Turkey, under President Erdogan, is attempting to reassert itself as a major world power - politically, militarily, diplomatically, and culturally. This may seem like a side story compared to developments in Russia, China or Western energy markets. Yet Turkey is connected to all of these events. It has now aligned itself more tightly with China than Russia. Erdogan can perfectly well that Putin is having to answer to Xi and not the other way around. Erdogan has positioned himself as a friend to both. But notice that he is the one to announce to the world that President Putin is “willing to end the war” “as soon as possible” “because the way things are going right now is quite problematic". Why didn’t President Xi or Putin himself announce this? It was an opportunity to Turkey to show that it now occupies a different position than many had understood. It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee. It’s Turkish.
Xi made it very clear at the Samarkand meeting of China’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (their soft equivalent of NATO) last week that the tricky but valuable “stans” of Central Asia are no longer in Russia’s sphere of influence but in China’s. He expressed “concerns” about Putin’s war in Ukraine, which Putin acknowledged. Turkey has had and will have a larger part to play in shifting regional power away from Russia to China. Erdogan is playing the role of intermediary as well, having recently helped negotiate a prisoner swap between Russia and Ukraine. He reiterated Xi’s concerns and criticism of Putin’s efforts to wage war on Ukraine. Losing is not a good look as far as China is concerned. Turkey, China and Russia have all been arms suppliers into regional conflicts across Central Asia and beyond. Russia’s weapons are clearly not working very well. Even the Russian military is abandoning its equipment, so the buyers are losing confidence.
In contrast, Turkey’s powerful new Bayraktar drones and other weapons have allowed decisive turnarounds in regional conflicts, including Ukraine. For example, Turkey’s drones allowed a total reversal in the balance of power between Armenia and Azerbaijan and Armenia’s enclave in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azerbaijani’s use of Turkish-made drones allowed them to destroy over $1b worth of Armenian assets. It’s not just drones but planes too. Turkey was denied access to the F-35 by the US and NATO. So they started to build their version. No doubt the Americans laughed off the idea. But, China did not. Turkey may soon be producing such equipment with China’s help. It’s not just that China has plans to the F-35 and is producing the close copy called the FC-31 or the J-31 5th-Gen stealth fighter. It seems that America’s F-35s are riddled with Chinese-made parts. The Pentagon just suspended their delivery until the Chinese content is removed. This means the market for something similar is about to expand.
Turkey also decided to align with China on the Uighur issue. Notice that Turkey is now demanding the extradition of Kurds from Sweden as a counter-terrorism policy which is necessary before Turkey approves Sweden’s entry into NATO. Erdogan’s silence on the Muslim issues in China, combined with Turkey’s growing power, is earning it new rewards from China. For example, China’s new rail line with Uzbekistan And Kyrgyzstan involves Turkey but bypasses Russia altogether.
China is also sidling up to Turkey because it has a bigger army and more effective weapons than Russia. Turkey knows who the arms buyers will be in the future – China and its allies in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Turkey is now set to be the only member of NATO to join the SCO. Even in the murky world of gun runners, Turkey’s ability to play both sides and play with both sides is quite stunning.
Xi is well aware that Russia cannot seem to run its army or successfully recruit what they need. Russia’s efforts to convince prison labor to join the Russian Army are not going well. Russia has a standing military of 280k, including contract mercenaries, some volunteers, and a formerly bloated, but now heavily assassinated officer corps. Turkey, in contrast, has double that number and can expand this quickly. China wants manpower and technological capability. One can see why they’d swap Russia for Turkey. Turkey is hot now. Russia is increasingly out in the cold.
As Russia pulls out of Ukraine, other hounds of war have started attacking Russia’s increasingly vulnerable flanks along various borders. It is not only the old conflicts in the South Caucuses that are now re-ignited, including Armenia and Azerbaijan, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have recently engaged in border clashes with each other again. There have been high civilian casualties. India is a beneficiary of Russia’s declining influence and is now “distancing itself” from Russia. In other places like Moldova and Transnistria, pro-Russian protestors are stepping forward to complain about the economic consequences of failing to work with Russia, namely high inflation and a loss of access to energy. Russia’s efforts to consolidate the parts of Ukraine that they still hold, including Donestk, through referenda and annexation, may also extend to these other pro-Russian footholds. Even Germany has been split by Putin’s “non-war” in Ukraine, with many now supporting a closer dialogue with Russia so that Germany can save itself from a very cold winter. But, all that will not be enough to save President Putin from the consequences of his failed campaign.
We will look back and see that President Putin was not pushed out by an internal coup but rather by President Xi in collaboration with other regional powers. I agree with Gideon Rachman’s insightful analysis of this. Once the President of India said, “this is not the era of war” and over 100 nations in the UN voted to give Ukraine’s President a virtual platform, it’s been curtains for Putin. Erdogan would not, and could not, have said that Putin should “return Crimea to its rightful owners” unless he was very confident that China supported this statement.
