Turkey's confrontations with the US and NATO, of which it is a member, have served Russia well, giving Russian President Vladimir Putin huge returns on a relatively small investment -- returns that are likely to grow in 2020. Pictured: Putin (left) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan meet in Moscow on March 10, 2017. (Image source: kremlin.ru/Wikimedia Commons)
Turkey's often seeming contradictory relations with the United States and Russia -- such as, for instance, Ankara's boosting of cooperation with Ukraine, on the one hand, and defending the Libyan government against General Khalifa Haftar's insurgency on the other -- likely stem from President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's apparent drive to become a leading regional and global power.
To this end, Erdoğan has steadily constructed a repressive authoritarian regime resembling that of Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, as the March 31, 2019 municipal elections in Istanbul demonstrated, Erdoğan's domestic base, including within his own Justice and Development Party has narrowed in favor of the Turkish nationalist right.
In addition, on its economic front, in May 2019, Turkish ships invaded Cyprus's Exclusive Economic Zone and started drilling for gas. Turkey interposed its navy there, to deter any resistance, and now is not only increasing its drilling force, but is even talking about drilling "in the Black Sea and even in international waters."
In response to being left out of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF) -- launched in July 2019 by Egypt, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Italy, the Palestinian Authority and Jordan -- and the subsequent EU adoption of a framework for sanctions on Turkey over its drilling for gas off the coast of Cyprus, Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay announced, "We will not give the smallest concession regarding our valid interests on the issue of hydrocarbon resources."
Turkey's offer to send troops to Libya also seems related to this energy issue.
According to a recent report in Foreign Policy:
"The military agreement came just weeks after Turkey and that same Government of National Accord reached an unusual agreement to essentially carve up much of the energy-rich eastern Mediterranean between them—threatening to cut out Greece and Cyprus from the coming bonanza."
From Turkey's point of view, a victory by Libya's General Khalifa Hafter over the Libyan government would lead Libya to revoke the maritime agreement: the new regime would be beholden to anti-Turkish states such as Egypt, which fiercely opposes Ankara's aggression against Cypriot and Egyptian energy endeavors.
Ironically, although such a deal and others that run contrary to American interests -- such as Turkey's unilateral intervention in northern Syria against the Kurds, which obliged Erdoğan to accept Russian participation -- have been to Moscow benefit, they have reduced Turkey's freedom to maneuver.
Turkey's frequent need to rely on Russia is not new. For the past two decades, Putin has made improved relations with Turkey a cornerstone of his foreign policy. The strongest point of these relations has been economic (namely, bilateral trade and energy agreements). Turkey depends on Russia for 60%-70% of its annual gas imports, and with the imminent opening of the TurkStream pipeline in 2020, that percentage may well increase.
Meanwhile, Erdoğan provoked a major crisis with the US and NATO by purchasing the Russian S-400 air defense system. Washington then removed Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program, and Erdogan is apparently close to finalizing another deal with Russia for additional S-400s.
In response to criticism from Washington over these purchases, Erdoğan threatened to close the İncirlik and Kürecik bases in Turkey, which are used by the US military and are said to be of vital strategic importance to American and NATO defense.
Turkey's confrontations with the US and NATO, of which it is a member, have served Russia well, giving Putin huge returns on a relatively small investment -- returns that are likely to grow in 2020.
Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council; Peter Huessy is director of Strategic Deterrent Studies at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.