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Turkey's balancing act: Building better relations with the US or Russia

Rami Rayess

Published: Updated:

Despite its NATO membership since 1952 and its historical diplomatic ties with Washington since 1927, Ankara is turning to Moscow as a new alternative in its foreign policy.

Turning to Moscow is not the best policy choice for Turkey, despite the rapprochement happening between the two. In the short-term, its benefits are tangible, but a drastic policy shift is not easy to achieve.

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With the exception of a few military clashes between Turkey and Russia in Syria, Ankara has tried to develop ties with Moscow recently.

It undertook the strategic decision to purchase a Russian made S400 missile defense system. Within international relations, such a decision is not strictly military, but also political. For an active NATO member to purchase a comprehensive military platform from the founder of the late Warsaw Pact is dangerous.

Turkey’s differences with the West, and the US in particular, have been mounting. American sanctions hit the country’s economy hard, leading to a devaluation of the Turkish currency (Lira) to unprecedented levels. It signaled that the US has the capacity to hurt Turkey’s economy, despite its strength.

The two countries had previously pledged to raise economic and trade agreements to almost $100 billion annually.

According to the American State Department, bilateral relations in trade jumped from $10.8 billion in 2009 to $20.7 billion in 2019, but “it remains modest compared to its potential.”

Whether this goal is achievable in light of the piling political differences is questionable.

Friction increased after Turkey announced its withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention, the world’s first binding treaty to prevent and combat violence against women.

US President Joe Biden stated that he was “deeply disappointed” by the Turkish move describing it as a “disheartening step backward for the international movement to end violence against women globally”. The European Union had a similar stance.

It also received harsh criticism when its top public prosecutor called for dissolving the second largest opposition party in the country, the pro- Kurdish leftist People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sacked the Central Bank Governor Naci Agbal this week, replacing him with Sahap Kavcioglu after a sharp interest rate hike. This is the third shuffle since mid-2019.

Finance Ministers move on quickly too. Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, resigned on Instagram, announcing his withdrawal to the public rather than the President directly.

Strategic autonomy and reducing dependency on the West seem to be the two rising quests of contemporary Turkish foreign policy.

After long years of turning their back on the Middle East and the Arab region, and failed attempts to join the European Union, Turkey is gearing its policies for deeper involvement in pre-Ottoman lands.

The old policy of zero problems with neighbors withered away in light of the tremendous developments that have happened with all the country’s neighbors: Syria, Iraq, Iran, Greece and others.

This shift has led, in one way or another, to divergent perceptions of security threats between Ankara and Washington. The Kurdish issue is one.

Turkey’s involvement in Syria provides room for more cooperation with Moscow, despite contradictory views between the two countries concerning the future of President Bashar al Assad. With Russian and Iranian support he has retained power, while the US hesitates over its involvement.

The US State Department describes US-Turkey as an important security partner, contributing efforts alongside US forces in Afghanistan, the seas bordering Somalia, and in the Mediterranean.

The country is a key partner for American policy in the surrounding region, boasting a strategic geopolitical location on the Eurasian map, connecting the Black Sea to the Middle East and the Balkans to the South Caucasus.

Yet, it faces difficult political decisions. Turning East or West is not tactical, but instead, strategic, and making compromises along the way is a difficult challenge, particularly in this highly-polarized global disorder.

True, Ankara possesses few bargaining chips to utilize to rebuild relations with Washington. Being more cooperative with tackling conflicts is Syria, Iraq and Iran will help, but this is unlikely to sway the US in the long-term.

The question for Turkey remains: East or West?

Turning towards the East is detrimental because the US could crush Turkey’s economy, and in doing so weakening its regional influence. With a turbulent economy, the capacity to reach out to its neighbors, such as Syria, Iraq or even Azerbaijan becomes more difficult.

Russian relations might appeal, but the only direction that Turkey can point to is West. For a prosperous future, Turkey must repair its relations with the US, sooner or later.

Read more:

EU sanctions on Turkey remain on table following withdrawal from Istanbul Convention

Turkey is sending the wrong messages to counter violence against women

Turkey’s coronavirus-related deaths rise above 30,000, total cases top three million

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.