Turkey’s condemnation of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 has increased the likelihood of rapprochement between Ankara and Washington. Like the US, Turkey upheld the importance of Ukraine’s unity, safety, and sovereignty. On March 24, 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the progress made during talks between his country and the US regarding the sale of F-16 fighter jets, in return of its investment in the F-35 program. “Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar is conducting talks with the US regarding the purchase of F-16 fighter jets, and the talks are witnessing progress,” said Erdogan, adding, “US President Biden told me he will present his positive approach on this matter to Congress and follow up on it.”
The Ukrainian crisis and sanctions imposed on Russia signaled the need for Turkey and the US to come to terms over some of the most pressing issues between them. On February 28, 2022, Turkey took a rare stance by blocking warships from the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits for coastal and non-coastal Black Sea countries. Prior to that, Turkey condemned the Russian intervention and acknowledged a state of war between Russia and Ukraine.
Moreover, Turkey has sent drones to the Ukrainian government, along with adopting a set of measures that were applauded by the Biden administration, opening the door for effective solutions to controversial issues between the two nations.
At the same time, Ankara also stepped up in its role as a broker between Moscow and Kyiv, pressuring Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop this conflict. This stance aligns with US foreign policy, which is focused on ending the Russian intervention in Ukraine and ultimately curbing Russian influence.
The move was followed by more talks between Turkish and American officials on the Ukrainian crisis, including a call from Erdogan to Biden on March 10, 2022 to discuss ongoing developments in the conflict and US sanctions on Turkey. The two nations’ respective ministers of defense and foreign affairs and national security advisors also discussed greater cooperation within NATO. Meanwhile, Turkish economic delegations visited Washington, DC and other prominent states on March 14, 2022 as part of a trade diplomacy initiative aimed at increasing the volume of trade between the two countries to $100 billion.
On March 4, 2022, an American delegation led by the Deputy Secretary of State visited Ankara. The visit focused on discussing new suggestions to resolve disputes between both countries, which included halting Turkish plans to activate Russia’s S-400 missile system in return for selling 40 F-16 fighter jets. This was not a surprising development, as Akar had announced in January that the technical work on the purchase of F-16s and the modernization of Turkey’s air force had begun.
Turkey is seeking to exploit the Ukrainian crisis to ease the tensions with the US, especially as both countries are coordinating their efforts to pressure Putin into ending the intervention. In this context, a US-Turkish rapprochement could carry with it a wide range of repercussions:
1. Recognition of Ankara’s centrality to Western policy: Ankara’s condemnation of Russia and Washington’s decision to open several channels of communication and cooperation with Turkey present an opportunity for Ankara to assert its vital position to US decisionmakers. As a result, Turkey’s star of influence would rise in Washington, not to mention all the regional and global networks that share in US interests, including NATO. Amid the lack of a decisive US response towards the war in Ukraine, as well as Moscow’s determination to resist Western pressures, it is likely that Ankara’s role will become that much more valuable to the US in the near future. The Biden administration realizes that prolonging any disputes with Turkey could make it a potential economic partner for Russia in the short term.
On the other hand, the US is also striving to resolve its disputes with Turkey for other reasons, such as ratcheting up pressure on Russia and bolstering the image of NATO’s power to keep Russia in check. Biden realizes that Turkey plays an important role in this, as Ankara has a geopolitical position enabling it to expand its influence in many areas that are pivotal to US interests. Washington faces Russian competition in the Balkans, Caucasus, Black Sea, and Central Asia. As such, Turkey’s role cannot be overlooked in combating Russian influence infringing on US interests in those regions.
2. Easing tensions with Europe: US-Turkish rapprochement could pave the way for stronger relations between Turkey and the EU, thereby encouraging the Europeans to waive sanctions against Ankara. Evidence of this trend has already emerged, as seen in the recent rapprochement between Turkey and France on March 24, 2022, on the sidelines of the extraordinary NATO summit. During that meeting, the presidents of both countries agreed to set aside their differences and continue their close cooperation in light of the Ukrainian crisis. Following suit, easing tensions with the US could lead to favorable European stances towards Turkey. The US also called on adopting a unified Western front against Russia in consideration of the interests of all its allies, including Turkey in the mix.
3. Turkey’s role in balancing strategic US interests: Despite ongoing disputes with Ankara over several issues, namely its acquisition of the S-400 missile system from Russia, the US is tending towards deescalating tensions to an unprecedented level. The US realizes that, to keep its interests in order, it needs Turkey to play a role in sabotaging the Russian military incursion into Ukraine.
If not, current tensions between the two could push Ankara to consider alternative policy options that do not align with the US or NATO interests during this critical phase. Several analysts believe that the recent American rapprochement with Ankara could go a long way towards stabilizing relations between both countries. It could also push the Biden Administration to consider Turkish interests in a bid to attract it as a partner in countering Russian threats. Since Turkey refused to commit to the sanctions imposed on Moscow, the US now has to find a way of drawing Ankara closer to its sphere of influence, and finding common interests would be an excellent start.
4. Reducing pressures on Turkey’s struggling economy: The apparent rapprochement could also be a windfall for the ailing Turkish economy, as it suffers from a devalued lira, US sanctions on the defense sector, and fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Defense export revenues are a key source of foreign currencies for Turkey, which reached $2,793,974 by the end of 2021, an increase of 39.7% from 2020. Moreover, improved relations with Washington at this time could help lift US sanctions on the Turkish defense sector, which have impacted other sectors of the Turkish economy.
The rapprochement could also revive the Turkish economy, since American and Western companies have held meetings and conducted studies in Turkey to transfer mega-projects from Russia to Turkey. The reasons for the switch include investment opportunities, international transfer rates, and manpower in Turkey. US Ambassador to Turkey Jeff Flake asked more than 5,000 US companies to prepare to leave the Russian market and explore the possibility of moving to Turkey instead.
US investments are a strong asset to the Turkish economy. The net capital flow to Turkey had reached $174 billion by the end of 2021, including $14 billion from US companies (i.e., 8.1% of total investments). This makes the US the second largest foreign investor in Turkey following the Netherlands, which has $27 billion in investments. As of the end of 2021, there are 77,000 foreign companies operating in Turkey, including 2,030 US companies.
In conclusion, Turkey is embarking on a new phase in its relations with the US in light of the Russian intervention in Ukraine and Washington’s insistence on mobilizing regional and international players against Russia. The US recognizes that a Russian military victory in Ukraine would reshape the world order in Moscow’s favor, thereby negatively affecting US hegemony and interests worldwide.