A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 14, 2023

Why Economy, Defense, Wagner Mutiny Led Erdogan's Sweden NATO Approval

The surprising decision by Turkey's President Erdogan to withdraw his opposition to Sweden's bid for NATO inclusion was not a change of heart. 

His country's weak economy almost cost him re-election so he needs western investment and economic support. His decision to buy Russian anti-air defenses led to a NATO refusal to sell him new fighter jets - which the Ukraine war has now convinced him Turkey desperately needs. And the Wagner mutiny apparently convinced him that Putin is no longer the strong, reliable partner he once was. So, Turkey's reality has worked out for NATO - and for Turkey. JL

Jared Malsin reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Erdogan was motivated by three main factors. He views Putin as weakened in the aftermath of the aborted June mutiny when Wagner troops turned on Moscow. Turkey also desperately needs foreign currency, after years in which Erdogan has mismanaged the country’s economy. (His) move will ease strained relations with (NATO) powers, unblocking a $20 billion sale of new F-16 jet fighters by the U.S. to Turkey. And, after surviving a close-fought election in May, Erdogan faces less pressure to stir up anti-Western sentiments.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is directing his foreign policy toward the West in a shift that could have far-reaching implications for the balance of power in Europe and the war in Ukraine.

For more than a year, the Turkish leader has carefully straddled the widening divide between Russia and the West over the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. Now, as he searches for ways to support an economy that has deteriorated under his watch, he is seeking to improve relations with the U.S. and its Western allies. 

In the past week, Erdogan has welcomed Ukraine’s president in Istanbul, lifted his opposition to expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and called for the revival of Turkey’s application to join the European Union.

The president’s moves will ease strained relations with Washington and European powers, potentially unblocking a $20 billion sale of new F-16 jet fighters by the U.S. to Turkey.

But they will also test Erdogan’s long partnership with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which the two have agreed to arms and energy deals despite backing opposing sides in a series of wars in Syria, Libya, and now Ukraine.

The balance will be more difficult to maintain, said Gulru Gezer, a former senior Turkish diplomat who served in both Russia and the U.S. “It won’t be easy, but Turkey will try to find a way to strengthen its ties with the West without abandoning its special relationship with Russia,” Gezer said.

Erdogan was motivated by three main coinciding factors when making his recent moves, analysts said. He views Putin as weakened in the aftermath of the aborted June mutiny when the Wagner paramilitary troops turned on Moscow. Turkey also desperately needs foreign currency, after years in which Erdogan has mismanaged the country’s economy. And, after surviving a close-fought election in May, Erdogan faces less pressure to stir up nationalistic and anti-Western sentiments that were central to his campaign.

“There is an acknowledgment of Turkey’s belonging to the West and that Turkey’s midterm future is with the West,” said Aydin Sezgin, a former Turkish ambassador to Russia who is now an opposition member of Parliament.

On Monday, Erdogan agreed to drop his opposition to Sweden joining NATO, ending more than a year of diplomatic gridlock that had complicated relations with the U.S. and European partners.

There were signs of a breakthrough in relations with Washington on Tuesday when national security adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated the White House’s support for the proposed sale of F-16s to Turkey, hours before a planned meeting between Erdogan and President Biden. 

“Our meetings prior to this were mere warmups. But now we are initiating a new process,” said Erdogan as he met Biden on Tuesday at the NATO summit in Lithuania.

Turkey’s most influential critic in Congress, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez, said Monday that he was happy with Erdogan’s decision on Sweden. Menendez and other congressional leaders had threatened to block the F-16 sale if Erdogan didn’t accept Sweden into the alliance. 

Still, the reset is happening largely on Erdogan’s terms. He used the NATO standoff to squeeze the West for concessions over more than a year before reaching a deal, while also whipping up nationalist sentiment during an election at home. To comply with Turkish demands that it crack down on a Kurdish armed group, Sweden amended its constitution, overhauled its counterterrorism laws and removed restrictions on arms sales to Turkey.

After a last-minute demand from Erdogan, Sweden also agreed to support Turkey’s efforts to join the EU, including working toward facilitating visas for Turkish citizens.

Erdogan’s calls to breathe life back into Turkey’s decades-old quest for membership surprised observers. Ankara’s EU accession process effectively came to an end after the failed military coup against Erdogan in 2016 and his crackdown on opponents. Many large European countries, such as Germany and France, had long been wary about Turkey joining the bloc. The collapse of the process is a source of anti-Western resentment in Turkey.

Winning Sweden’s support for Turkey’s EU membership helped Erdogan sell the deal back home as a triumph. “Turkey got what it wanted,” read the banner headline Tuesday in Sabah, one of Turkey’s main pro-government newspapers.

Still, after years of dealing with Erdogan’s transactional approach to diplomacy, some Western officials and analysts are cynical about his pivot. They see Turkey’s jailing of domestic opponents and erosion of rule of law complicating its effort to join the EU. New accession talks or even a broader visa-free deal between the EU and Turkey would likely face stiff opposition in some capitals and in the European Parliament, which must approve visa deals.

“This last EU stunt provided an off-ramp for Turkey. Sells well at home, doesn’t sell in the West,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey.

For all his shift Westward, Erdogan is unlikely to scale back Turkey’s growing economic relationship with Russia, which has raised concerns about Ankara enabling Moscow to evade sanctions. Erdogan reiterated this week that he wants Putin to visit Turkey next month and is unlikely to sever ties with the Kremlin completely. 

Erdogan has vastly expanded trade with Russia during the invasion of Ukraine, turning to Moscow as a source of badly needed foreign currency while also allowing the Kremlin to use Turkey as a part of its military supply chain. Russia has bought tens of millions of dollars in materials it needs for its armed forces from Turkey since the beginning of the war, trade data show.

But he recognizes that Russian funds alone can’t solve Turkey’s economic problems, which include a large current-account deficit and a local currency that has lost more than 90% of its value in recent years, said analysts and those familiar with Erdogan’s thinking.

“There is a realization that Turkey is under severe economic duress and this would require normalization of Turkey’s relations with its trade and financing partners,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and director of the Istanbul-based think tank Edam. “The weakened Putin argument explains some of the actions” Erdogan has taken, he said. 

The Kremlin reacted coolly to Erdogan’s decision to allow NATO’s expansion.

“Turkey is a member of NATO, Turkey has its obligations, Turkey is committed to its obligations. This has never been a secret for us and we have never worn rose-colored glasses in this regard,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday, according to state news agency TASS. 

Erdogan has also recently voiced support for Ukraine’s membership in NATO, a symbolic gesture—as the alliance’s rules make it unlikely Kyiv will join while fighting a war—but one that will trouble the Kremlin. 

Of particular concern to Russia is Turkey’s recent embrace of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, who visited Istanbul last week. Ankara has supported Kyiv militarily since the beginning of the war, selling it weapons while positioning itself as an intermediary with Russia to negotiate a grain-export deal and prisoner exchanges.

Last week, Erdogan orchestrated a public homecoming for a group of Ukrainian prisoners of war released to Turkey by Russia after their capture from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol. Zelensky accompanied them back from Turkey to Ukraine where they were greeted as heroes.


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