Though U.S.-Turkish strategic bilateral relations date back to the early Cold War era, one cannot describe them as warm today. Many issues divide Ankara and Washington, starting with Turkey’s 2017 purchase of the Russian-made S-400 missile-defense system, for which the United States sanctioned Turkey by suspending Ankara’s participation, in July 2019, in NATO’s flagship F-35 fighter plane project. What is more, new U.S. sanctions against Ankara may be coming as a result of Erdogan’s autocratic domestic policies and suspected violation of Iran sanctions by Turkish banks.
Erdogan has masterfully played a succession of U.S. presidents, at times even winning over their hearts. To George W. Bush, Erdogan presented himself as a faithful Muslim with whom Bush, a faithful Christian himself, could work. To Barack Obama, Erdogan proffered himself as a “window to the Muslim world”. More recently, to Donald Trump, Erdogan cast himself as a partner for “making deals”. Now, with Biden, Erdogan will become the “internationalist, reformer, and healer” President. However, Biden knows Erdogan, he has dealt with him for over a decade, and he is not naive about his ways and means. “Winning” over Biden’s heart will be Erdogan’s toughest challenge to date with any U.S. President.
Ultimately, I believe Erdogan will play Biden but stick to Putin. Understanding the historical dynamics of Turkish-Russian ties and Erdogan’s current relationship with Putin is critical to understanding the future of Erdogan’s relationship with Biden.
Historically, Turkey has played the role of the losing party to a string of imperial wars between the Ottoman and Russian empires, contributing to modern Turkey developing much wariness toward its northern neighbor, bringing it into the sphere of American influence and protection throughout the Cold War.
However, things have been different in the Erdogan era. The July 2016 failed Turkish coup plot hardened Erdogan’s attitude toward his democratic opposition—prompting him to use his newly acquired emergency powers to conduct a broader crackdown on these groups— while it softened Russian president Vladimir Putin’s approach towards Turkey.
Putin has used the coup attempt to win over Erdogan’s heart and push Ankara away from Washington. The Russian President was the first leader to reach out to Erdogan after the failed coup, sweetening the gesture with an invitation to visit St. Petersburg the following month. What ensued was a regal welcome at the Konstantinovsky Palace. Putin thus signaled that the czar and the sultan could get along, and that the Ankara-Moscow proxy war in Syria could end— and along with it a persistent headache for Erdogan.
However, Putin’s warmth never comes for free. At their August meeting or soon after, the Russian leader offered to sell Erdogan a Russian-made S-400 missile-defense system, knowing this sale would create a permanent fissure in U.S.-Turkish ties. This was the price Erdogan had to pay—and still does—for Putin’s “friendliness” and a series of deals with Ankara since 2016 in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus. Since that post-coup encounter, though, Erdogan has genuinely valued Putin as his protector, joining other threatened world leaders—from Bashar al-Assad in Damascus to Nicolas Maduro in Caracas—in their regard for the Russian President.
While Turkey’s balancing act has tipped noticeably toward Russia, Erdogan knows he cannot abandon the good graces of the U.S. entirely. There are concrete areas of cooperation one can expect the U.S. and Turkey to focus on, such as Ukraine and Crimea. Still, given recent dynamics, Biden will push hard on human rights issues and the S-400s, and Erdogan will continue to defer to Putin and seek out regional power opportunities to prove Turkey is an independent actor and not bound to Western pressure.
Nevertheless, the current state of the Turkish economy will force Erdogan to make some adjustments, including a slight pivot towards the United States. Washington holds the “golden vote” at the International Monetary Fund and is the only financial power, other than China, that could bail Turkey out if its economy experienced a meltdown.
In a large sense, Erdogan appreciates Washington’s financial role globally and has recently tempered his critiques of the White House in the interest of shielding Turkey’s economy from global financial shocks, an approach that also protects his own standing. As a rule of thumb, Turkey’s economy does better when Ankara has good ties with Washington, and it suffers under strained U.S. ties.[i]
On the strategic side, given U.S. support to Turkey in Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held province, Erdogan has rediscovered an appreciation for Washington.[ii] The Biden administration will take advantage of this, likely upholding a longstanding executive branch preference to do all it can to keep Turkey on its side. Yet, even if the new U.S. administration does not give up on Turkey, Washington should be realistic about its expectations of Erdogan. It is unlikely, for instance, that he will cancel the S-400 deal with Russia, since he has also decided to cultivate good ties with Putin. This is the case despite the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration in its closing months.[iii]
Given his competing needs, Erdogan will keep playing Russia and the United States against each other, while staying engaged in various wars. Nonetheless, a Turkish economic implosion could strain the Erdogan-Putin relationship—pushing the Turkish leader toward Washington— whilst forcing Ankara to scale down its involvement in Syria and Libya especially.
Recent fighting between Turkish and Syrian regime forces in Idlib “has reminded Erdogan that with or without a deal, he cannot stand up to Russia alone, and that he is better off repairing his ties with Washington.”[iv] Nonetheless, it may not be so easy for Erdogan to win Biden’s heart, because the latter is the first incoming President since George W. Bush to have dealt with Erdogan the “shapeshifter” before —Biden, after all, was Obama’s main interlocutor to Erdogan between 2013 and 2016— and is, therefore, unlikely to fall for him. Moreover, Erdogan’s domestic crack down will make it nearly impossible for Biden to fully embrace him.
Unless Biden reassures Erdogan not to worry about Putin’s machinations, that the U.S. is completely committed militarily to Turkey in Syria, Libya, and the South Caucasus, and that Washington will look the other way as regards Erdogan’s democratic transgressions—a very tall order—Erdogan will play Biden, but ultimately stick to Putin.
[i] Soner Cagaptay, “Turkey’s Reconfigured Ties with the ‘Strategic West,’” PolicyWatch 3187, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, September 25, 2019, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/turkeys-reconfigured-ties-strategic-west.
[iii] Lara Jakes, “U.S. Imposes Sanctions on Turkey over 2017 Purchase of Russian Missile Defenses,” New York Times, December 14, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/14/us/politics/trump-turkey-missile-defense-sanctions.html.
[iv] Soner Cagaptay, “A New Erdogan-Putin Deal in Idlib May Help—for Now,” PolicyWatch 3275, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, March 4, 2020, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/new-erdogan-putin-deal-idlib-may-help-now.