Turkey Has No Allies in the Black Sea, Only Interests

This commentary is the fourth essay on the geostrategic importance of the Black Sea that already includes a brief historical perspective, an assessment of NATO-Russia tensions in the region, and an overview of Russia’s design in the Black Sea.

In the Black Sea, Turkey remains caught between its desire to pursue regional ambitions, its NATO commitments, and the necessity to accommodate to Russia. Yet any tactical gain Ankara might obtain from playing Moscow against Washington for the sake of advancing its interests in Syria would weaken its moderate influence in the Black Sea. Ankara’s long-term interest in the Black Sea region is to continue to balance Russia’s growing military posture in the Black Sea and to promote multilateral cooperation in the region.

Turkey struggles to turn its peculiar location in the Black Sea region into a strategic asset.

It has proven difficult for Turkey to articulate its interests in an unstable Black Sea region. The country, which is granted a key role in international security thanks to its command of the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits encapsulated in the Montreux Convention, struggles to bridge the gap between its Ottoman Empire historical legacy as the protector of the region’s Muslims, its drive for independent action after 1923, and its current middle-sized power status. Turkey’s regional foreign policy appears reflexively driven by the perception of acute internal and external threat rather than grand strategy, and the Black Sea region is currently underprioritized as the Syrian conflict absorbs much of Ankara’s energy.

Over the past decade, Ankara’s policy in the Black Sea region has been hesitant, between continuity and revolution. The “zero problems with neighbors policy,” initially hailed by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2009, quickly reverted to historical positions after the 2011 Arab Spring and internal challenges to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s leadership. Turkey, which sheltered Circassians in the nineteenth century, again strengthened ties with Muslim communities in Russia or Bulgaria, and even more with the Crimean Tatars, generated tensions with other littoral countries. While it developed a rather thriving relationship with Georgia, it achieved little progress in overcoming its adversarial relationship with Armenia and failed to play a constructive role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

Turkey’s ambitions to lead multilateral economic and security-building efforts after the Cold War were not fully realized despite support from the United States and Europe. Political structures created in the 1990s, such as the Organization of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) and initiatives aimed at enhancing maritime security, stalled. Its Caucasus Stability and Cooperation Plat­form (CSCP) was abandoned after failing to gain traction. Turkey’s projects failed to get enough traction as five of the six littoral states were concentrating on their accession to NATO and the European Union.

Turkey’s Black Sea policy is constrained by the power imbalance with Russia.

The historical understanding between Russia and Turkey is that “extra-regional powers” should be kept out of the Black Sea region. Modern Russia has long dropped expectations to recover the Kars region, and Russia and Turkey lost a land border at the end of the Cold War, paving the way for an appeased bilateral relationship. The demise of the Soviet Union, however, enhanced Turkey’s crucial role as a gatekeeper for Moscow, as NATO gained access to the Black Sea through Bulgaria and Romania in 2004, which reduced Russia’s regional position.

The regional power imbalance with Russia constrains Turkey’s autonomy of action in the region. Turkey’s modest fleet in the Black Sea has never counterbalanced Russia’s overall power and has now been overwhelmed by Russia’s buildup of its Black Sea fleet since its 2014 annexation of Crimea. To preserve the 1936 Montreux Convention that grants it exclusive control over the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits, Turkey always implemented its clauses in a strictly impartial way, avoiding potential disputes over Russian ships classification and denying NATO vessels any favorable treatment. Turkey is constantly struggling to find a balance between its national security interests and its commitments as a NATO ally.

Aware of both Russia’s military superiority and sensitivity, Turkey tries not to compete with Russia in the Black Sea. After the brief Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008, Turkey adopted a neutral stance and consulted with Russia before reaching out to NATO. In 2014, though a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, Turkey did not sanction Russia for Crimea’s annexation, limiting its role to negotiating for the freedom of jailed Crimean Tatar leaders. Eventually, it took an overt violation of its airspace at its southern border in November 2015 for Turkey to react, which it did with alarm by shooting down a Russian Sukhoi Su-24 aircraft.

Turkey’s unease toward NATO is increasingly visible.

