Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a political master of disguise who has a unique boldness in making sharp changes in his politicking. While some could say Erdoğan is only doing things that are politically expedient without an actual ideology, he started to do better dealing with pressing foreign policy issues, because no matter how much he criticizes the West, he will stay aligned with it whether because it suits his interest or that it is best for the country’s future.
He understands the stakes for Turkey wedging away from the West, and no matter how friendly he and Russian President Vladimir Putin seem, he lately started to behave as a political actor interested in his legacy as a statesman.
Erdoğan’s foreign policy moves: NATO and Ukraine
Erdoğan has remained critical of Russia over its actions in Ukraine. On the first week of the invasion, the Ankara government called Moscow’s action “war,” and closed the Turkish straits of both the Dardanelles and Bosporus to Russian warships. Erdoğan appears determined to stick to every period and comma of the 1936 Montreux Convention about nautical traffic through the Turkish straits and the Black Sea – a startling development for a politician whose trademark is ignoring the rulebook.
This summer, just two days before the NATO summit on July 11-12, he hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and pledged support for Ukraine’s NATO membership. He also allowed Zelensky to return Kyiv five former Azov commanders with neo-Nazi tendencies who had fought in the battle of Mariupol – violating a prisoner exchange agreement with Moscow.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said they were “not notified” about the prisoner transfer in advance.
Sweden and Russia
Most critically, he changed his mind about Sweden’s NATO membership after expressing reservations for more than a year and introducing a last-minute conditioning on Turkey’s accession to the European Union (EU). Some analysts at home and abroad interpreted Erdoğan’s foot-dragging as doing Russia’s bidding. But the Turkish objection from day one was about Sweden’s favoritism of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and affiliated groups, recognized as terrorists by the EU and NATO; Erdoğan accomplished to make Turkey’s sensitivity heard.
What has he gotten in return? Russia boarded a cargo ship owned by a Turkish citizen, Turkish staffed, but Palau flagged on August 13 in the Black Sea which could be seen as a warning to Erdoğan to step lightly. More so, Russia pulled out of the grain deal on July 17. The more Putin tries to push him around, the more he appears to be standing firm.
Moderation with Israel
That is not Erdoğan’s only surprising move. Prior to the Arab Spring, he gloried talking tough about Israel to stay on good terms with Arab nations. May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident introduced bloodshed in bilateral relations. Political and diplomatic relationships were frozen for six years, then US President Barack Obama brokered the first normalization.
Recently Erdoğan has hosted Israeli President Isaac Herzog, and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected this year.
Not only did he meet with the Israeli leaders, but he also dramatically changed his rhetoric on Israeli operations in Gaza and the West Bank. He mostly lets his foreign ministry set the tone via written statements.
Foreign policy trajectory
In the end, Erdoğan seems to have learned from his past mistakes, such as the weapons purchase from Russia and understands all too well the cost for Turkey in turning away from the West. That decision got Turkey kicked out of a consortium that was building the advanced F-35 fighter jets along with contracts to produce hundreds of items to be used in the project and is still waiting for Congressional approval to purchase new F-16s and modernization kits for the present ones.
This change is significant after so many years of Erdoğan distancing Turkey from its traditional foreign policy. By remaining silent on the cargo ship incident, he likely aims to keep communication open with Russia and keep on trying with the grain deal. If he continues his current trajectory, he may be able to right his ship and end the era of political experimenting to further align Turkey with the West.