When the Ukraine war ends, the winner will be...Turkey

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Giles Merritt
Giles Merritt

Founder of Friends of Europe

Giles Merritt looks at Turkey’s transformation from long-rejected EU suitor to power-broker in the world’s most dangerous powder kegs.

The hardening military stalemate in Ukraine is leading to consensus that neither side is likely to claim victory. The most probable outcome seems a bitter and inconclusive stand-off. In that event, Turkey may well emerge as the chief beneficiary.

No one can say what the geopolitical landscape will look like if the war grinds to a standstill with a weakened but dangerously humiliated Russia and a US-led Western alliance splintered by economic recession and uneven support for Ukraine. What looks very possible, however, is that Turkey, with a foot in both camps, emerges as a much more important actor. Precisely one hundred years since the last of the Ottoman sultans, Mehmed VI, went into exile, Turkey is returning to the world stage.

The role Turkey will play is anyone’s guess. It could be that its president Recep Tayyip Erdogan will dazzle the international community with a display of statesmanship that will help to heal the wounds of the Ukraine conflict. He has already been the middleman who facilitated the peaceful transit of grain shipments through the Black Sea to alleviate threatened famines in Africa.

Turkey’s industrial muscle and its educated workforce are major assets. Both are set to grow substantially

But Erdogan is also worryingly unpredictable. Turkey’s longstanding membership of NATO has enabled him to delay Sweden and Finland from fully joining the alliance to protect themselves against possible future aggression by Russia. Erdogan’s reasoning isn’t geopolitical but rather concerns over their refusal to extradite pro-Kurdish activists wanted by Turkey’s security services.

Although Turkey spans the divide between Moscow and the West, it is far from being an unalloyed friend to either. Erdogan’s Turkey delights in its prickly independence from both. Ankara has defied Washington by buying Russian missiles, but nevertheless remains a crucial part of the ‘encirclement’ and ‘proxy war’ the Kremlin accuses NATO of conducting.

It won’t necessarily be President Erdogan himself who struts the world stage. Turkey is to hold crucial elections by mid-year that could yet unseat him. To avert defeat, he has bankrolled a $50 billion pre-election spending spree to woo voters, and is threatening to jail some of his chief opponents – notably the mayor of Istanbul. But although Turkey’s intellectual and business elites increasingly oppose Erdogan’s dictatorial methods, the signs are that support from the country’s more fundamentalist Islamic grass-roots will keep him and his AKP party in power.

What IS sure is that Turkey will be reasserting itself. It is on course to number 100 million people by 2040 as half of its present population of 80 million are under-30s. And while the economy is at times chaotic and volatile – inflation is over 80 per cent, debt is soaring and the currency is in free-fall – Turkey’s industrial muscle and its educated workforce are major assets. Both are set to grow substantially, in contrast to Europe.

The legacy of the Ukraine conflict will be Turkey’s power to call many of the shots

Turkey has long been underestimated, particularly by the European Union. This year marks the sixtieth anniversary of Turkey’s associate membership of the European Economic Community, the EU’s forerunner. The relationship has never flourished, though, instead being fraught with mis-steps, misunderstandings and, from Ankara’s perspective, slights.

Turkey single-mindedly pursued for many years the goal of joining the EU. Its membership of NATO as a vital bulwark against the Soviet Union was greatly valued, but being neither Christian nor fully part of the European continent meant it had to content itself with the Customs Union and little more. President Erdogan’s Turkey would have made an uncomfortable bedfellow, had it acceded to the EU, but on the other hand Erdogan’s erosion of Turkish democracy would then have been impossible.

As matters stand, Brussels is waking to the new reality that its dealings with Ankara are becoming of primary importance. The legacy of the Ukraine conflict will be Turkey’s power to call many of the shots, not just in the Black Sea region but also in much of the Middle East and Central Asia.

Whether Ankara’s foreign policy priorities will complement those of the European Union remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome of this year’s Turkish elections, skilful EU diplomacy will be needed to overcome what Ankara has long resented as Brussels’ patronising indifference to Turkey’s interests.

The views expressed in this Frankly Speaking op-ed reflect those of the author and not of Friends of Europe.

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