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All Eyes on Turkey

March 4, 2015

By Lauren Stauffer – Research Assistant

Over the past year, Turkey has taken several stances against what have otherwise been broadly held Western policy positions. In the context of the Ukrainian crisis, it has proven unwilling to participate in economic sanctions against Russia, and has even supported the Kremlin’s recent move to build new gas pipelines through Turkey. In the Middle East, it has failed to fully commit to a U.S.-led military alliance against the Islamic State (ISIS), despite the broad support the anti-ISIS campaign has received from local Muslim governments.  As a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), these bold decisions have made many Western countries question Turkey’s allegiance to the NATO mandate “to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means”.

On the European front, this questioning of the Turkish government’s commitment arises after President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, leader of the socially conservative political party known as Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi or AKP, has repeatedly encouraged Turkey’s strategic economic and military alliance with Russia at a time when Western nations have been unified in their opposition to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.  For example, at an elaborate welcoming ceremony for Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Turkish capital of Ankara on 1 December 2014, the Russian leader and President Erdogan signed a protocol on energy cooperation, agreed to the goal to reach $100 billion in annual bilateral trade by 2020, and further discussed the creation of a new gas pipeline.  According to Putin, this new pipeline is in response to the West’s sanctions and rejections of the previously planned South Stream pipeline, thus creating a need to better consolidate a partnership with Turkey due to the fact that “if Europe does not want to implement the project, then…we will refocus our energy resources to other parts of the world”.

The new gas pipeline, known as Turkish Stream, is planned to be the only route to Europe for Russia’s supply of 63 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, which is currently being delivered through Ukraine – an arrangement which is scheduled to expire in 2019.  By announcing the plans to construct Turkish Stream, Russia has made a bold geopolitical move that forces the European Union (EU) to either cooperate with Russia’s plans and build connecting infrastructure between Turkey and Greece, or be unable to receive the gas supply.  Along with EU member states in general, this move directly threatens Germany, which is currently the largest buyer of Russian natural gas – consuming a total volume of 40 billion cubic meters in 2013.  As stated by Gazprom CEO, Alexey Miller (whose energy company is contracted as the primary supplier of Turkish Stream), Putin’s decision places pressure on the EU by selecting a tight work schedule that “to comply with it, work for the construction of new trunk gas pipelines should be started in EU countries right now.  Otherwise, these gas volumes may be redirected to other markets”.  Previously, Russia had attempted to build a gas pipeline known as South Stream that was supposed to pump 67 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas per year directly to Europe via an underwater pipeline leading to the Bulgarian coast.  However, the EU grew hesitant of such a proposition after the Russian intervention in Ukraine and the realization that South Stream could increase Russia’s control of the European gas market as well as not complying with EU energy competition rules.  Therefore, Turkey’s cooperation with Russia, by allowing the Turkish Stream pipeline to replace South Stream, directly partners Turkey with Russia as Putin attempts to seize greater economic leverage over the EU.  Not only does Turkish Stream threaten the EU’s future economic and resource security, but it also forces Turkey to become more dependent on Russia by exclusively supplying the first 15.7 billion cubic meters of gas to Turkey in December 2016, which will only increase Turkey’s already high dependence of importing 60% of its gas from Russia.

However, Turkey’s involvement in the creation of a new Russian gas pipeline is not the only action that the country has taken within the past year to make Western allies question President Erdogan’s commitments and reliability.  As previously mentioned, Turkey’s unwillingness to take part in European Union and American-led sanctions against Russia, which followed Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, allowed the sanctions campaign to appear weaker and less united.  Not only did Ankara’s refusal encourage Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, but the economic choice also raised questions as to whether Turkey is truly aligned with NATO’s promotion of democratic values to which it pledged itself in 1952.

Likewise, Turkey’s refusal to fully commit to a military alliance against ISIS greatly alarmed its Western allies, especially the United States.  Although the fight against ISIS is not a strict NATO mission, it is concerning that Turkey, as a militaristically significant NATO member state and U.S. ally, refuses to join the U.S.-led operations. This is despite many other Muslim-majority allies in the region – notably Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Jordan – assisting in the aerial campaigns to push back the jihadis from capturing more of Iraq and Syria, including the Kurdish town of Kobani that neighbors Turkey.  Since September, the Turkish government has been able to resist pressure from the West by refusing to join the coalition unless the fight expands to not only destroy ISIS, but also to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria.  Additionally, even though the Turkish parliament voted on 2 October 2014 to deploy the Turkish army to fight in Iraq and Syria, President Erdogan has refused to act upon these plans and has even made the fight against ISIS harder by refusing to allow countries to operate from its air bases and by declaring that the NATO Incirlik air base is “off limits”.  All the while, Turkey is being used by jihadists to travel to the warzones in Syria and Iraq, as well as to training camps, and to enter open border European nations.  Thus, Turkey’s apparent unwillingness to support Western initiatives extends beyond economic issues to include a lack of military support that threatens the success of operations in the fight against ISIS, while also disregarding Turkey’s NATO commitment to help protect fellow member states “from attack at the hands of ideological foes”.

Turkey’s combined actions of allowing the Turkish Stream gas pipeline, declining to participate in economic sanctions against Russia, and not engaging in the fight against ISIS, has contributed to the speculation regarding its political intentions and of its allegiance to NATO allies.  With the second largest army within NATO, there is no question that Turkey is a key asset.  Ankara has previously shown its commitment to Western goals by contributing significant armed forces to Afghanistan and helping lead NATO’s new “Resolute Support” mission that will bring together 12,000 men and women to train, assist, and advise Afghan forces at the start of this year.  However, it has become clear by Turkey’s geopolitical actions in 2014 that President Erdogan’s administration is more likely to act in its own sole interest than in combined efforts with proclaimed allies.  With regards to smaller actions, such as economic sanctions, Turkey’s self-seeking behavior is not overly threatening to the West’s security, but the application of this behavior to larger issues, such as ISIS and natural gas supplies, greatly affects (and could potentially harm) the economic and political security of many Western nations.  Therefore, Turkey’s recent actions under President Erdogan call into question whether Turkey, with its close proximity to Russia and as the only predominately Muslim member state in NATO, will be an asset or liability for the West at a time of reawakened Russian expansionism and increasing ISIS threats.  President Erdogan’s decisions and the West’s ability to retain a strong diplomatic footing in Turkey over the next year, will likely result in geopolitical and militaristic implications that will directly affect the future security and stability within Europe and the West.

About Lauren Stauffer

Lauren Stauffer is an Associate Fellow in the Security and Defence division. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Connecticut where she is studying foreign relations history, specifically in regards to U.S.-NATO relations, and human rights. Lauren received a B.A. in History (Hons) from Vassar College and wrote her senior thesis on the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo. During her undergraduate career, she also studied abroad at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Previously, Lauren has worked at the Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Center and served as a Vassar Ford Scholar. Lauren’s research interests include transatlantic relations, Western security, humanitarian intervention, multilateral institutions, human rights, and post-conflict reconciliation.