equal terms. A shift of axis, on the contrary, means abandoning the balances between the West and the East – something that would likely increase Turkey’s vulnerability.
Although Turkey and Russia are two countries which are somewhat excluded from the European integration process, the prospects for the emergence of an axis of the excluded has limitations due to their divergent interests in the region. Take Syria, for instance: Will Turkey be able to sustain the policy of compartmentalization any longer, especially when Russian-deployed S-400 missiles loom in Latakia? Even though the government previously signaled a softening in its stance toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow and Ankara still do not see eye to eye when it comes to either the Syrian Kurds or the moderate opposition forces on the ground.
And then there is the security cost of breaking ties with the NATO. As a result of the recent crackdown on coup plotters, the Turkish military has lost a number of personnel including those in charge of conducting military operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Facing a security deficit along its southeastern border, Turkey needs NATO support more than ever. Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu’s statement in which he emphasized Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia was not an alternative either to the NATO or the E.U came as a relief.
Since foreign policy choices will have a bearing not only on the security architecture in the region but also on the future of the domestic regime, decisions should be dominated by prudence instead of anger and frustration. It certainly makes for difficult times!