02.05.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

The Imminent Turkish-American Summit and Russia

The Imminent Turkish-American Summit

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to pay an official visit to the United States on May 9 to meet with his American counterpart, according to officials. It should be noted that this visit will be Erdoğan’s first visit to the United States during the years of Joe Biden’s presidency. The very fact of the visit and talks between the leader of an important regional country, as Turkey is, and the head of the collective West, the US President, is of particular interest in world diplomacy.

Given the uneasy relations between Turkey and the United States during Erdoğan’s rule, the persistent Turkish-American contradictions on a set of issues on the regional and global agenda, the ongoing systemic crisis of the Turkish economy, and the continuing acute conflicts in the Mediterranean and Black Sea basins, it is natural that Russia is also paying considerable attention to this meeting.

Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan, referring to the topic of the expected visit of President Erdoğan to the United States, said that the negotiating agenda of the heads of state will include a wide range of issues and, above all, bilateral and regional relations.

A Bilateral Agenda.

Obviously, this list includes topics such as:

– The US and the EU’s support for Turkey (with Washington’s consent) to overcome the protracted financial and economic crisis through large-scale targeted investments, expansion of the stock market, admission of Turks to new technologies and strict compliance with US sanctions against Russia

– implementation of the “military deal” on deliveries of modernized F-16 Block 70 fighters and the geography of their probable use in coordination with the Pentagon

– the possibility of Turkey’s admission to the program for the production of 5th generation F-35 fighters in exchange for the termination of Turkish-Russian military-technical cooperation and the admission of US military specialists to “scanning” Russian S-400 Triumf air defense systems

– US encouragement for the expansion of Turkey’s “transit service” to link Asia with Europe and cargo traffic, and discussion of the prospects for the Middle and Turanian corridors through the Armenian Zangezur corridor

– settlement of the Kurdish issue

– balance between the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), which won the local elections

– strengthening the pro-American vector of Turkish diplomacy and taking into account Turkey’s regional interests in North Africa, the Middle East, the South Caucasus, the Black Sea basin and Central Asia

The protracted financial and economic crisis in Turkey requires serious external investment and soft loans from the US, European countries and international financial institutions that are dependent on Washington’s policies. Although Erdoğan replaced the government’s financial bloc with pro-American cadres led by Mehmet Şimşek after a difficult victory in the 2023 presidential election, the subsequent period has not yet brought any dramatic changes in the process of stabilizing the national market. Accordingly, Ankara realizes that financial dependence on Washington dictates the known rules of the game.

That is why after the December 2023 decree of US President Biden on toughening secondary sanctions against companies and countries violating anti-Russian sanctions and increasing the degree of US financial and political pressure, Turkey had to make certain restrictions in trade and economic ties with Russia starting in January 2024. In particular, this action is about the refusal of bank payments for transactions to Russian companies and Turkish exporters of dual-use goods to Russia. This issue is discussed in the bilateral agenda of Turkish-Russian relations, but Ankara is postponing the decision for the time being (at least until the May 9 visit). As a result of such “Turkish partnership,” exports (re-exports) of goods from Turkey to Russia decreased by 32% in the first quarter of this year.

Turkey’s receipt of modernized US F-16 fighters and the probable admission of the Turks to the production of F-35s means that the Turkish military will not have the ability to decide independently on the issues of their use in one or another probable theaters of operation without coordination with the US and NATO as a whole. Washington may restrict the use of this military equipment in the Mediterranean (for example, against Cyprus and Greece) and in the Caucasus (in particular, against Armenia).

As for the fate of Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, the US will categorically prohibit Turkey from using Russian weapons arguing that they are operationally incompatible within the framework of Turkey’s NATO membership. The US is more likely to supply its Patriot air defense systems, while demanding access to technical inspection of the Russian-made S-400s for later deployment to Ukraine for their use against Russia.

Erdoğan made a new decision in the military field ahead of his trip to the United States that may be in Washington’s interest. In particular, in early April, Turkey announced its withdrawal from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE Treaty), which is certainly in line with the approaches of the United States and NATO. Such a decision of Ankara, as rightly noted by Azerbaijani expert Amur Gadzhiev, director of the Center for the Study of Modern Turkey, is “a curtsy towards the US and is related to the preparation of favorable ground for the negotiations between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with US President Joe Biden.”

And what does Turkey’s withdrawal from the CFE Treaty mean in terms of strengthening relations between Ankara and Washington with regard to, say, Ukraine? As you know, the Turkish military-industrial company Baykar, which is headed by Haluk Bayraktar, the brother of Erdoğan’s son-in-law, has already announced and started the construction of a plant near Kiev for the joint production of UAVs. At the same time, the US is offering to send parts to Turkey for the production of 155 mm artillery shells for subsequent mass deliveries to Ukraine for use against Russia. And, most likely, Erdoğan will again make such a concession to the Americans with the expressed reasons being: the “unprecedented pressure” of the US and the ideal of preserving the “territorial integrity” of Ukraine.

