While Ankara has always sought to maintain a careful balance between east and west, Turkey’s 2023 election candidates believe they need US support to win.
On 7 April, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chaired a videoconference meeting with his counterparts from five other states to discuss, among other things, the pressing issue of naval mines drifting into the Black Sea.
According to Akar, the origin of the mines could not be identified, but an investigation is ongoing.
The meeting’s agenda was ultimately less notable than its curious participant list. Five of the attending countries – Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine – have borders with the Black Sea, but Russia, a major littoral state, was not invited, while Poland, which has no borders with the waterway, was present.
The mines threat has emerged amid the escalating armed conflict in Ukraine. Russia’s principal intelligence agency, the Federal Security Service (FSB), warned on 21 March that several hundred mines had drifted into the Black Sea after breaking off from cables near Ukrainian ports. The claim was dismissed by Kiev which accused Moscow of disinformation and trying to close off parts of the strategic waterway.
Nevertheless, since the onset of the conflict in February, four mines have ‘drifted’ into the Black Sea, including one discovered off Romania’s coastline, and three stray mines found in Turkish waters which were safely neutralized.
Turkey’s balancing act
Throughout the crisis, Ankara has had to navigate between Russia and Ukraine and balance its diplomatic ties with both states carefully. As an important NATO member, this has not been a straightforward task for Turkey.
Between 19 to 22 April, NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence (CCDCOE) organized Exercise Locked Shields 2022, the largest cyber defense exercise in Tallinn, Estonia. The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) attended this drill with TAF-affiliated defense company HAVELSAN.
The following day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced that Turkey would close its airspace for a three-month period to Russian planes flying to Syria. But the Turkish minister also announced the cancellation of a pre-planned NATO drill to avoid provoking Russia.
Concurrent with this precarious balancing act, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government has worked overtime to thaw relations between Ankara and Persian Gulf states and Israel. There are also plans afoot to add Egypt to Turkey’s various regional diplomatic forays.
Resetting relations with the US
At the same time, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government has tried to exploit any opportunity to present itself as an indispensable ally to Washington. Talks hosted in Istanbul between Russia and Ukraine may have failed to lead to a breakthrough in negotiations, but US President Joe Biden endorsed Turkey’s role as mediator, while State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that Turkey was “in full coordination and consultation with the US” during the process.
Ankara’s role as a mediator has also been encouraged by US think-tanks such as the United States Institute of Peace, which has called on the US and Europe to support Turkey as the only mediation channel between Russia and the west.
Undoubtedly, the Ukraine conflict has enabled Turkey to reposition itself with Washington as a valuable NATO ally. This has become evident with reports that US military F-16 sales to Turkey are now back on the table again after a period of doubt.
Naturally, pro-AKP media has been praising Erdogan’s role as ‘peacemaker’ and are keen to parlay his accomplishments into a domestic political bonanza. But according to Turkish journalist and commentator Murat Yetkin, AKP’s initial prognosis on the Ukraine conflict was that it would cool down around June and Turkey could shortly thereafter reverse its economic losses arising from the crisis.
It has become apparent, however, that the AKP may have been too rash with that timeframe. Ankara’s leading NATO allies appear less concerned about the destruction of Ukraine and its fallout across Europe than about ‘weakening’ Russia via proxy, with a prolonged war of attrition in mind. For the AKP brass, if the conflict continues into next year, Erdogan’s chances of eking out a victory in Turkey’s 2023 elections could be seriously jeopardized.
Ukraine, a foreign policy tool
Rear Admiral Turker Erturk, Turkey’s former Black Sea commander, believes that the US government gave Turkish military operations in northern Iraq (Operation Claw Lock) the green-light, mainly because of the war in Ukraine. Washington, according to Erturk, will need Turkey in the upcoming stages of the conflict, and has thus become more flexible and transactional with Ankara.
For Erturk, this is a major reason why Erdogan’s government is seeking a balanced approach – in order to negotiate with the US and win the upcoming elections. “Promises made to the US regarding the Ukraine War will be implemented after the election,” he predicts.
Erturk also claims that Washington favors former chief of staff and current Defense Minister Hulusi Akar as the next president of Turkey. The retired rear admiral interprets the Black Sea mines meeting led by Akar – which included the Poles and excluded the Russians – as an message of support to the US. It should be noted that even at the height of US-Turkish tensions and its accompanying leverage contest, Akar stuck his neck out by guaranteeing that Ankara would never break with the western world.
The role of the Turkish Army, post-Erdogan
Akar is not the only military man with a shot at the presidency. Erdogan’s son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar, who masterminded the famous Turkish armed drone Bayraktar could also be a political successor. He has also openly voiced support for Ukraine, a gesture likely not intended for domestic audiences.
Bayraktar’s now deceased father, Özdemir Bayraktar, threw his support behind the jailed army officers during the highly politicized Ergenekon (2008-2019) and Balyoz (Sledgehammer, 2010-2015) ‘coup d’etat’ trials. That makes the Bayraktars respected even amongst Kemalist circles – not just for their game-changing armed drones, but also for placing their political clout against the trials.
A Foreign Affairs piece earlier this year by Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, provides an insight into a hypothetical scenario involving an Erdogan-opposition deal for a transition. If a deal cannot be reached, Cagaptay says, Turkish democracy will crumble.
A possible solution to ease this transition, Cagaptay argues, is for the two sides to accept the Turkish Army’s mediation as a “non-partisan” institution, with backing from the US and the EU. The opposition ensures that Erdogan and his family will not be tried, while Erdogan transfers power to the opposition’s candidate and the TAF acts as a guarantor.
Intact foreign policy
Turkey’s opposition alliance, Millet (Nation), which consists of six parties for now, has not decided on its presidential candidate yet. The governing coalition, Cumhur (People), has accused Millet of being agents of the west.
Although both the government and opposition are pro-NATO, some parties in Millet, such as the pro-west Turkish nationalist IYI (Good) Party, want to play a more proactive role in Ukraine against Russia. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, who belongs to the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), sparked a debate when he was spotted out with the British Ambassador amidst a heavy fall of snow last winter.
Imamoglu once was a leading opposition figure against Erdogan. He defeated the Turkish president twice in local 2019 elections, and his right-wing/moderate political stance was influential even among Erdogan supporters. However, his recent tour in the Black Sea region where his hometown is located, unleashed angry reactions amongst Millet supporters for including pro-Erdogan journalists to cover his visit. Even his own party, CHP, criticized Imamoglu for “breaking the party discipline.”
Now an underdog, Ankara’s Mayor Mansur Yavas, also a CHP member, is leading in Turkey’s election polls. He is a former member of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and popular amongst Cumhur’s voter base. Yavas gives the impression that he could be a bipartisan president, a statesman who would oversee a smooth Turkish transition to the post-Erdogan era.
But will the upcoming 2023 elections signify a sharp geopolitical shift in the country’s bearings? A close look at Turkey’s economic situation, and its government’s overtures to the west, suggests not.
Turkey’s relations with Russia, even as a bargaining chip against the west, will likely continue independently of election results, as Ankara has historically sought to maintain its east-west equilibrium. Today, however, both wings of Turkish politics seem set on soliciting western support – to different degrees and in various arenas – to secure an electoral win.