For four years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has openly crushed his national opponents and moved closer to Moscow, while granting preferential government contracts to his allies and sending his troops wherever he sees fit in the region.
The administration of former President Donald Trump has turned a blind eye most of the time.
But when he arrives in Brussels for a critical NATO meeting on Monday (14), Erdogan will face a decidedly more skeptical Biden administration. The same will happen with other dictatorial leaders previously reinforced by Trump.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will meet President Joe Biden on Wednesday, reacted to the new order with an even more belligerent stance, openly suppressing any sign of internal political opposition and massing troops on the border with Ukraine, in a gesture threat. to western security.
For Erdogan, however, things are not that simple. Thanks to the coronavirus and its economic mismanagement, it now faces serious internal tensions, with inflation and unemployment rising, and a dangerously weakened lyre that risks triggering a debt crisis.
Erdogan therefore began to soften his approach, having already relaxed his stance on several issues in the hope of receiving much-needed investment from the West, which Russia is unable to offer. To reassure Western leaders, the Turkish president halted gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, an activity that had angered NATO allies, and angered Moscow by backing Ukraine against Russian threats and selling Turkish-made drones to Poland.
However, Erdogan has a few important cards to play. Turkey’s presence in NATO, the country’s role as a relay for millions of refugees and its military presence in Afghanistan have all given it real power to influence the West.
The Turkish leader is therefore unlikely to reverse his shift towards authoritarianism, his increasingly close relationship with Putin and his acquisition of the sophisticated Russian S-400 air defense system, even if that means clashing with the vision of Biden of a strengthened alliance of democracies. .
One question is how far it will be possible to push Erdogan in Biden’s direction before he gets angry and decides to bet on an alignment with the Kremlin or even China, yet left out of control by the two. country on the issue of vaccine supply, the Turkish president is astute enough to keep his options open.
“How do you avoid losing Turkey while trying to subdue Erdogan?” Asks Nigar Goksel, Turkey project director at the International Crisis Group think tank.
As Biden did with Putin, his initial approach with Erdogan was to keep his distance, try to avoid feuds, and sort things out at lower diplomatic levels.
Since taking the presidency, Biden has spoken to Erdogan only once, to let him know that the United States recognizes the massacre of Armenians that took place in the last days of the Ottoman Empire. like genocide. If this was a humiliation for Erdogan who in previous years could have sparked a tantrum, it was received as a moderate reaction, in addition to the promise of a NATO summit meeting. .
According to Goksel, Erdogan feels the coldness of the Biden administration. “As Erdogan tries to find a way forward, they try to make sure he doesn’t win political points.”
Turkey urgently needs to emerge from the economic recession, made worse by the pandemic, which has destroyed its vital tourism industry. And he’s keen to avoid further US sanctions, imposed after Erdogan bought Russia’s S-400 missile system.
The economic turmoil has undermined Erdogan’s political position. The elections are still two years away, but their opponents have gained considerable momentum, according to Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the US think tank German Marshall Fund. For him, the Turks will vote according to the economic situation, and Erdogan needs the meeting with Biden if only for this reason.
The thorniest of the half-dozen disputes between the two countries is undoubtedly Erdogan’s refusal to back down on the acquisition of the S-400 missiles, which made Turkey the only NATO country to receive US sanctions and to withdraw from the F-35 fighter. program.
Erdogan even negotiated the purchase of a second missile battery from Russia. However, faced with the threat of new sanctions, it seems willing to abandon this acquisition.
Underlying his acquisition of the S-400s is his distrust of Washington, which he says would like to see him replaced. This idea was only reinforced last year, during the 2020 presidential campaign, when Biden said the United States should support the opposition in Turkey.
But there are fears that, if pushed too hard, Erdogan, who urgently needs a fifth-generation fighter-bomber, may end up buying Russian Sukhois. There are also concerns about around 50 US nuclear bombs stored at Turkish Air Base at Incirlik, under Turkish and US joint control. Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to expel Americans from the base.
Washington is preparing to bypass the disagreement over the S-400 missiles, focusing instead on strategic areas on which the two countries can agree: in other words, Afghanistan, where Turkey has participated in the mission since 2001, l ‘Iraq and Libya.
For its own reasons, Turkey wishes to maintain a presence in Afghanistan, a country with which it has a long-standing relationship, a common history and a common religion. This is the main reason why US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, when he began negotiations with the Taliban for the US withdrawal, asked Erdogan to consider the possibility of maintaining a military presence in that country.
But with the withdrawal deadline approaching in July, Erdogan has delayed the time to commit, creating concern in European capitals over maintaining secure access for their embassies at Kabul airport.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said this month that Turkey could stay in Afghanistan if it receives political, financial and logistical support from its allies. The Taliban increased Erdogan’s room for maneuver by announcing that Turkish troops were to leave Afghanistan with the rest of the NATO forces.