To use Turkey as a bulwark against Russia and Iran is wishful thinking

To believe that nearly two decades of Erdoganism has not changed Turkish society is to believe that twenty years of Khomeinism did not change Iran. Both are foolish delusions.

For decades, Turkey was a staunch Cold War ally. One of only two NATO members to border the Soviet Union, Turkey went above and beyond in its partnership with the United States: Turkey contributed more men under arms to NATO than Germany and France combined. Turkey subsequently joined the Baghdad Pact and Turks fought alongside the United States in the Korean War. Behind the scenes, Turkey proved crucial to numerous intelligence and counter-terror operations.

With the end of the Cold War, bilateral relations remained strong, at least until the rise of Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Slowly but deliberately, Erdogan turned away from the West. He picked fights like a master tactician, confident that he could find former ambassadors and others in the State Department, White House, or pay-to-play think tanks. He artfully played and rewarded those inclined to apologize for any Turkish outrage or desperate to preserve the alliance. The frequency of U.S. elections and new U.S. administrations—at least in comparison to the last two decades in Turkey—meant Erdogan could always find an American official eager for a reset. Often, those seeking to promote rapprochement with Turkey argue that repairing the relationship is necessary given the broader strategic imperative of checking Russia’s and Iran’s geopolitical ambitions.

The idea that Turkey can be a bulwark against either is magical thinking. It rests upon an embrace of an Istanbul bubble not representative of broader Turkish thinking, a wholescale embrace of the notion that Turkey’s depiction of its enemies and its narrative of history is accurate, and an anachronistic idea that Turkey has not changed over the decades. The idea that it is possible to ignore the ideology and volatility in Erdogan is analogous to embracing Iranian reformists in the hope that they will somehow nullify the influence of the supreme leader. Likewise, to believe that nearly two decades of Erdoganism has not changed Turkish society is to believe that twenty years of Khomeinism did not change Iran. Both are foolish delusions.

Consider, for example, the notion that Turkey checks Russia’s interests. In May 2010, Russia and Turkey signed energy cooperation agreements to give Turkey its first nuclear power plant, with help from Russian energy companies. Earlier this year, Russian president Vladimir Putin and Erdogan jointly celebrated the start of the construction of the new Akkuyu power plant.

Such cooperation has become the rule rather than the exception. Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia has made headlines not because it represents a lucrative contract for Russia, but because the integration of S-400s into Turkey’s air defense would require compromising NATO electronics and computer codes to Russian engineers. Even if Turkey kept the S-400s on a separate system, they might be used to track and gather data on NATO air platforms.

In 2016, the two counties signed an agreement on the TurkStream gas pipeline and, on January 8, 2020, they launched the pipeline. To suggest Germany’s pursuit of Nord Stream 2 is pro-Putin (it is) but, by omission, bless Turkey’s involvement in the TurkStream pipeline defies logic.

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