Is Turkey the new Russia? That question is increasingly being asked in European capitals as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan adopts a more aggressive foreign policy. In addition to using migration to threaten and finagle the European Union, Erdogan has also been deploying military power to expand Turkey’s sphere of influence across the wider region.
Since the end of the Cold War, Europeans have viewed regional security through a unipolar Western lens. While NATO guaranteed military security, the EU—with its 80,000-page rulebook for everything from LGBTQ rights to lawnmower sound levels—provided legal order. Back in the 1990s, it was widely assumed that the two big non-Western regional players, Russia and Turkey, would gradually be accommodated to this arrangement.
But over the past 15 years, the dream of European unipolarity has given way to a multipolar reality. Both Russia and Turkey have had a long, tortured love–hate relationship with Europe, and both have grown more assertive under national leaders who share a disdain for EU norms and values.
The breakdown of the EU–Russia relationship is well documented; the Turkish story less so. The Iraq War in 2003 complicated Turkey’s relationship with NATO, and its relationship with the EU took a turn for the worse in 2007, when France blocked a key part of its EU accession negotiations. Turkey has since been forging its own path in Syria, the Balkans and Libya, as well as pursuing new ties with Russia and China.
Of course, the Turkey–Russia relationship is no less complicated, not least because Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin backed different sides in Syria’s civil war. The low point came when Turkey shot down a Russian military plane in 2015. In response, Putin imposed sanctions, which sowed chaos in the Turkish economy and prompted an uncharacteristic apology from Erdogan.
Despite being a NATO ally, Turkey has since decided to purchase a Russian-made S-400 missile-defence system over the objections of the United States. And while tensions over the Syria conflict remain, Erdogan clearly admires how Russia has re-established itself—at relatively little cost—as an important player in the Middle East and North Africa.
After Putin became mired in an unwinnable war in eastern Ukraine, his largely successful campaign in Syria seemed to restore some of his domestic authority. The West had spent five years insisting that there was no military solution to the conflict and that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had to go. But while UN-sponsored talks in Geneva went nowhere, Russia-sponsored talks in Astana seemed to make some headway. By including Turkey and Iran while excluding Western powers, the Kremlin created the impression that Russia had risen from the ashes, a born-again superpower.
Facing growing opposition at home, Erdogan has adopted the Putin playbook. With the West unwilling to intervene militarily (again) in Libya, Erdogan saw an opportunity to strut Turkey’s stuff. Following Russia’s approach in Syria, he secured a formal invitation from the Libyan government to intervene. In one fell swoop late last year, he not only boosted Turkey’s image as a regional power, but also clinched a maritime border deal with Libya, thereby disrupting a plan by Greece, Cyprus, Egypt and Israel to develop underwater oil and gas fields in the vicinity.
Since then, the EU- and UN-led ‘Berlin’ peace process has sought to end the war in Libya, but Turkey’s military intervention has fundamentally changed the balance of power on the ground. Once again, Russia and Turkey will determine the future of a country that is essential to European interests, only this time it’s Turkey that is in charge.
Erdogan also seems to have been inspired by the Kremlin’s divide-and-conquer strategy in Europe, where it often squeezes those EU member states that are most reliant on Russian hydrocarbons or markets. Just as Putin has long weaponised the supply of energy, Erdogan has tried to weaponise the flow of migrants and refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. When the EU announced a new naval mission to block the flow of weapons into Libya, Turkey dangled the migrant threat in front of Malta, which then signalled that it would veto the mission’s funding.
For years, Europeans told themselves that Russia was a kind of prodigal son and that the European unipolar order remained sound. Yet that made Europe an easy target for the Kremlin’s divide-and-conquer strategy. Only relatively recently did the bloc devise new policies and a robust sanctions regime to deter Russian aggression. And even now—despite the best efforts of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron—the EU still has not created effective channels of communication with Russia for addressing shared problems.
Turkey is not yet a new Russia, but it could become one if the situation is mishandled. For now, most Europeans still regard Turkey as a complicated partner rather than as a ‘systemic rival’. But Europeans should heed the hard-won lessons of dealing with Russia over the past 15 years. The EU–Turkey relationship needs a new, mutually agreed set of principles, as well as clear red lines to deter further destabilisation in the region.
To that end, Europeans should make clear that the EU accession process can be either rolled back or pushed forward, and that a more transactional relationship will involve the use of both carrots and sticks. The challenge will be to ensure that there’s still room for political engagement on issues of shared security in a region influenced not just by Europe and Turkey, but also by Russia, the US and a rising China.