The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s leaders gathered this week for a major summit in Vilnius, Lithuania. Of course, the main focus was on Ukraine, and a new NATO-Ukraine Council was established to help boost cooperation.
The alliance also agreed that Ukraine will someday join the club. To the disappointment of many, however, it fell short of issuing an immediate formal invitation.
One aspect of the summit that is not getting as much attention as it deserves, though, is the role of Turkiye. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fresh from his recent election victory, seemed to be everywhere and meeting everyone at the gathering. His new foreign policy team has also hit the ground running. He set the right tone from the beginning of the summit, when it was announced that Turkiye would finally support Sweden’s entry into NATO.
For the first time since entering the White House, US President Joe Biden also met his Turkish counterpart. It is no secret that leading up to the meeting, relations between the two heads of state were somewhat frosty. It is hoped that their meeting might pave the way for improved bilateral relations between their nations.
They certainly greeted each other warmly and had positive things to say about the future of US-Turkiye relations. Erdogan even described his American counterpart as “my dear friend” when speaking to the media.
There was also a major breakthrough in their relationship when, after months of uncertainty, it was finally agreed that the US would sell F-16 fighter jets to Turkiye.
Erdogan also had a positive meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis during the summit. Both sides agreed to arrange a meeting of the Turkiye-Greece High-Level Cooperation Council in Thessaloniki, Greece, this autumn. Considering how tense relations between the two countries have been in recent months, this is a very good development for regional stability. The fact that the meeting was possible because both countries are NATO members serves as a reminder of how significant the alliance is on the diplomatic front.
While Erdogan has made an effort to improve his relationships with his American, Greek and Swedish counterparts, he will, not unreasonably, expect this warmer engagement to be a two-way street. For example, in return for Turkish support for Sweden becoming a member of NATO, it is likely Ankara expects some degree of reciprocity when it comes to restarting negotiations for its membership of the EU. Erdogan will also expect progress to be made on a visa liberalization agreement with the EU. After he won the presidential election in May, many international observers wondered which path Turkish foreign policy would take as a result. There were also concerns that Ankara was getting too cozy with Moscow.
In the run-up to his reelection, Erdogan was presiding over a stagnant economy made worse by the devastating earthquakes in February. For better or worse, this was the main motivation for Turkiye maintaining its economic ties with Russia at a time when Western nations were imposing sanctions on Moscow. Considering that Turkiye is a member of NATO, this was viewed by many as being particularly problematic.
When one looks more closely at the current situation, it is clear that Ankara is not aligning with Moscow. Because of its history, Turkiye enjoys a privileged geopolitical position in the Black Sea region. This has meant that Turkiye and Russia have been competitors, and at times adversaries, in the region on numerous occasions. By some counts, the countries have fought at least 12 major wars since the 1500s.
The current situation with Ukraine offers a good example of the geopolitical tensions that exist between Ankara and Moscow. Even though there have been no public announcements by Turkish authorities, there is plenty of social media evidence suggesting that Turkiye has provided Ukraine with a number of weapons systems. These include armed drones, laser-guided multiple-launch rocket systems, dozens of armored vehicles, and self-propelled artillery systems.
It was also reported that Turkiye gave Ukraine cluster munitions last year, months before the US finally agreed to do so. In addition, Turkiye is building two corvettes for the Ukrainian Navy, and Ukrainian-built engines will be used in the latest generation of Turkish drones.
Soon after Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Turkiye closed the straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean to foreign warships. This affected Russia more than any other country.
These are hardly the policies of a “pro-Russian” government. They are the policies of a country acutely aware of its special and historical role in the Black Sea region. Even so, Turkiye has shown itself to be the only international actor that can speak to both sides in the conflict. It was, for example, able to lead the negotiations for a deal between Ukraine and Russia over the much-needed export of Ukrainian grain to North Africa and the Middle East.
Turkiye has also orchestrated multiple, high-level prisoner swaps between Kyiv and Moscow. And it is the only country that has been able to get the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers to sit at the same negotiating table since hostilities began.
Given that this is Erdogan’s last term in office, he is acutely aware it is his final opportunity to create a long-lasting legacy as part of the history of the Turkish republic. With the outcome of last week’s NATO summit, he is off to a good start in terms of international affairs.
He was praised by the Western media for finally giving the green light to Sweden’s entry into the alliance and for supporting Ukraine’s bid to join NATO. One major German newspaper even described him as “Superman” and wrote that “nothing works without him.” Coming from a German press that is normally very critical of Erdogan, this was high praise indeed.
The summit was therefore a clear example of the ascendancy of Turkish diplomacy on the international stage. During the remainder of Erdogan’s final term in office, expect even more Turkish diplomacy in global affairs. This can only be a good thing.