Turkey’s Complicated Foreign Policy, Explained

Sweden and Finland have both formally requested to become members of the NATO alliance. To admit new members to NATO requires the approval of all existing NATO members and so far, Turkey is objecting.

My guest today, Sibel Oktay, is associate professor at University of Illinois at Springfield and non-resident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

We kick off with a discussion about Turkey’s specific grievances with Sweden and Finland and then have a broader conversation about how this dustup between Turkey and the rest of NATO fits into broader patterns in Turkish foreign policy. This includes a long discussion of Turkey’s approach to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

What is the Diplomatic Relationship and History Between Sweden and Turkey? 

Sibel Oktay [00:02:57] So Sweden actually is the real target of Turkey’s concerns. Sweden has for a long time provided refuge to political asylum seekers from Turkey, most notably Kurdish activists and those who Turkey considers members or supporters of the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers Party. It’s a terrorist organization as listed by the US and the EU and Turkey waged war against the PKK for the better part of 40 years. So, in other words, Turkey argues that Sweden aids and abets the PKK and in addition to that, Sweden put a ban on arms export licenses to Turkey after 2019, when the Turkish military launched its offensive in northern Syria against the YPG. YPG is the People’s Protection Units, Turkey considers it a PKK offshoot, an instrumental military organization that fought against ISIS during the early period of the Syrian war.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:04:05] And one that’s supported by the United States as well.

Sibel Oktay [00:04:07] Exactly. Exactly. And so, Sweden put a ban on these arms export licenses to prevent Turkey from using their material, the material that they sourced, to stop Kurdish expansion and territorial consolidation along that northern strip of Syria that borders Turkey. And so now Turkey and Erdogan and his spokesperson and chief adviser in foreign affairs, Ibrahim Kalin, they both argue that it’s against the spirit of the alliance if a prospective member, say Sweden, opposes and undermines the legitimate national security concerns of another ally in this case, Turkey. So that’s Sweden. But then there’s also Finland and Finland has kind of become the collateral damage in this narrative because in fact, reports from Finnish sources explain that the Prime Minister […] received full support from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, previously back in early spring, before he reversed its position, did a 180, and put Finland alongside Sweden in that same basket of his veto. So, with Finland, Turkey’s key demand is the extradition of Gulenists. So Gulen, Fethullah Gulen, this imam who has been living in Pennsylvania in the United States for the last couple of decades, he and his religious movement was a strong ally of the AKP and Erdogan’s government for maybe two decades when the alliance began to fall apart around 2012 and now Gulenists are considered a terrorist organization and Gulen himself is considered the to be the orchestrator and the key perpetrator of the failed coup in 2016.

What is Turkey demanding from Finland, Sweden, and the United States?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:05] And there’s this whole sordid backstory from the Trump administration with the former and disgraced national security adviser Michael Flynn trying to, like, seek the extradition of Gulen from Pennsylvania to Turkey. This has been like long a target of Erdogan.

Sibel Oktay [00:06:21] Absolutely. Absolutely so whenever there is Gulenists or in this case, Gulen himself, which you rightly pointed out, Turkey demands extradition. And with Finland, Turkey is demanding the extradition of some I think about a dozen people, including some of the Gulenists that they that they charged with terrorism. But the Finnish authority has argued that there’s no legal basis for extradition and that they cannot violate the rule of law to meet Turkey’s demands. And the exact same argument is made by the United States when Turkey wants Gulen to be extradited. And also, there are similar extradition requests that Turkey makes from Sweden, and Sweden gives the same response. Some of these people include sympathizers of PKK, but also Gulenists, and specifically some journalists who used to write in Gulenist newspapers in Turkey but now reside in Sweden.

Why is Erdogan trying to stop Sweden and Finland from joining NATO?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:23] To what extent do you think that Erdogan’s decision to put the brakes on Sweden and Finland’s ascension into NATO stems from domestic politics that, you know, Turkey’s economy is faltering, and this is an opportunity to sort of whip up nationalist sentiment ahead of elections next year.