Ankara joined NATO in 1952 to counter Soviet assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean, Black Sea, and Turkish Straits, yet for the alliance it was only one element of a broader grand strategy. Washington regarded Turkey as both a major Middle Eastern and European partner to advance its line of defense. However, Bulgaria and Romania’s accession to NATO, Russia’s incursion into Georgia, and the annexation of Crimea made the Black Sea a strategic issue and a potential area of confrontation with Russia.

Turkey is home to several major NATO assets: the Incirlik Air Base, which plays a (mostly) symbolic role in NATO’s nuclear deterrence and enables its power projection in the Middle East, an allied land command in Izmir, and also the Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance (AN/TPY2) radar in Kürecik, a pillar of NATO’s missile defense architecture.

Arguably, NATO members struggle to accommodate Turkey’s short-term regional priorities and internal political contradictions as it focuses on its unstable southern border (or even its own territory). However, its role as a strategic node gave Ankara leverage, especially as Iraq, then Syria, descended into chaos over the last decade. Even though Turkey’s goals in Syria are at odds with other NATO allies and neighboring countries, Ankara obtained gestures of solidarity in 2012 in the form of NATO theater missile defense assets around Adana/Gaziantep, then again sought NATO support (with limited success) after the Sukhoi Su-24 shootdown. It was not until Turkey officially announced it would procure Russian air and missile defense systems (e.g., the S-400 missile system), an outright provocation that raised confidentiality issues, that such divergences were overtly discussed.

Turkey’s historical and sustained reluctance toward Western military presence in the Black Sea hampers prospects for a bolstered NATO posture in the region. Hedging its bets, Ankara pledged to participate in Romania’s multinational brigade under a NATO flag (Tailored Force Presence), aimed at responding to Russia’s assertive posture in the region, but dragged its feet at the creation of a limited maritime coordination function in the Black Sea that the same country promoted. Pre-coordination among NATO members in the Black Sea is therefore complicated.

Turkey’s value as an asset for NATO in the Black Sea is being questioned.

The United States will struggle to maintain productive relations with Ankara as it pursues its regional interests. The bilateral relationship is no stranger to difficult moments, such as the war in Iraq in 2003, but the disagreement over the U.S. backing of the mostly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) against the Islamic State has been the most deeply troubling. Ankara encourages anti-American and anti-European sentiment, accused the United States and Europe of having supported the 2016 failed coup. Intensifying diplomatic and judiciary skirmishes over the fate of preacher Fetullah Gülen and his Hizmet movement added further to the political dispute with Germany and other EU members, at a time when Turkey’s remaining hopes to join the European Union faltered.

The diplomatic dispute between Washington and Ankara has yet to reach its nadir. According to a June 2017 Kadir Has University poll, 66.5 percent of the Turkish respondents saw the United States as the main security threat to the world. Neither President Erdogan nor President Trump seem able to solve the conundrum. The Russian S-400 issue will continue to strain the relationship (with NATO as well), as the U.S. Congress is increasingly antagonistic toward Turkey. Public pressure to impose secondary sanctions will be high as NATO fears that Russia’s anti-denial / anti-area (A2AD) systems in the Black Sea might restrain its freedom of action. Turkey-U.S. cooperation on the F-35 aircraft also will raise operational and technology transfer issues as the aircraft was designed to evade Russia’s air defenses.

Long-term prospects look grim, for political orientations are increasingly diverging. The military purge that followed the coup made the situation even worse by severing personal connections and complicating even informal exchanges. Media scrutiny over the Incirlik base has grown in the United States after rumors that the base was locked down by Turkey during the coup, instilling a vision of Turkey as an unstable ally. This will encourage the United States to reconsider Turkey’s role in its strategy and perhaps even replace Ankara with Bucharest as its privileged partner in the Black Sea region. The enthusiastic U.S. contribution to the renovation of military infrastructure and troop deployments in Romania could be an early signal of a more structural evolution.

Russia’s move toward the Mediterranean weakens Turkey’s position in the Black Sea.

