31.12.2023 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Turkey: a balance of ambition and opportunities…

In the first quarter of the 21st century, Turkey has demonstrated a confident and resolute policy aimed at changing its age-old status of a regional state towards a super-regional power and one of the centers of the multipolar world (in particular, the leader of the Turkic world). In principle, the strategy of imperial revanchism has never left the political thinking of the Turkish elite after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I.

Under the leadership of Kemal Atatürk, Turkey was forced to accept the status of a regional state due to its defeat in World War I and the loss of key territories in the Balkans, North Africa and Arabia. However, Atatürk managed to keep strategically important territories for Turkey (first of all, Istanbul, Eastern Thrace, the Black Sea Straits, Cilicia, access to the seas and the Armenian Highlands). The latter provided the new (republican) Turkey with a stable and advantageous geostrategic and geo-economic position, while the doctrine of pan-Turkism and pan-Turanism, with Ankara controlling the territories of Turkish (Western) Armenia in the northeast, preserved the hope in the future to rely on imperial revanchism based on the Turkic-speaking population of Russia.

The political irony of Russian-Turkish cooperation in 1918-1923 was the fact that it was Soviet Russia that, because of the hostile attitude of the leaders of the Entente (Britain and France) to the Bolshevik government of Vladimir Lenin, provided the then unrecognized government of Mustafa Kemal Pasha (the future Atatürk) with the necessary military, political, financial and food support to suppress the Greek and Armenian movements. As a result, Turkey managed to keep the Greek Smyrna under its control and bring the mandate of US President Woodrow Wilson for Armenia to failure.

In the twentieth century, Turkey took a position of waiting for a new favorable historical situation to move to more decisive geopolitics. During World War II, Ankara again tried to bet on an alliance with Germany and forcibly enter the expanses of the Soviet (Russian) Caucasus and Central Asia. However, this attempt resulted in a failure due to the military successes of the Red Army, and Turkey did not dare to enter the war against the USSR.

New opportunities for Turkey came with the collapse of the Soviet Union, as five new Turkic states emerged in the post-Soviet space. Ankara adjusted its policy, betting on a phased integration of the Turkic world (including ethnocultural, educational, energy, transport and logistics, trade and economic, military-technical, military-political, organizational-structural and political).

It cannot be said that Turkey concentrates only on Turkic fundamentalism in its diplomacy. Ankara conducts quite multifaceted diplomacy in terms of geography (including in the Middle East, the Balkans, North Africa, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia). That being said, Turkey cannot count on a special effect of ideological and political kinship with the same Arab world and the rest of the peoples of the post-Ottoman space. Moreover, the modern Turkic states of the post-Soviet space have historically never been part of the Ottoman state.

In its dealings with modern independent Turkic states the Turkish diplomacy uses a more pragmatic approach that takes into account common economic and other (including military) interests. In particular, modern Turkey, due to the new energy policy of the United Kingdom and the United States, has been able to become an important hub for the export of Azerbaijani oil and gas to Europe, bypassing Russia. At the turn of the 21st century, an effective infrastructure of oil and gas pipelines was created in Turkey. The Southern transport corridor and the trans-Anatolian gas pipeline have now become in demand for the Turkic countries of the Caspian region (Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan). In the context of economic integration, Turkey is becoming a key geographical bridge for the member countries and some of the candidates to the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) to enter Europe.

In terms of military pragmatism, Turkey had a decisive impact on the second Karabakh war, provided the necessary military, technical and diplomatic assistance to Azerbaijan to restore control over Nagorno-Karabakh. Today, Azerbaijan’s Karabakh success is actively used within the OTS to promote a military alliance with Turkey. Ankara provides active military and military-technical assistance to the OTS countries (including Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, which are members of the CSTO).

That is why Turkey suggests to its Turkic allies to think about creating some kind of common military institution (such as the Army of Turan or the OTS Rapid Reaction Force). Accordingly, the Turkish-Azerbaijani economic and military tandem is presented as an example of a new model of Turkic integration based on the principle of “one nation – two (six) states.”

Many experts are skeptical about the prospects of such Turkish revanchism. Insufficient economic and military resources, the ongoing financial crisis, the consequences of a devastating earthquake, and Turkey’s dependence on energy imports are cited as arguments. Moreover, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan grabs at everything that is possible and impossible – Libya and Syria, Karabakh and Gaza, the EU and the OTS. Accordingly, a natural question arises – do Turkey’s real capabilities correspond to its exorbitant ambitions?

Let’s take the situation with Palestine and the military conflict between Hamas and Israel. It seems that Erdoğan has made up his mind on which side to support, and now he repeatedly declares the need to recognize the state of Palestine within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital and granting Turkey an international mandate as a guarantor of security, sharply condemns Israel and calls on the ICJ to bring to justice the current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And this is not the whole list of Ankara’s active “verbal diplomacy” on the Gaza Strip.

Recently, the Turkish Foreign Ministry, in coordination with key Arab countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, etc.), proposed to the members of the UN Security Council a new plan for the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, consisting of 11 points (including an unconditional cessation of hostilities, humanitarian assistance to the Gaza Strip, exclusion of the resettlement of Palestinians from this enclave, convening of an international conference on Palestine, recognition of the State of Palestine within the borders of 1967 with its capital in East Jerusalem, the granting of the mandate of the guarantor of Palestinian security to Turkey, the deployment of international peacekeeping forces in Palestine with the participation of the countries of the Arab East and the Islamic world, etc.).