Sibel Oktay [00:07:45] I think that’s exactly right. Last time I was on your show, we talked about the economic problems that Turkey was observing and experiencing. Those economic problems haven’t gotten any better. In fact, I was just reading the news today about predictions about this summer’s tourism estimates and especially tourists from Russia are expected to plummet this year, which has serious economic consequences for the tourism industry. And so, when we talk about Turkish foreign policy, especially during Erdogan’s rule, we cannot separate that from Turkey’s domestic politics. Everything he does on the international arena has some implication; it has some meaning for what he wants to achieve at the domestic level. He is preparing for elections in 2023. That’s when they are scheduled. But there are always debates about whether he wants to call for early elections later this year and along with the ongoing plans to continue the military operation in Syria, I think these will be two of his platforms when it comes to foreign affairs and to divert and distract the public’s increased frustration with the economic crisis. So, I think you’re absolutely right that this is something that he wants to play back home to his domestic audience.

How did Turkey go about foreign policy decisions before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:19] So I think this dustup with Sweden and Finland joining NATO is illustrative of the really interesting and unique position that Turkey has played in regard to diplomacy with Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. I’d love before we discuss how Turkey has responded to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, could you maybe briefly situate Turkish foreign policy in the years or months leading up to February 24th, 2022?

Sibel Oktay [00:10:01] Absolutely. So, Turkey is standing at a fascinating juncture between the West, the Euro-Atlantic security framework and Russia, and that is like you anticipate it’s fundamentally shaping its positioning vis-a-vis the Ukraine war. So first of all, we should start to situate Turkey, right? So, Turkey is a member of the NATO alliance since 1952, it was part of that first wave of expansion after the alliance was established. And it’s the second largest contributor to NATO with nearly 500,000 troops so we are talking about a really noticeable hefty ally in that organization. It’s also had military operations in Kosovo, in Afghanistan and various other multilateral military operations as part of the NATO alliance. And after the withdrawal of the U.S. from Afghanistan last summer, the summer of 2021, Turkey had also proposed to operate Kabul Airport. So, Turkey, in that sense, has always been a deep and important, deeply entrenched member of the NATO alliance. Relatedly, Turkey and the United States used to be, I should say, very close allies. They used to call each other strategic partners throughout the Cold War and into the early 2000 but then those relationships began to deteriorate sometime after 2013, with the Gezi protests most noticeably.

What were the Gezi protests of 2013?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:36] And these were protests in Istanbul, if I’m remembering correctly, that were against Erdogan kind of anti-inequality protests; am I misremembering?

Sibel Oktay [00:11:47] Right. So, they began over claims over Gezi Park, to raze Gezi Park and build some commercial structures. And so, the protests began to protect the park itself but then they mushroomed and took the entire country. There were protests essentially in every single city across Turkey and the key demands were greater democratic participation, greater rights and liberties and an end to the sort of tyrannical rule over people’s lives and the government, the central government, basically micromanaging what’s happening in a park in Istanbul. And so back then, around 2013 onwards, Turkey’s democratic decay had become so much more apparent. There were disagreements between the U.S. and Turkey about the war in Syria and how to engage and deal with ISIS. Obviously, there was this falling apart of a major defense deal between Turkey and the U.S. Turkey wanted to purchase the Patriots air defense system. That agreement didn’t go through. And then that’s what prompted Turkey to purchase the Russian equivalent of it: the S-400s.

Why did Turkey buy a missile defense system from Russia in 2018?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:09] And this was in 2018. This was a very big deal at the time when Turkey, a member of NATO, bought the non-compatible with NATO version of a missile defense system from Russia.

Sibel Oktay [00:13:22] Right. I mean, it was it was not compatible and straight up dangerous, right? It has the potential to reveal confidential mechanic details about NATO capabilities. And so, Turkey’s purchasing and finally bringing in the S-400s but not activating the hardware prompted the CAATSA from U.S. Congress: that’s Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act and then moving into 2020 and 2021 when President Biden was elected, it’s well known that these two leaders aren’t exactly fond of each other. And so, the listeners might be following Biden is preparing to take a visit to Israel later this summer, probably in July and it’s a two-hour flight from Tel Aviv to Ankara and Biden and the U.S. administration more broadly, has been avoiding visiting Turkey in that kind of capacity since he became president.

