Turkey’s Strategic Priorities Shift, but Don’t Expect a Rapid Change

The decision to buy Russian S-400 missile defence systems reflects Turkey’s changing perception of threats, believes Volkan Özdemir, Director of the Ankara-based EPPEN Institute. But it will take years before a geopolitical re-orientation could take place.

Last week, Turkey signed a major deal with Russia to buy S-400 missile systems, raising alarm in western capitals about the nation’s level of military cooperation with a non-NATO state. This is just another sign of Turkey’s new international positioning with more emphasis on interaction with non-western partners, believes Volkan Özdemir, Director of the Ankara-based EPPEN Institute.

“For more than a decade, Turkey has been in negotiations with various countries, including Russia, China, European states and, of course, the United States about buying some kind of missile defence system,” Özdemir told valdaiclub.com in a phone interview. “But technology transfer from NATO allies of Turkey to Ankara was not possible, therefore Turkey began to look at the alternatives.” Two years ago, there was an attempt to strike a deal with China and for the past year, Turkey and Russia have discussed the purchase of S-400. 

This decision reflects Turkey’s changing perception of threats, Özdemir believes. Previously, especially in the first years of the Syrian war, Turkey’s main anxiety was security threat from its eastern borders, he said. “Now Turkey does not expect a missile threat from its eastern or southern neighbours, be that whether Syria or Iran. Maybe, as the S-400 deal shows, Ankara now considers security threat from the West.”    

Turkey’s Diminishing Optıons in the West Yaşar Yakış
Turkey re-adjusted its Syria policy to the realities in the field by adhering to the trilateral agreement in Astana on 15 September. This important step in the right direction coincided with other developments in Turkey’s European and transatlantic relations. It also coincided with another major decision by Turkey to buy from Russia S-400 missiles, which are the most advanced surface-to-air missiles that are developed so far.

Importantly, Germany stopped arms exports to Turkey when the S-400 deal was announced and some calls were heard in the US Senate to extend the anti-Russia sanctions to Turkey, Özdemir said.

Amid worsening relations with its traditional allies, Ankara is increasingly looking to non-western actors. But Özdemir warns against expectations of Turkey’s rapid change of geopolitical priorities. Its ties with the West are still not weak. “First, although there is harsh reaction from the European countries towards Turkish foreign policy, especially the row between Germany and Turkey, we still have the migration deal in force and Turkey has not abolished the agreement yet although visa-free regime for Turkish citizens have not been implemented” he said. “More importantly, there is a functioning Custom Union agreement between the EU and Turkey. It is not being modified and is not being cancelled either.” Thus, although there is a tendency of Turkey tilting towards other countries, this is not fully supported by actual steps, Özdemir noted.

Concerning the prospects of an alliance with Russia, the Turkish scholar pointed to a lack of strategic thinking between the two. “Over more than 300 years of their contacts, the main peculiarity of this relationship has been that both countries are trying to use the other one vis-à-vis the relations with the western countries,” Özdemir says.

According to him, the future of these relations depends more on Moscow than on Ankara, which does not fully understand Russia’s position towards the increasing political significance of Kurds in Syria and Iraq, seen as the main challenge to Turkey’s territorial integrity.       

“The increasing cooperation between Ankara and Moscow [on Syria] is a positive sign, but on the other hand it seems that Moscow has not determined its policy regarding Turkey and Kurds in the region. Turkey is critical about policies of its NATO allies regarding the Kurdish establishments in its southern borders and waits concrete supports from Moscow to overcome security threats. Only after a full understanding between the two on this issue, we can talk about a real process towards strategic partnership. In this sense, Turkey’s new international positioning depends more on Russia,” Özdemir concluded.

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