ISTANBUL – For the past four years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has brazenly crushed his opponents at home and moved closer to Moscow, while inundating his allies with government contracts and deploying troops to the region wherever he sees fit.
And for the most part, President Donald J. Trump’s administration has turned a blind eye.
But as Mr Erdogan arrives in Brussels for a critical NATO meeting on Monday, he faces a significantly more skeptical Biden administration, as do other strongman leaders once authorized by Mr Trump.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who met Mr. Biden on Wednesday, responded to the new order by becoming even more belligerent, openly suppressing all signs of domestic political opposition and threatening Western security by massing troops on the border. Ukrainian.
But for Mr Erdogan, things are not that simple. Thanks to both the coronavirus pandemic and its mismanagement of the economy, it now faces severe internal tensions, with rising inflation and unemployment, and a dangerously weakened pound that could trigger a crisis in the currency. debt.
He has therefore changed his approach, already softening his positions on several issues in the hope of receiving much-needed investment from the West, which Russia cannot provide. To reassure Western leaders, he called off gas exploration in the Eastern Mediterranean, an activity that infuriated NATO allies and annoyed Moscow by backing Ukraine against Russian threats and selling drones from Russia. Turkish manufacture to Poland.
Still, Mr. Erdogan has important cards to play. Turkey’s presence in NATO, its role as a relay for millions of refugees and its military presence in Afghanistan have given it real leverage with the West.
Mr Erdogan is therefore unlikely to reverse his drift towards authoritarianism, the deepening of his relationship with Mr Putin and his purchase of the sophisticated Russian S-400 air defense system, even if that means clashing with the vision. of Mr. Biden for a strengthened alliance of democracies. .
One question is how far Mr Erdogan can be pushed in Mr Biden’s direction before he becomes frustrated and casts his spell with the Kremlin or even China, despite having been disappointed with both country about vaccine supply, Erdogan is pretty clear. to keep your options open.
“How don’t you lose Turkey while you try to put the brakes on Erdogan?” said Nigar Goksel, Turkey Project Director for the International Crisis Group.
As with Mr Putin, Mr Biden’s initial approach towards Mr Erdogan had been to keep his distance, trying to avoid disagreements and to deal with matters at lower diplomatic levels.
Since assuming the presidency, Mr. Biden has spoken with Mr. Erdogan only once. This was to inform him that the United States recognized the massacre of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire as genocide. While this was a humiliation for Mr Erdogan that could have sparked a tantrum in previous years, it elicited a moderate backlash with the promise of a NATO summit meeting.
Mr Erdogan felt the composure of the Biden administration, Ms Goksel said. “Erdogan is trying to find a way forward as they try to make sure he doesn’t score political points.”
Ankara really wants to get the country out of an economic crisis, made worse by the pandemic, which has destroyed Turkey’s vital tourism industry. He is also anxious to avoid further US sanctions, imposed after Mr Erdogan bought the S-400 missile system from Russia.
The economic turmoil has weighed on Mr. Erdogan’s political position. While the elections are still two years away, his opponents have considerable momentum, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the US German Marshall Fund. Turks will vote based on the state of the economy, he said, and for that reason alone, he needs to meet with Mr. Biden.
Mr Erdogan assured US business executives at a virtual panel discussion last month that meeting with Mr Biden “would herald a new era,” adding: “We have serious potential for cooperation with the United States. in a wide range of fields from Syria to Libya, from counterterrorism to energy, from trade to investment.
The two leaders’ personal relationship dates back many years – Mr Biden visited Mr Erdogan at his home in 2011, as he recovered from a medical intervention – but they remain distant on a number of issues. .
The thorniest of a half-dozen disputes between the two countries is undoubtedly Mr. Erdogan’s refusal to reverse his purchase of the S-400s, which made Turkey the only NATO country to be the target of US sanctions and withdrawn from the F -35 fighter program.
Mr Erdogan has even negotiated the purchase of a second battery from Russia, but with the threat of new sanctions, he seems ready to put the deal on hold.
At the heart of Mr. Erdogan’s purchase of the S-400 is his distrust of Washington, which he says intends to see it replaced. This conviction was only reinforced when Mr Biden said last year during the 2020 presidential campaign that the United States should support the opposition in Turkey.
But there are fears that if he’s in too much of a hurry, Mr Erdogan, who is badly in need of a fifth-generation fighter, might even buy Russian Sukhois. There are also concerns about some 50 US nuclear bombs stored at Turkish Air Base at Incirlik, which is under joint Turkish-US control; Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to expel the Americans.
Washington has prepared to bypass the S-400 disagreement, instead focusing on strategic areas where the two countries can come to an agreement, namely Afghanistan, where Turkey has been involved in the mission since 2001, and the Iraq and Libya.
Turkey, for its own reasons, wishes to maintain a presence in Afghanistan, where it has a long affiliation and a shared history and religion. This is one of the main reasons why US Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad asked Mr. Erdogan to consider maintaining a military presence there when Mr. Khalilzad began negotiations with the Taliban over a American withdrawal.
But as the deadline for that withdrawal looms as early as next month, Erdogan has delayed his engagement, creating concern in European capitals about maintaining secure access to Kabul airport for their embassies.
Turkey would remain in Afghanistan if its allies provided it with political, financial and logistical support, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said earlier this month. The Taliban gave Erdogan additional leverage by announcing that Turkish troops should leave Afghanistan with the rest of the NATO force.
Another area of possible agreement is Libya, where Turkey’s military intervention last summer angered many. Turkey succeeded in blocking a Russian-backed assault on the capital of Tripoli, throwing a lifeline for the United Nations-backed government and offering a chance to reach a negotiated settlement to the war.
In other areas, they will talk to each other. US policy supporting Kurdish forces in Syria is unlikely to change despite Turkey’s bitter complaints, and Erdogan has shown no sign of easing human rights.
“Biden knows he may have to choose between Turkey and democracy,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish research program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Steven erlanger contributed to reports from Brussels. Benjamin novak also contributed to the report.