17.05.2024 Author: Alexandr Svaranc

Turkey Continues ‘Maneuvering Diplomacy’

C-400 F-35

It is no secret that since the times of the Ottoman Empire, Turkish diplomacy, especially after the onset of the decline of the Sublime Porte at the beginning of the 19th century, commenced adapting to the international conjuncture and ‘maneuvering’ between different centers of power (in particular, between Britain, France, Germany and Russia). This tendency, on the one hand, was determined by the weakening of Turkish statehood and forced its rulers to adjust to the ‘powers that be’; and, on the other hand, it was a consequence of the tradition which favors bargaining. In other words, the Turks are trying to make the most out of minimal opportunities to keep their own state stable with the prospect of betting on the winner.

The flexibility of diplomacy is in principle a demonstration of its skill and professionalism. However, when this flexibility often gives way to maneuvering of diplomacy in different historical periods, it allows one to assume a certain regularity in relation to a particular subject and to build more adequate relations with it, since history repeats itself in a spiral.

Turkey repeatedly made overtures to Russia in the 19th and 20th centuries and then defected to the West. Nowadays, President Recep Erdoğan’s diplomacy towards Russia demonstrates high loyalty and develops strategic partnership, and publicly Turkey opposes the interference of the West, led by the United States, in the process of Turkish-Russian relations. However, in reality, whenever Ankara takes tough decisions regarding, for example, Russian companies, it explains its position by ‘American pressure’. Nonetheless, how should one categorize Turkey’s military and military-technical cooperation with the Kiev regime (supplies of arms, ammunition, drones, intelligence, mercenaries, construction of a UAV factory, violation of prisoner exchange agreements, etc.)? Is this also U.S. and British pressure, or a Turkish bid just in case?

This May started with another interesting event in the life of Turkish diplomacy. As is known, on April 26, the official representative of the Turkish Foreign Ministry Öncü Keçeli publicly confirmed the postponement of the first official visit of President R. Erdoğan to the United States announced in the media, which was scheduled for May 9, for an indefinite period. In particular, he said, “Our president’s visit to the United States, scheduled for May 9, has been postponed to a later date, more convenient for both sides, due to the incompatibility of schedules.”

What was the real reason for the postponement of Erdoğan’s visit to Biden? The fact is that the official visits of the heads of state are prepared in advance by the parties with the participation of institutions of the presidential administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, foreign intelligence agencies and other relevant departments (depending on the upcoming agenda of negotiations). Earlier, Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan noted the rich agenda of the expected negotiations in Washington between the leaders of Turkey and the United States, where special emphasis was placed on bilateral and multilateral issues (including the Middle East conflict and the Russian-Ukrainian crisis).

Turkey took some steps that could in no way please the administration of President Joseph Biden in the pre-election period. In particular, President Recep Erdoğan publicly received Hamas Politburo head Ismail Haniyeh on the situation of the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict and endorsed anti-Israeli rhetoric. The United States has an influential Jewish diaspora, which is unlikely to support the candidacy of a new president who publicly ignores the interests of Israel. It was then that the opinion began to spread that Biden would not receive Erdoğan on May 9.

Following this move, on May 1, Hakan Fidan announced Turkey’s intention to join South Africa’s lawsuit at the UN International Court of Justice accusing Israel of genocide in the Palestinian territory of the Gaza Strip. In particular, he said, “I would like to announce it for the first time that we have decided to join South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice.”

In line with this position, Ankara began calling for the arrest by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli government officials (notably Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, Military Cabinet member Benny Gantz, Chief of the General Staff Herzi Halevi, Air Force Commander Tomer Bar, Commander of the Southern Region Major General Yaron Finkelman) for war crimes committed.

Finally, understanding that under the current circumstances, the official visit of the Turkish leader to the United States is postponed indefinitely, Ankara announced on May 3 a complete halt of trade turnover (all export and import operations) with Israel, which is about $9.5 billion. In this regard, a statement from the Turkish Ministry of Commerce noted: “The implementation of the second phase of measures taken at the state level has begun. Export and import operations with Israel have been suspended for all groups of goods.” Turkey’s trade sanctions will remain in place until Israel stops fighting in the Gaza Strip and ensures the uninterrupted flow of humanitarian aid.

Erdoğan accused Western countries of backing Israel with military and political resources, leading to mass deaths of Palestinians every day. “We could no longer tolerate this and took action. There was a trade volume of $9.5bn between us. We closed that door,” the Turkish leader said.