How is the Armenian genocide implicated in Turkey-U.S. foreign relations?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:14:44] And, you know, to Erdogan’s defense, Biden did himself little favor by forthrightly declaring the genocide in Armenia, which is obviously a big domestic issue for Erdogan.

Sibel Oktay [00:15:05] Absolutely. That’s always been the litmus test to understand where Turkey-US relations lie, because presidents have always acted as a sort of an emergency brake when Congress wanted to pass that and this time around it wasn’t opposed, and it passed. But then there’s the Russian side of it. And Turkey also has these relations with Russia that helps us place Turkey back in the sort of chessboard over the Ukraine war. Turkey is a major trade partner to Russia. Turkey purchases natural gas from Russia and exports agricultural products. And in 2021, we’re talking about 30 billion U.S. dollars so it’s a pretty large trade volume we’re talking about. Like I said before, Turkey also attracts millions of Russian tourists each year. In fact, prior to the pandemic in 2019, the total number of Russian tourists that visited Turkey was 7 million. And then right after the pandemic in 2021, the number was 4.7 million. So basically, half of that. And then right now, forecasters are expecting about 2 million and they’re seeing that that’s even a very optimistic estimate. So, we’re seeing Russian tourists for all sorts of reasons, but particularly, obviously, for security and political reasons, are not choosing to come to Turkey, which has severe implications for the economy. And so that’s the economic side. The more security side, obviously, Turkey’s purchasing of the S-400s and the coordinated behaviors of Russia and Turkey in Syria also make them strange bedfellows, if you want to call it that way. And that’s the that’s the difficult position, that’s the complex situation that Turkey found themselves in when the war broke in February.

Where does Turkey stand on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:13] Yes. So, February 24th, Russia invades Ukraine and at least it seemed initially and correct me if I’m wrong, but Turkey seems to have played a meaningful role in Ukraine’s defense by, among other things, providing Ukraine with very impactful drones that were used against Russian military elements on the ground. Can you just describe how Turkey has approached the Russian invasion of Ukraine since February 24th? Because it seems like just a very sort of fascinating and unique position that Turkey finds itself in now supporting Ukraine’s defense while also keeping a very open line to Russian diplomats and Russian entreaties as well.

Sibel Oktay [00:18:09] Turkey has been walking a tightrope since the beginning of the war. So many analysts, including myself, have described this position as a balancing act, given Turkey’s relations both with NATO and with Russia. Still, you’re absolutely right; Turkey has defined the conflict in Ukraine as war pretty early on, which means that it was able to enact the Montreux Treaty of the Straits.

What is the Montreux Treaty of the Straits and how does it relate to Turkey’s involvement in Russia’s war on Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:38] What’s the Montreux Treaty of the Straits?

Sibel Oktay [00:18:40] Sure. So, this was one of the foundational treaties of the Republic of Turkey. And it gave essentially Turkey the right to control the straits. And one of these….

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:53] And the straits leading from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea?

Sibel Oktay [00:18:57] Right. Exactly. So, the two straits, the Bosphorus, connects Black Sea to Mamara Sea. And then the Dardanelles connects the Marmara Sea to the Mediterranean and so that’s Russia’s easiest way of crossing the Black Sea and connecting to the Mediterranean. And so, the Montreux Treaty states that if there is a war, Turkey has a right to close the strait to outbound battleships. And so, in this case, Turkey was able to, and did, close the straits to outbound Russian battleships. That was another way in which Turkey was able to curtail Russian activity. It also provided the Bayraktar TB2 drones that you’ve mentioned to Ukraine early on in the conflict. These are these are cheap, and they proved to be extremely effective at helping Ukraine achieve some of those early gains, both tactically and psychologically boosting the morale of the international community and give credence, obviously, for a more positive outcome. But obviously these activities and these kinds of gestures of support are now being undone, you might say, by Turkey’s position in NATO and Turkey’s resistance against NATO expansion. On the other hand, Turkey did not close its airspace to Russian aircraft, unlike many European allies and partners, nor did it impose any economic sanctions for obvious reasons that I just talked about: Russia is a trade partner. Turkey, therefore, has been playing this balancing act, supporting Ukraine where it can, but also making sure that it doesn’t antagonize Russia any further through not engaging in the sanctions regime or closing airspace.

