Could Russia and Turkey make a Grand Bargain to flip West Asia and shrink NATO’s sphere of influence further?
Speaking in defiance of the US and EU on 20 July in Northern Cyprus on the anniversary of the Turkish military intervention of 1974 to save Turkish residents on the island, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared that Ankara would not accept anything other than a two-state solution on the Eastern Mediterranean island.
Though President Erdogan fell short of meeting his own expectations about international recognition of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), he was very precise about the ‘diabolical’ EU attitude on the Cyprus question. The US also received its share of his wrath as Erdogan outlined his new Cyprus policy, irrespective of whether – as he put it – they liked it or not.
The Cyprus issue, over which the US and the EU continue to goad Greece against Turkey, is not the only thorn driving a wedge between Ankara and the West. It is safe to say that there is not one single issue dear to Turkey over which there is a meeting of mind between the two NATO allies, Ankara and Washington.
Consider the insane anomaly of the US supplying money and weapons to the anti-Turkish PYD and PKK groups in northeastern Syria, in open defiance of its NATO ally. Or wrap your mind around what the the optics look like in Ankara when the US Congress dredges up ‘Armenian genocide’ at every opportunity.
It is not for nothing, therefore, that anti-American sentiment, always around the 85-plus percent mark in Turkey, recently rose higher, when a disoriented-looking Joe Biden pronounced the word ‘genocide’ to describe the events of 1915.
It becomes possible then, that this continued US cold shoulder will lead to closer rapprochement between Ankara and Moscow. Bilateral relations between the two countries have improved since the failed coup of 2016 in Turkey. The coup is one of those rare events in Turkey in that every segment of Turkish society – normally divided over major political issues – are united in their agreement over US culpability.
Ankara–Moscow relations have developed so rapidly that, in an unprecedented move, a NATO member is working alongside Russia and Iran – in this case, to establish the Astana Platform – to bring peace to Syria.
True, there have been outbursts of violence in Syria’s Idlib governorate where Turkey and Russia have been pitted against each other, and which has given rise to expectations in the west that the Ankara–Moscow friendship would fall apart. But the two capitals have drawn enough lessons from their earlier confrontational behavior to not get embroiled in a direct conflict. The war over Nagarno-Karabakh is just one such example.
Moreover, while Ankara cultivated trade and economic ties with Moscow, even during the 1964 to 1984 Cold War period, this is the first time that Turkey and Russia have cooperated over regional politics.
Turkey even edged into the military realm with Russia via its controversial purchase of S-400 anti-aircraft missiles, instead of the US-made Patriots of its NATO ally. Given Ankara’s defense industry upgrade ambitions – high-tech drones, used to root out the PKK in Turkey and northern Iraq, against Russian military equipment in Idlib, Libya, and particularly in the Second Karabakh War – it is also likely that Turkey could start producing weapons with Russia.
In short, the west’s continual shunning of its Turkish NATO ally might actually lead to an Ankara–Moscow deal that could potentially alter the balance of power across the wider region. A cursory glance at their regional interests suggests that this is not a remote possibility. On the contrary, Ankara and Moscow can bridge the divide that keeps them apart through a bold revision of their positions on regional issues.
How might this be done? Consider the Cyprus issue, where Turkey stands firm on advocating for a two-state solution. Under normal circumstances, this should not be a hostile idea to Russia, despite Russia’s foreign ministry issuing copy-paste statements on Cyprus becoming a federation. Any such reunification, almost next to impossible, would make the entire island an EU territory, which in turn would lead to admission to NATO.
Can anyone in Moscow explain why it would be in Russia’s best interest to see this strategically located island in the Eastern Mediterranean slipping into NATO at a time when the Russians are neck-deep in countering NATO expansionist maneuvers in former Eastern Europe and elsewhere? If a unified Cyprus state emerges out of the deadlock, Turkey would lose much of its influence over the central government in Nicosia, regardless of how many rights the Turkish people of Cyprus would gain in any paper agreement.
In addition, Cyprus is within shouting distance of Syria – less than one hundred kilometers – and could become a vital NATO base against major Russian military installations there.
Not that Turkey’s policy toward Russia is any less blurry. Take Ankara’s foolish Syrian military adventure against the once-friendly government in Damascus, which by now has cost Turkey an arm and a leg, turned the country into a paradise for refugees, and soured its relations with Russia. For a Turkish–Russian deal to be in sight, Ankara would have to establish normal diplomatic relations with Damascus, send back millions of refugees, and re-invigorate the Adana Memorandum of 1998, which calls for a joint struggle against the PKK.
Turkey would then return all Syrian territory currently under Turkish control to Damascus in exchange for Syria’s recognition of the TRNC. Any such deal would serve the purposes of both Ankara and Moscow because Russia would make important steps in pushing the US out of that country, and Turkey would gain allies – Russia and Syria – in its struggle against the US-backed PKK/PYD in northeastern Syria. It might also lead to a larger realignment bringing Iran, and gradually even Iraq, against the US-sponsored Greater Kurdistan project, a scheme that potentially threatens the territorial integrity of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran.
There is also extensive room for maneuver between the two countries over the issue of Crimea. While the West is opposed to Moscow’s annexation of this precious peninsula on the Black Sea’s northern coast, the Russians argue that Crimea was part of them until 1956 and that it has now returned to its Russian motherland. There is no UN Security Council resolution condemning the Russian takeover, but Moscow could benefit from wider international backing to gain further legitimacy over the matter.
On this point, Turkey could tone down its narrative that Crimea is an indispensable part of Ukraine. Instead, it could simply express its sincere desire to see a resolution to the Russia–Ukraine conflict, offering its mediation between the two countries, and allowing direct flights to Crimea from Turkey.
In return, Russia could reciprocate by allowing direct flights to the TRNC, opening a trade office in the north of the island, which would function initially like an embassy, and not stand in the way of the recognition of TRNC by Central Asian Turkish states and others.
Yes, you may yet witness a scene at the UN Security Council with the three western permanent member states vying to push through resolutions condemning their Turkish NATO ally – all while the Russians defend Turkey against Ankara’s own security alliance.
Such a scenario might seem a bit too unrealistic to those whose mindset is stuck in the unipolar world. But those who have made that essential mental leap into multipolarity can grasp it better because in the multipolar world order, scenarios of this sort will be plentiful.
Would Turkey have to exit NATO in order to strike a deal with Russia over these important matters? It’s doubtful. Turkey is not a simple NATO country somewhere in Europe. Its geopolitical location makes it imperative for the country to think and act in ways that are multi-dimensional, which is how Ankara has managed to maintain relations with Moscow for decades, despite its military alliance with Russia’s foes.
In addition, Turkey maintains veto power in NATO, and if tensions worsen between Ankara and its western allies, it can block the decision-making process over almost any matter.
Here’s the ultimate reality check: NATO is a military alliance, not a club. Without Turkey and its battle-hardened, second largest military in NATO – and its strategic position flanking Asia and Europe in a vitally contested part of the world, NATO would risk becoming a lame duck.