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EU and US sanctions on Turkey show it is a NATO state in name only and will push Erdogan closer to Russia and China

Turkey is about to be hit with a double dose of sanctions for reasons that are entirely different, but nonetheless related. 

On one hand, the European Union is set to blacklist a number of Turkish officials and entities over gas drilling in waters claimed by Cyprus, part of a long-standing controversy that also involves Greece. 

On the other, the White House is preparing a package of measures that target Ankara’s defence industry, aiming to cripple its procurement of weaponry. This is in retaliation for it having purchased an S-400 Missile Defence System from Russia despite its NATO commitments, which is considered a breach of a critical threshold in the Turkey-US relationship.

What these separate disputes have in common is that they reflect an ever-growing geopolitical estrangement between Turkey and the West. This is part of a global trend, whereby the rise of populism has challenged alliance structures that were once seen as orthodox, with Ankara’s shift having been greatly accelerated by the rule of President Erdoğan and his increasing authoritarianism and championing of Turkish nationalism. 

While disputes between Turkey and Greece are nothing new, the broader stand-off with the EU, the US and sanctions within the NATO alliance itself constitute a new low. In such a geopolitical climate, this is likely to result in Ankara fostering closer ties with Beijing.

The election of Erdogan in 2014 marked a decisive moment in Turkey’s history. The president has steered the state away from pro-Western, liberal-orientated Kemalist ideology and towards what has been described as a ‘Neo-Ottoman’ populist nationalism based on strongman rule. 

Erdogan has forced through an aggressive centralization of the country’s politics and constitution, weakening the traditional role of the army. In line with that, he has pursued an increasingly ambitious foreign policy with the aim of pitching Turkey as a major geopolitical player, involving the country in conflicts in Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan and reigniting old disputes with Greece. 

While this trajectory has soured relations with Brussels and stifled talk of Turkey joining the EU, more strikingly it has also seen its relations with the US deteriorate. 

How so? While the Syria crisis has been a source of tension, in forging closer ties with Moscow, Turkey breached one of the ‘sacred rules’ of the US Military Industrial Complex racket: ‘Thou shalt not buy equipment from a non-NATO state’.

Undeterred, it has doubled down on the purchase of the Russian S-400 system and brushed off Donald Trump’s threats. The stand-offs with the US president have already seen the Turkish lira take a pounding, but now formal sanctions are on the way, designed to force Ankara’s dependency on US weapon purchases by preventing their defence industry from doing business with anyone else.

On this note, Turkey is now effectively a NATO state in name only; it is a country locked into an alliance that effectively has a different geopolitical standing. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Ankara is about to quit NATO, or for that matter Washington would consider booting it out. 

Its mere presence within the organization still serves as overwhelmingly powerful leverage in how Turkey deals with Russia and others, with Erdogan using its membership to create military crises and force resolutions in its own favor, such as in Syria. But it does this without having any intention of being an ally in the conventional sense to other NATO members. 

And so these sanctions from Washington are not an attempt to alienate Ankara, but a bid to force the US back into its favor and to try to stop the Military Industrial Complex from losing its monopoly over NATO states. Consider this, after all; Turkey is the second largest country within NATO, and also has the second largest army in the bloc behind the US.

Still, things are not about to improve anytime soon, in fact, the situation is likely to get worse. While Trump opposes Turkey from a standalone point of view of American military interests, he takes little interest in Erdogan’s domestic politics. 

On the other hand, the probable incoming president, Joe Biden, will incorporate Trump’s objections and from a liberal standpoint, oppose Erdogan’s growing authoritarianism too. This is likely to lead Turkey to hedge against growing alienation from the west by consolidating closer ties with Russia and China, with it becoming increasingly dependent on Beijing for trade and investment. Erdogan has already turned towards China to acquire Covid-19 vaccines and the first freight train travelling from Turkey to China under the Belt and Road initiative started its journey last week. 

Given this, it’s fair to say that Turkey is not isolated as it faces growing estrangement from the West. Erdogan sees it as a risk worth taking. His underlying goal is not so much to burn bridges with his country’s long-term partners in Europe and the US, but to test their boundaries by pursuing a ‘best of both worlds’ approach to everything. This has long been part of his menacing posture, which has also included threats to allow millions of migrants to head towards the EU.

Turkey will ultimately continue antagonizing NATO, while using it to its own benefit, but at the same time continue to forge closer ties with powers more sympathetic to Erdogan’s politics. Brussels’ and Washington’s loss stands to be Beijing’s and Moscow’s gain.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

© 2020, paradox. All rights reserved.

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