- By Chris Kremidas Courtney
The Turkish government dreams of revitalised Turkish influence across three continents. As such, Ankara is pursuing a radical revision of the regional status quo by projecting power in neighbouring regions with increasing aggression and disregard for international legality. This is culminating in Turkey’s ‘Blue Homeland’ ambitions – the idea that Turkey should reclaim mercantile and maritime power in the Mediterranean.
Using this toolbox and clearly being informed by lessons learned in Syria, Turkey is adopting an increasingly aggressive and revisionist foreign policy posture. This is perceived nationally as proof of ascendance to the status of a ‘great power’. This ambitious strategic posture relies on three pillars: the transformation of its navy into a blue-water force, the army’s novel expeditionary capabilities and capacity to sustain the deployment of proxies and, lastly, the establishment of forward operating bases across Turkey’s expanding influence.
In a post-ideological and ‘transactional’ international system, the higher the value of Ankara’s cooperation, the higher the price the West will have to pay for it. The goal is to become a transregional power that will ally itself on a case-by-case basis with whomever can offer the most. Such transregional clout will help Turkey reclaim its historic role as a regulating actor, so that, as its power grows, so will its negotiating leverage and level of autonomy, culminating in a position of equality during negotiations with great powers, as it was in the heyday of the Ottoman Empire.
After all, Turkey was never a genuine part of the West politically, culturally, or (with the exception of the Cold War) geopolitically. Its many identities, both real and imagined, coexist and are instrumentalised as necessary. To the West, for example, Turkey presents itself as a bulwark against Russia. With Russia, it is part of Eurasia. In North Africa and the Middle East, it focuses on its Islamic role. In Central Asia, it highlights the significance of its Turkic heritage. In the Balkans, it places the Ottoman past centre stage.
Nationalism is deeply ingrained in Turkish society, permeating diverse political parties and all levels of bureaucracy
Today, these multiple identities allow Turkey a strategic seat on the fence. Whenever issues arise with Russia, it relies on NATO protection. Whenever the West becomes a cause for concern, it threatens to strengthen its ties with Russia. And when its interests diverge from those of its NATO allies and the EU, Turkey adopts unilateral diplomatic and military initiatives.
Turkey also mirrors its different geopolitical identities domestically with loosely articulated and ill-defined ideologies all coexisting within Turkey: Kemalism, Eurasianism, neo-Ottomanism, pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism, to name a few. Nevertheless, nationalism and the quest for strategic autonomy have cut across these ideological divides, regardless of how fringe or mainstream they may be. Nationalism is deeply ingrained in Turkish society, permeating diverse political parties and all levels of bureaucracy.
Ankara’s emboldened politico-bureaucratic class perceives international relations in a completely transactional fashion. According to the Turkish ruling elite, the international system is no longer West-centric, but post-Western. This reading views the global order as destined to become multipolar, which in turn provides regional powers with more room to manoeuvre. From this perspective, Turkish interests will be better served through a geopolitical balancing act between different centres of power. Turkey envisages itself as a pivotal power – an indispensable partner with whom Washington, Moscow or even Beijing can achieve effective agreements in the region.
And because of this pivotal perception, a revisionist Turkey has naturally involved itself in all regional theatres of conflict, fomenting instability in the region while also reaping strategic and economic benefits. These interventions shaped Turkish-Russian competitive cooperation and strategic realignment. Since 2016, the relationship has evolved into something almost symbiotic, with the two countries coordinating their presence on multiple fronts.
Their interdependence is asymmetrical in Russia’s favour, which makes it prohibitive for Ankara to align completely with other NATO member states and cut economic ties with Moscow, even if it wanted to
Both countries are drawn to one another by their shared authoritarian models of governance and similar strategic cultures and operational codes. They are revisionist, aggressive and assertive on their peripheries; claim to be surrounded, which serves as a pretext for their unilateral actions; and have militarised their foreign policy by conducting hybrid warfare, using surrogate forces and coercing countries that resist.
Ankara has developed a web of interdependence with Moscow, primarily because it wants to gain strategic autonomy from the West, but their interdependence is asymmetrical in Russia’s favour, which makes it prohibitive for Ankara to align completely with other NATO member states and cut economic ties with Moscow, even if it wanted to.
Turkey wants to increase its relative power vis-à-vis the West to bargain with it on an equal footing, without cutting ties in any decisive way. NATO used to be, and to some extent still is, the cornerstone of Turkish security, but Ankara is increasingly using the alliance in a cynical and self-serving way. It has used its membership to maximise its geopolitical influence and settle bilateral scores to the detriment of cooperative security. The collective security guarantee backstops its foreign policy choices, shielding it from both direct Russian aggression and Western anger at its independent foreign policy choices. In essence, Turkey has the luxury of fence-sitting precisely because of its NATO membership.
Exploiting this strategic leeway, the ‘Blue Homeland’ doctrine forms the crux of Turkey’s transregional bid for strategic autonomy. It is through this doctrine that Ankara seeks to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean, crucial point of passage for trade routes linking Europe to the Indian Ocean and the markets of Southeast Asia. This explains why Turkey remains an intransigently belligerent actor in the Eastern Mediterranean, while displaying flexibility in other diplomatic fronts.
In a globalised and interconnected world, Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean could ‘legitimise’ China’s corresponding actions in the Pacific, further undermining the international legal order
Considering Ankara’s transactional mentality, the fruition of this project would entail major risks for the West. Firstly, all energy transit routes to Europe would be under Russian and Turkish control. Taking into account Turkey’s latest geopolitical success with Azerbaijan’s victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, an alternative westwards transportation route for Central Asian energy exports, and for China’s Belt and Road initiative, would bypass both Russia and Iran, further increasing Turkish leverage in a period when Russia-West relations are at a historic low. At the same time, Turkey’s increased influence in the Caspian Sea and Central Asia draws Ankara closer to Beijing.
Secondly, by pursuing control of the Eastern Aegean, and demanding the demilitarisation of Greek islands, Turkey alone would be able to control the movement of the Russian fleet from the Black Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean and vice versa. This would increase Turkish leverage over both the West and Russia.
And lastly, Turkey would have full control over migration flows to Europe from the Eastern and Central Mediterranean, exerting hybrid pressure at will.
The dangerous precedent set by Turkey’s ‘Blue Homeland’ could also reverberate across the world, fomenting instability in other maritime flashpoints. Ankara’s project increasingly resembles China’s ‘nine-dash line’, which encompasses almost all of the South China Sea, both in its maximalist claims and its disregard for the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLoS). In a globalised and interconnected world, Turkey’s actions in the Eastern Mediterranean could ‘legitimise’ China’s corresponding actions in the Pacific, further undermining the international legal order.
Europe cannot afford to be a bystander. But if Turkey manages to impose the legal and geopolitical doctrine of the ‘Blue Homeland’, that is precisely the future we will be facing.
The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.
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