All this is a great opportunity for Turkey now. It has new allies, like Saudi and Israel, which Erdogan is about to visit for the first time since 2008, but especially China. This is why Erdogan is becoming more aggressive regarding the energy assets of the Eastern Mediterranean. If Russia’s navy was going to secure that part of the Med, Turkey would have found ways to work with Russia on this. But, now that Russia’s Navy is withdrawing from the Med and Crimea, pulling back to The Black Sea. In response, Turkey is declaring its interest in securing Cypriot gas fields even more forcefully. It is not alone in detecting the demise of Russia. Israel is also jumping in, declaring that certain parts of the massive Eastern Med gas fields belong to them. Turkey is also clarifying its position because the US, Britain and NATO have just decided to arm Cyprus again. They just announced that the arms embargo on Cyprus is over. Britain is now allowing British government land there to be developed into housing and commercial space for the Cypriot locals. Why the sudden interest? It is hard for many to see it, but the Eastern Mediterranean is about to become a conflict zone, not between Russia and others, but among all of the nations that border the huge gas and oil fields that are now proven and ready for development. These will include Israel, Lebanon, Greece, Egypt, and even Libya.
Russia, or Putin, currently effectively controls the Libyan oil fields by virtue of Putin’s private army. The Russian military will now have less ability to enforce there. This is why Erdogan is cutting deals with Libya. If the Russian Navy is pulling out, then deals can be made which give Turkey greater access to those cash flows. It should surprise no one that Turkey and Libya just inked a deal. Turkey also has its eye on the Russian footholds in Syria, which could also be coming available soon. All this may explain why two of Turkey’s banks have just announced that they will no longer use Russia’s MIR payment system. They do not want to get caught up in the US and NATO enforcement of Russian sanctions just as Russia is grip on power. Yes, Turkey just said it will pay for 25% of its Russian gas in rubles, but maybe that’s like throwing some change at a friend who is down and out.
Meanwhile, NATO has long considered Turkey as a down-and-out friend, excluded by the EU but useful to NATO. The US and NATO thought they were doing Turkey a favor by having them inside the tent. Now it looks like Turkey and Greece, two NATO members, may come to blows. Nothing could delight China and Russia more than to see NATO turn on itself. For those who have not been paying attention, Greece blocked Turkey from the NATO “Tiger Meet” drills after Turkey apparently violated Greek airspace 125 times in 24 hours back in May.
Saudi is also courting Turkey who they want to be involved in developing Saudi’s radical new $500b high-tech, non-fossil-fuel city-state, Neom, and its new city construct, The Line. This will be the new AI-powered Silicon Valley of the region. The space will be as large as Belgium and as liberal as a European country. Turkey wants to be part of this regional uplift.
Some, like Nicholas Saidel, argue that Turkey is becoming so hot that the US needs to reassert its interests and cool the situation off. But, the US is so preoccupied with internal tensions, it has little space to consider the resurgence of Turkey onto the global stage. This new “Great Game” is occurring across Central Asia, the Middle East and even Africa. These are parts of the world most Americans can’t find on a map or identify with in any way.
There is one more angle that matters. Turkey is emerging as the pop culture hot spot of the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey’s pop culture is to the Middle East what Korean pop culture is to Asia. K-Everything (shorthand for Korean pop culture) may soon be followed by T-Everything (Turkish-everything). Even Erdogan has had to choose his battles with Turkey’s pop stars and the liberal arts culture (LGTBQ community) carefully because they are so influential and hot. The Young Turks are back, reasserting a modern version of the Ottoman Empire. Wake up and smell the Turkish coffee.
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One of the problems with posts like this is the attempt to stitch together a grand narrative when bilateral or trilateral events may be best be viewed in that prism: bilateral or trilateral.
Turkey is implementing -- very correctly -- an independent foreign policy that maximises its own rational self-benefits. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this in itself. However, it also does not mean that every one of its initiatives named will materialise, or that the country itself does not have tremendous internal weaknesses.
Regarding oil and gas resources in the north-eastern Mediterranean: most of these are under deep water and the challenges to developing them are not so much geopolitical as technical and economic. This has been apparent as far back as 2010. The real game in the eastern Med now is the (relatively) shallow-water Zohr deposit off Egypt, and the strategic role this will have.
Extraction in Greece and Cyprus has had over 15 years to mature, but is still not ongoing. The problem appears more to be in terms of a national policy in light of volatile prices rather than Turkey.
I would take any announcements of Saudi development with a big pinch of salt. There is little economic rational for developments like The Line, and other mega project announcements have almost never materialised.
If there is a grand narrative to be seen here, I would suspect that it is about the limits of authoritarian leaders. I believe that if anything, we are at the end of this cycle, including in apparent superpowers like China. The problems that have built up under the surface of China, Russia, and Turkey are now all too apparent. I see few signs at the systemic level that these countries are prepared for a very difficult future, where the systemic socio-economic and business model may rapidly change.
By the way, the same thing is apparent in the United States. We are clearly at a late stage of the Republic, with Americans of every ideology increasingly putting their faith in a "man on a horse". In this respect, the US is out of synch with Russia, Turkey and China, which made that transition decades ago. A defining feature of the next 10 years will be the extent to which the United States can continue projecting power and maintaining the post Cold War order it has built up in Europe and the Middle East, or the extent to which it must retreat. Judging by the absolute mess in the Middle East, I'm better on the latter.
Can a country with a very fragile financial system play the Great Power role? Usually, a strong (or at least not weak) economy is necessary for that kind of adventure. Perhaps my understanding is not correct, but if it is correct about Erdogan's meddling in the economy and attempt to defy market logic, Turkey may not have the economic stamina needed to play in the game.