How is Turkey supporting Ukraine and the global community through the crisis of Russia’s war on Ukraine?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:05] To what extent does Erdogan and the Turkish foreign policy elite consider themselves potentially like interlocutors between Russia and the West? I mean, it seemed early on that they were trying to use Turkish good offices, if that is an expression that could be used, to facilitate some sort of cessation of hostilities that obviously never happened. But now it seems that Turkey is playing an actual, meaningful role in this U.N. led effort to try to get some of the grain and food that’s stuck in Ukrainian ports out to the rest of the world. What do you know about those efforts and Turkish diplomacy more broadly during this period?

Sibel Oktay [00:21:56] Right so Turkey has tried to play the mediator role in these regional conflicts for a long time during the AKP rule, so this is not the first time that Turkey is stepping up to the plate and saying, let us mediate. The country, tried to do that between Israel and Palestine back in the early 2000’s, that was not fruitful. Same with the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and now more recently between Ukraine and Russia. And you’re absolutely right. There were some early efforts to bring the parties to the table to call a ceasefire and possibly resolve the conflict but that kind of died down. And right now, there are ongoing talks to facilitate the shipment of Ukraine’s agricultural exports, grains, specifically because we’re expecting a major global food crisis later this year and well into the next year. And Turkey offers to be basically a corridor, right? So, the Odessa port is right now closed. The proposal suggests that the Odessa port will open and then the shipments will pass through Turkey to get to some of these developing countries that normally get Ukraine’s grains. But here, both Kiev and Moscow have their own demands, which also pushes Turkey into a difficult policy corner. Essentially, Turkey constantly finds itself in these difficult policy corners. One of the things that I think is interesting is that Ukraine, for a while wasn’t formerly invited to the talks. So, the negotiations about how to draft the plan and how to operationalize it were taking place between Turkey and Russia. So, the proposed deal includes a couple of demands from each of the actors, and that’s why it’s very difficult for them to resolve this. Russia, in return for opening and allowing the Port of Odessa to operate wants the sanctions on its own farm exports to be lifted and also wants the Port of Odessa to be demined. And finally, it wants to have the ability to inspect the ships that go to Ukraine. That’s obviously a major no for Ukraine. Ukraine rejects these conditions and wants to ensure that opening the Black Sea port, the Port of Odessa, does not allow Russia to either inspect its own ships that are going into the going into Ukraine, but also prevents Russia from exerting greater control in the region at the expense of its own security. Like you said, the U.N. supports this proposal and Turkey expects that it will endorse the plan and if it does, that should give Ukraine much greater confidence in the deal’s intentions and credibility. But of course, it’s difficult for anyone, and most importantly, Ukraine and the Ukrainians to isolate Turkey’s efforts there from its very frustrating resistance to NATO enlargement. And so, it’s very difficult to isolate Turkey’s different activities in these different dimensions and different stages and not consider them in relation to one another.

How could the international community encourage Erdogan and Turkey to let Sweden and Finland into NATO?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:25:39] So lastly, on this question of NATO, you know, we are speaking about seven days ahead of a major NATO’s meeting in Madrid. It was expected, you know, months ago when Sweden and Finland first made their intentions known about their desire to join NATO, that this would be like a swift process. And, you know, as we discussed, Erdogan, for domestic political reasons, is putting the brakes on this process. Is there anything you suspect that the international community might offer to Turkey to nudge it away from its position of intransigence right now?