Since their relations have rebounded, while politically focusing on their relationship in Syria, the two countries hail the Black Sea as an opportunity for commercial exchanges. They aim to reach $100 billion in trade volume (from a low of $30 billion in 2016), focusing primarily on the energy sector. More bilateral projects will be pursued in the Black Sea as the existing Blue Stream pipeline will be complemented in 2019 by the new TurkStream, from Anapa in Russia to Lüleburgaz in Turkish Thrace. If Turkey anticipates a retrenchment of Western influence, it is hoping to preposition itself as an alternative exit hub for Russia’s energy in the Black Sea region.

However, the big game is played by an emboldened Russia, which now sees Turkey not only as a transit country and customer for gas, but also as a critical platform for its military ambitions. With refurbished military bases in Latakia and Tartus in Syria, Russia now seeks access to Egypt, and naval support via the Straits is necessary to maintain these footholds. Ankara might bow to Moscow’s needs to a certain extent, hoping for some diplomatic favor in return. At the same time, it would fuel fears of a potential Russia-Turkey axis, which could overturn the power balance from the Black Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean.

Though it might superficially look like an odd Turkey-Russia alliance is emerging, enthusiastic statements obfuscate the absence of in-depth coordination on bilateral disputes. For instance, there is no sign of a joint effort or even interest to solve the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, a traditional battleground for competition between the two powers. Russian bases in Armenia and its security cooperation with Azerbaijan limit Turkey’s regional influence. Moreover, despite their implicit nonaggression pact in Syria, Russia’s growing presence in the Mediterranean raises the old Ottoman fear of encirclement. This could generate tensions as Moscow struggles to accommodate foes and Turkey’s perception of a Kurdish threat is acute, as demonstrated with the relentless Afrin campaign.

Turkey’s long-term interest is to promote multilateral cooperation in the Black Sea region.

Once the dust settles, Ankara will ultimately acknowledge—again—that Russia is its only true competitor in the Black Sea region. Ironically, Ankara’s success in encouraging partial U.S. retrenchment would only accelerate this realization, by shining a bright light on the regional power imbalance with Moscow. In the meantime, however, the “special relationship” with Russia might become Turkey’s Achilles heel and undermine further its autonomy of action in the Black Sea region, especially as President Erdogan uses the West as a scapegoat in his efforts to consolidate power within and beyond Turkey’s borders.

Perhaps expectations placed on this relationship were just too high, given Turkey’s geostrategic location and challenges. There’s some momentum to change this course, as EU membership is not a priority for Ankara anymore. Pragmatic cooperation with the West is likely unavoidable no matter how divergent both sides’ views on values may be and should be pursued before mutual perceptions truly become antagonistic. Americans and Europeans should avoid characterizing it as an “either/or” relationship, either a model or a troublemaker, yet they can’t become a scapegoat according to Turkey’s electoral cycles. A more realistic relationship with the European Union and the United States will only be sustainable if Ankara, which consistently demands gestures of solidarity from the Western allies, at least abstains from hostile posturing toward them.

To avoid being caught in the crosshairs of Turkey’s internal political game, the United States and NATO should monitor long-term trends rather than focus on inflammatory statements. Tensions should neither be overlooked nor overblown; the S-400 procurement, for example, could ultimately benefit NATO, should Turkey share data about these systems. What really matters is Turkey’s efforts to preserve interoperability with NATO and pursue cooperation on overarching military projects, as with the still-pending bid on Turkey’s future air and missile defense architecture. If a real deal were achieved on this contract, which is under exclusive negotiation with allies, it would send a reassuring signal to NATO.

Ankara can still lead some modest collective efforts to promote stability in the Black Sea region, but its ability is rapidly diminishing. The United States and the European Union could encourage any Turkish initiative aimed at stabilizing the region on the condition that such efforts be coordinated with allies. It certainly makes sense to deepen partnership with Ukraine or Georgia, but trying to team up with them while simultaneously defying Western partners will neutralize Ankara’s ability to moderate Russia’s ambitions in the region. In the end, if it wants to remain a leading stakeholder in the region, Ankara will have to strengthen ties with Romania and Bulgaria, whose EU and NATO membership increase their regional significance, no matter what its disagreements with both countries and the European Union. Only then, would Turkey be able to talk to Russia as an equal and positively use its peculiar relationship with Moscow as an asset to stabilize the region.

Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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