And while in early April Turkey restricted exports of manufactured goods to Israel on 54 items, the content of which did not pose any particular problems for the offensive operations of the Israel Defense Forces (for example, the building bricks or mineral fertilizer), a month later Ankara decided to suspend trade operations with Tel Aviv altogether with a total value of $9.5 billion. Of course, this is quite an impressive figure.

However, Israel’s economy is the 29th largest in the world, and its GDP in 2023, although down 21%, was $539bn. Excluding trade with Turkey (less than 2%), this GDP figure could be $530bn in 2024, unless, of course, Israel expands trade with other countries and compensates for the ‘Turkish losses’. In other words, the Turkish embargo is unlikely to stop Israel from continuing the conflict with Hamas. Thus, on May 6, Israel’s military cabinet approved a military operation in the town of Rafah. Rather, the embargo decision was a demonstrative move by Ankara in exchange for Washington’s refusal to accept Erdoğan.

Of course, just as in early April, so now Israel will take counter-action in response to Turkey’s trade sanctions. In particular, even then, Israeli Foreign Minister I. Katz promised Ankara to use Tel Aviv’s capabilities in the United States (obviously, this list will extend to other Western and NATO countries) to restrict trade with Turkey. That is why Recep Erdoğan said that Ankara ‘knows very well’ how the West will attack Turkey after the decision to suspend trade with Israel.

Turkey, currently experiencing an acute financial and economic crisis, is unlikely to be able to resist the next U.S. and European sanctions with Israel’s complicity. That is why Erdoğan, at a meeting with business circles at the Turkish Independent Industrialists’ and Businessmen’s Association, supplemented his predictions about ‘Western attacks’ with the intention to ‘live together in peace and prosperity’ with his regional neighbors.

Obviously, Turkey’s trade embargo will not critically affect Israel, because Tel Aviv will easily find a substitute for Turkish goods with better quality goods from Europe or Africa. But Turkey itself is more likely to lose from its own sanctions (for example, there may be problems with the supply of Israeli high technologies, medical drugs and equipment, as well as Israeli military know-how, which Ankara easily received through Baku). It is interesting to know whether Turkey in this regard stops the transit of oil from Azerbaijan and Iraq through its territory to Israel, or faces unprecedented fines for this.

Israel’s Foreign Minister Israel Katz has already instructed his staff (particularly Yaakov Blitstein) to start working with the government to find alternatives to trade with Turkey. In doing so, Tel Aviv will give priority to Israeli products and imported goods from other states.

Meanwhile, Turkey, in the situation of a certain cooling of relations with the United States, once again recalls Russia at the level of its ministers, deputies and experts. Thus, on May 2, the head of the Ministry of Defense, Yaşar Güler, said that Ankara did not intend to transfer its S-400 air defense systems to Ukraine. Fuat Oktay, head of the Turkish parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, said on May 4 that Turkey does not support the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the West and proposes a peaceful agenda. At the same time, Oktay believes that the U.S. should lift sanctions against Turkey over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems, and Turkey does not intend to renew its participation in the U.S. 5th generation F-35 fighter jet development program.

Güler thus has already acknowledged that the United States had put forward conditions to Turkey on the transfer of Russian S-400s to Ukraine against Russia in return for Ankara’s access to the F-35 project. The Turks are either silent on this issue or repeating themselves. It brings one to the conclusion that when the Turkish-American rapprochement takes place, the S-400 issue recedes into the shadows. And, on the contrary, when the Turks are not allowed into this ‘flight program’, it is high time for them to once again remind Moscow of their ‘loyalty’.

Although Fuat Oktay represents the ruling party in the Turkish parliament, he is not the one who defines the palette of Turkish diplomacy. If Ankara is so confidently opposed to the West’s anti-Russian sanctions, how come Turkey’s leading DenizBank and other banking institutions have significantly tightened the conditions for opening accounts for Russian citizens and refuse transactions to Russian companies since the beginning of 2024? In other words, if Turkey is dead against anti-Russian sanctions, why does it always refer to the ‘insane pressure of the United States and Europe’ in its restrictions on Russia? The only thing left to add to these excuses is Israel and the Jewish diaspora…

It follows that Turkey is once again engaging in ‘maneuvering diplomacy’ in the expectation of maintaining its weight in the West, the East and the North, where everyone understands everything but pretends to accept ‘Turkish loyalty’.


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

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