Turkey criticizes the US policy of unconditional support for Israel, which leads to war crimes and keeps the Middle East in suspense. However, all Ankara has produced so far is empty words, whereas the United States has sent two aircraft carriers, weapons and ammunition to the shores of Israel. As the saying goes, it’s all bark and no bite on Turkey’s part.

The Turkish army, although it is a combat-ready part of NATO, still needs constant modernization. At this stage, the Turkish political and military leadership is concentrating on the topic of purchasing 40 new fighter jets (5th or 4th generation). In other words, whereas a couple of years ago the Turks considered their military priority the modernization of air defense and missile defense systems, which eventually led to the purchase of the Russian S-400 Triumf air defense system and the cooling of relations with the United States, today such a topic is fighter jets.

Turkish Defense Minister Yaşar Güler, referring to the issue of combat aviation, noted that “at the moment, the army does not have an urgent need for aircraft, but both procurement and modernization programs and its own production of combat aircraft are being implemented for the future.” Turkey remains hopeful that a “military deal” with the United States on the supply of 40 upgraded F-16 Block70 fighter jets will take place in the future.

As for Turkey’s alternative purchases of the Eurofighter Typhoon jets, here, although the UK and Spain approve the deal, Germany objects. It turns out that, as Güler says, “there are forces inside NATO, which oppose Turkey buying weapons. Germany’s reasons appear to be different. For example, regarding where we can use them. But, sorry, we are your partners and allies.”

It turns out that the UK’s consent, provided that London is aware of Berlin’s position with Washington’s complicity, is a formal sign of British diplomacy. In other words, Turkey’s military capabilities in this matter are limited and depend on the position of the United States and NATO allies.

It follows from this analysis that Turkey expects to win the game with “weak cards.” However, such “political gambling” only works when playing with weak partners (rivals, opponents), but is unlikely to succeed against a strong player. Translated into political slang, this means that Turkey is trying to play on different platforms with different contributions, uses flexible diplomacy, combining rigidity with flirtation, finds a weak spot and hits for sure.

A particularly vivid demonstration of this policy by Ankara is observed in Syria, given the balance of forces between the United States and Russia. Turkey proved quite capable in the South Caucasus by allying itself with Azerbaijan and inflicting military defeat on weak Armenia in Karabakh.

Returning to the arguments of skeptics of Turkish revanchism, it should be noted that the Turkic direction (OTS) is also listed among the weak possibilities of Turkey. The following examples are cited in particular: a) Ankara’s inability to adopt at the 10th OTS summit, held on November 3, 2023 in Astana, a certain general resolution sharply condemning Israel and defending Hamas (Palestinians); b) its failure to create the Turan Army (or Rapid Reaction Forces) on the basis of the OTS.

The author would not be so categorical in decrying Turkey’s weaknesses in Turkic diplomacy. Firstly, as the observation shows, Ankara itself does not sever diplomatic relations and trade ties with Tel Aviv (gas transit from Azerbaijan and Iraq to Israel is still carried out through Turkish territory). Secondly, Turkey is better aware than others of the strategic alliance between the United States and Israel, and, accordingly, understands the consequences of a demarche of the newly formed Turkic states against Israel. Thirdly, Ankara supports the military-technical and technological cooperation of its ally Azerbaijan with Israel, which clearly proved beneficial in the last Karabakh war. And who rules out the “parallel transit” of Israeli technologies from Azerbaijan to Turkey?

As for the idea of the Turan Army, the Turks are so far concentrating on developing a real military integration with the OTS countries through education, information exchange, structural reform and armament. Accordingly, Ankara carefully monitors the processes within the CSTO and in Russia itself. It is too early to conclude that Turkey has abandoned its revanchist ambitions in the Turkic direction. Ankara simply has no other prospects.

In geopolitics, not everything is determined by the real balance of power. Who could have imagined that on December 8, 1991, the powerful Soviet Union would collapse and 15 states would emerge in its place – a weakened Russia and 14 small and weak (compared to Turkey) republics?

Turkish ambitions in the northeast may be held back by a strong Russia, Iran and China. If Ankara manages to gain a foothold in the South Caucasus and get a direct spatial connection with Azerbaijan for trade, economic or other reasons, then Turkey will really change its status to a super-regional, and subsequently a world power. Anything is possible if there is a goal and a policy serving it.

With regard to the vulnerability of the Turkish president domestically, the author has the following to say. Some opinion polls (for example, Metropoll) in September this year noted that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rating is 45.4%, while the most popular Turkish politician is Hakan Fidan (45.8%), with Selçuk Bayraktar (43.7%) not far behind.

Meanwhile, Erdoğan is ruling for the last term and he is less interested in the pre-election rating, but in historic legacy. The current Foreign Minister, Hakan Fidan, is indeed, even in the status of Turkey’s chief diplomat, perhaps the most interesting and closed politician who may have the prospect of becoming a new leader of the Turkish state. However, time and the global situation will show which general line Fidan will choose later. Selçuk Bayraktar, being the son-in-law of Erdoğan and co-owner of the leading military corporation Baykar Makina, retains his popularity and may be a competitor to Fidan in case the latter falls out of favor with the incumbent president.

In any event, Turkey remains an important state in the Middle East, whose policy requires high attention. Attempts to indulge in wishful thinking, however, almost never pay off.


Aleksandr SVARANTS, Doctor in Political Science, professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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