In that case, how can we understand the Turkish president’s assertion that without taking Russia’s interests into account, the peace agenda on Ukraine is doomed? Where does Ankara itself take into account the interests of Moscow and the realities on the ground, if it agrees to another increase in the armament of the Kiev regime, which is fraught with a new round of escalation?

After the May 2023 elections, there has been a clear bias in Turkey’s policy towards strengthening relations with the United States and Europe. The March 2024 municipal elections, in which Erdoğan’s party lost to the pro-Western opposition party, CHP, further reinforced Ankara’s pro-Western course. The fact that Erdoğan readily conceded victory to the pro-American opposition is at least reminiscent of exactly the opposite situation, when, following the second round of the 2023 presidential election, then-CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu promptly conceded defeat in favor of Erdoğan. Well, at most, such a reversal may suggest that Erdoğan has already negotiated these outcomes behind the scenes with the US (including two lots in the bidding for Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership).

The defeat of the Turkish conservatives against the Democrats in light of the growing financial crisis would apparently indicate the beginning of the decline of Recep Erdoğan’s rule, and with it the end of the impulsive policy of Turkey to strengthen the independent – from the United States – vector. It is unlikely that the Americans will finally “extinguish” Turkey’s chronic financial and economic problems before 2028, deliberately so as not to stimulate another attack of “Turkish independence” and the transition of power from father-in-law Recep Erdoğan to son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar.

It is obvious that Washington is interested in the ascension of pro-American forces to the Turkish throne (today this means the representatives of the CHP – Ekrem İmamoğlu or Mansur Yavaş). These two, who lead Turkey’s major cities and infrastructure centers, will be the ones the US will help by reducing the degree of crisis and social upheaval in the country.

Multilateral Relations Agenda.

The US and Turkey are allies within NATO and are also linked by a set of interests in a number of regional issues (in North Africa, the Middle East, the Black Sea basin, the South Caucasus and Central Asia).

Accordingly, Recep Erdoğan will pay special attention to two acute conflicts – the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the Gaza Strip and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict in the post-Soviet space. Ankara is seeking to increase Washington’s pressure on Tel Aviv to prevent a large-scale IDF military operation against Hamas in Rafah in southern Gaza, where more than 1.5 million Palestinian refugees have congregated. Another desire of Turkey is to allow Israel to provide uninterrupted Turkish humanitarian aid to the civilian population of Gaza. Finally, the Turks offer their own version of a political settlement of the Palestinian issue, where the novelty is not the proposal to recognize the independence of Palestine within the 1967 borders and centered in East Jerusalem, but the granting of an international mandate to Turkey as a security guarantor. In other words, Ankara intends to deploy its military peacekeeping contingent in the port sector of Gaza.

However, the US cannot ignore the interests of its closest ally, Israel, by supporting the Turkish version of the Palestinian settlement, but will quite (at least publicly) approve of Ankara’s initiatives on the inadmissibility of any destructive military operation in Rafah and provision of humanitarian aid to the Palestinians with the prospect of cessation of hostilities.

As for the Ukrainian crisis, the situation is much more complicated. The US demands from Turkey not only strict compliance with the anti-Russian sanctions regime on export and re-export operations, but also active participation in the military support of the Kiev regime (including supplies of weapons, military equipment and ammunition; establishment of military production of UAVs, as well as escalation of military tensions in the Black Sea). In particular, the Turkish publication Aydınlık reports that the US plans to involve Turkey in a confrontation with Russia and to make Ankara a major arms supplier to Ukraine. These issues will definitely be discussed during the meeting between Erdoğan and Biden on May 9.

Turkey, compared to other Black Sea NATO countries (i.e. Bulgaria and Romania), has the most powerful naval forces in the Black Sea basin. These are about 24 missile boats, 20 frigates (including 16 aircraft carrier ships), 12 submarines and 6 corvettes. The US does not rule out the possibility of using Turkey as a military bridgehead in the conflict against Russia to change the balance of power in the Black Sea region. Moreover, Turkey is the only country that controls the entry and exit of warships into the Black Sea through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. An enhanced level of air power provided by American F-16s and F-35s, initially under the formula of a “humanitarian grain convoy,” in reality will provoke conflict with point-blank strikes on Russian military airfields and naval bases. This could threaten Russia and lead to a large-scale war.

Turkey should not be drawn into such a provocation by the US; above all, it would find itself in a lot of trouble. Russia is capable of establishing air control and dealing an irreparable blow to the Turkish Navy at sea. Besides, the Turks receive considerable financial and economic dividends from Russian trade, tourism, energy and regional affairs (in Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia, Central Asian countries).

Other US approaches to reformatting relations with Turkey in Syria, the South Caucasus, and Central Asia are subordinate to the Ukrainian affair. In other words, Ankara’s acquiescence in helping Kiev against Moscow gives Washington space to silence the aggressive actions of Turkish forces against Syrian Kurds and Karabakh Armenians.