Sibel Oktay [00:26:26] Right, some of the recent developments happening at NATO and the secretary general’s office show that they are really trying hard to make Turkey happy. So about two weeks ago, Jens Stoltenberg, the secretary general of NATO, expressed that Turkey’s concerns about terrorism were legitimate and that they must be addressed. Importantly, if you watch his press briefing, he corrects himself twice mid-sentence, calling the country Turkyie instead of Turkey. And if you go to NATO’s official website now, Turkey is now listed as Turkyie on the list of members.

Why does Turkey want to officially change its name to Turkiye?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:03] What’s the significance of that?

Sibel Oktay [00:27:05] So these are hat tips to the Turkish government’s current PR efforts to change the country’s official name from Turkey to what it’s known in Turkey itself, in Turkish, it’s called Turkyie, so that it’s not synonymous with poultry in the English language. And so, you could tell that Stoltenberg was trying really hard to, you know, he says Turkey and then he corrects himself and goes Turkiye.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:27:31] If that is a concession, you know, I say go for it.

Sibel Oktay [00:27:34] Right, exactly but then, you know, these are some of the very little low hanging fruit for NATO to take but then some allies are getting frustrated. So, Emmanuel Macron, French president, is asking NATO to find out about Turkey’s real intentions and clarifying Turkey’s positions. So clearly, there is some expectation to bring this to a happy ending at the NATO summit, at the conclusion of the NATO summit in Madrid. And then when you turn to Germany, German foreign minister says that, you know, obviously, everybody anticipated everybody wanted Finland and Sweden to join NATO in the Madrid summit later this month, actually as soon as next week. But then Annalena Baerbock, German foreign minister, said that it wouldn’t be a catastrophe if this doesn’t conclude in in the Madrid summit. And then when you turn to Turkey, Turkish officials say very confidently, because they have all the leverage in the world saying that, you know, we don’t consider the Madrid conference as a deadline for these negotiations and we’re going to take for as long as we need to, to make sure that everybody is on the same page and Turkey is given some guarantees. Now, what those guarantees will look like, again, we can only speculate, and we can only speculate what Turkey will consider to be a win. And where would compromises take place?

What does Erdogan want in return for allowing Sweden and Finland to join NATO?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:18] So what are you looking towards in the coming weeks that may suggest to you whether or not Erdogan relents on his opposition to NATO membership for Sweden and Finland.

Sibel Oktay [00:29:31] So Erdogan wants concessions, right? Guarantees that he can then take home and say the Turks won. He always wants to assert Turkey on the international stage and so whatever he can take, he will sell to the possible maximum at home. It could be like I said, a combination of written guarantees, a condemnation of terrorism or, you know, tangible outcomes, such as the lifting of arms embargoes. We know that, for instance, Sweden is revising its counterterrorism legislation and finding out ways to redesign regulations on export ban so that Turkey can be off the hook. And a lot of people are arguing or expecting or hypothesizing, I guess, that Turkey might also be trying to get some concessions from the U.S., such as being put back on the F-35 list, which Turkey was kicked off after it purchased the S-400s. And so, Erdogan and the Turkish delegation and NATO know that they have a lot of leverage, like I said, and they are not afraid to go to the edge of the cliff, so to speak, to get whatever they can. If, you know, your listeners might remember he’s done it before in the EU back in early 2000s to get the membership negotiations to start when he had a lot less leverage so he knows that he can do this again. And we’ll see what plays out next week in Madrid and the next couple of weeks after that will be even more interesting.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:31:13] Well, Sibel, thank you so much. This was so helpful. I really appreciate it.

Sibel Oktay [00:31:17] Thank you for having me.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:31:21] All right. Thank you all for listening. Thank you to Sibel Oktay. That was very helpful. We recorded this conversation, as I mentioned, just a few days ahead of that major NATO meeting in Madrid, though, even if you have listened to this episode in the weeks since, I think it nonetheless gives you really important context for understanding Turkish foreign policy. All right. We’ll see you next time. Thanks, bye!