Meanwhile, the United States can also support Turkey’s persistent interest in opening the Zangezur corridor through the south of Armenia to Turan (Azerbaijan and the Turkic republics of Central Asia) on the condition of blocking the presence of Russian border guards in Armenia itself and Zangezur, in particular. That is why Washington and Brussels held a demonstrative meeting with Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan on April 5, where they plan to deepen Yerevan’s pro-Western vector and alienate the latter from Moscow with 270 million euros and $65 million in handouts. At the same time, the US through Turkey is trying to subdue Azerbaijan’s leader Ilham Aliyev, who is not toeing the line along with others of his rank in the wider region, because a conflict in the region without coordination with Washington may have other consequences for Baku.

Accordingly, the coordination of all the above-mentioned issues gives Turkey and the US an opportunity to discuss the next stage of weakening and isolation of Russian influence on Central Asian countries in the name of neo-Pan-Turanism, a multi-vector expansion of the Organization of Turkic States and the increase of NATO influence on the shoulders of its member, Turkey, into the region to export energy and other rich resources to Western markets.

Each of these topics carries a sufficient charge of destabilizing regional security. Turkey has established a certain pause in relations with Russia. As Amur Gadzhiev notes, this is about the “stalled” implementation of agreements on the “gas hub,” the unsettled problem of bank payments and complex regional issues in Libya, Syria, Armenia and Karabakh. And then there is the incomprehensible transit through Istanbul of the Tajiks who committed the terrorist attack on the Crocus City theater complex in Moscow.

However, Turkey has a lot to lose in the event of a confrontation with Russia. It is not only Russian tourists and $54 billion for Russian gas and nuclear power plants, $256 billion worth of exports and re-exports to Russia, but also the success of Turkey’s regional geopolitics in Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia and Central Asian republics due to Moscow’s “soft” pro-Turkish stance. In addition, Russia, unlike the United States and Europe, demonstrates to Turkey an attitude of equality and respect for Ankara’s sovereign rights. Erdoğan and the Turkey he leads could lose all of this in a short time if they consolidate with the United States to the detriment of Russia’s interests.

Azerbaijan, for example, hopes that the Turks will not abruptly direct their vector of diplomacy against Russia and give up the advantages that Ankara has been able to gain in recent years through its close cooperation with Moscow. Otherwise, it may affect the interests of Baku itself in Karabakh and who knows where else. Therefore, Amur Gadzhiev believes that “some sharp cooling or zigzags in relations with Russia are not expected.” Furthermore, Gadzhiev believes that withdrawal from the CFE Treaty is only a “nominal step,” which the Turks can refer to in negotiations with Western partners, but it will not bring radical changes in Ankara’s Black Sea regional policy.

“From your lips to God’s ears,” is what the author would say to respond to Amur Gadzhiev. However, there are no naive politicians in Russia (as well as in the US) who believe in words. What is nominal about the curtsy the Turks demonstrate to the West and Ukraine when they build a whole UAV factory near Kiev and do not rule out their complicity in supplying important ammunition to the AFU? Such “nominal steps” have been causing the Russian economy to lose for the fourth month already due to unsettled bank payments and decreased re-export of goods.

Other experts interested in friendship with Turkey (for example, Vitaly Kolpashnikov, head of the Elitis Center for the Study of Political Elites) believe that Ankara is unlikely to give up $54 billion in Russian tourists and $256 billion in re-exports of goods to Russia. Of course, it is not rational for the knowledgeable to lose the dividends from the trade itself. However, we should not remain naïve, because geopolitics is often more important than economics.

Russia also had many billions of dollars in dividends from gas exports through Ukraine to the richest Europe, and from trade with the EU in general. But the geopolitical interests of the Russian Federation at some point exceeded economic expectations from trade with Europe, and the country’s leadership had to make the difficult decision to start the Special Military Operation.

Once upon a time (notably in 1999) Turkey, the US and Great Britain were extremely favorable to the Armenian route through Zangezur to lay oil and gas pipelines from Azerbaijan to Europe bypassing Russia. But Armenia did not agree with the West and Ankara in favor of an alliance with Russia, and the Turkish-Anglo-Saxon tandem went for the implementation of this transport and energy transit through the longest, i.e. economically unprofitable, Georgian route, which is 1,768 km long and costs $4 billion. Besides, what is $310 billion for the United States when its geopolitical ambitions are at stake?

There is a striking coincidence with the date of Erdoğan’s visit to the United States on May 9. It is unlikely that this day in President Biden’s schedule was determined by the Turkish side. What is Washington’s hint aimed at, where they are well aware of the sacred significance of May 9 for Russia. So whose victory will come on May 9, 2024?

The Turks need to decide with whom to maintain a true partnership. Perhaps that is why the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin to Ankara was postponed at Erdoğan’s request until after the local elections. The date of Putin’s visit is likely to be decided after the meeting between Erdoğan and Biden. Hopefully, the White House summit doesn’t overshadow the Blue Room at Dolmabahçe…


Alexander SVARANTS – Doctor of Political Sciences, Professor, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

Related articles: