Pivot States: An Interview with Kemal Akyel (part 2)

By Bérénice Cabanne

Picture credits: Paul Kagame – Flickr

Mr. Kemal Akyel is an external PhD candidate at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs of Leiden University. His research focuses on the evolution of Mackinder’s Heartland Theory into the ‘pivot state’ concept. He traces the course of events until today and the pivot states’ roles in geopolitical considerations of twenty first century with an emphasis focus on the pivot state of Turkey. JASON Magazine interviewed Mr. Akyel to discuss Turkey’s engagement with great powers in the wake of power shifts, the risks and opportunities this pivot has produced in regards to security dynamics, and Turkey’s pivot towards Eurasia. This is part 2 of our interview with Mr. Akyel. Click HERE for part one.

How does Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia affect the relationship between Ankara and the EU and its security institution, NATO? 

Several points need to be deemed. Turkey-EU relations have traditionally mostly relied on economic ties rather than security. However, since the Trump administration’s, ‘America first policy’ and its reluctance for the defense burdens of the EU has accelerated ongoing debate in Strategic Autonomy of the EU including military ‘self-help’ across the union. Another point is both Turkey and the EU’s major energy supplier is Russia. Russia supplies between 35-40% of the primary energy sources of both actors and Turkey as an energy hub has been at the center of the EU’s effort of diversification away from Russia. Furthermore, Turkey was providing energy security as an energy corridor and trade center. Most of the EU members are NATO members as well which means Turkey-EU relations also include military ties. They use the same military doctrine and procedures. Therefore, I do not expect that Turkey’s untraditional rapprochement of Russia will harm Turkey-EU relations in long term. However, in this question, it seems that there is an implication whether there is any possible axis change in Turkey’s position which most of the scholars have been searching for. The answer is straight forward; No. The most important indicator of this argument are that these commitments have not resulted in new longtime/system-changing geopolitical alignments. Rather, Turkey’s unorthodox engagements are the exertion of drawing lines of its spheres of interests and influence in the multipolar global order in the face of transitional geopolitical power shift.

Do you think there is a possibility for the Turkish-Russian provision of security to replace NATO?

Firstly, The NATO decisions are made by consensus which means each country has equal vote and veto right regardless of its size/amount of contribution to the organization. For example, both the US and Estonia have equal votes. We do not see any clear picture of underlining equal partners in Turkish-Russian provision. Secondly, there is no strong will from both sides in this direction. Thirdly, military systems are complex and multidimensional domains like land, air, sea, space, and cyber which makes swift changes challenging. For example, militaries also use Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP) which requires longtime collaboration, close coordination along with equipment similarity that could be transformed into a similar military doctrine, and then a military alliance. Needless to mention maintenance of equipment and weaponry systems as well as logistics supply chain for spare parts. Moreover, there is a huge training part and compatibility of systems. Finally, this project is not cost-effective as it does not project any solid clear economic profit in return. Additionally, NATO is a military establishment as well as political. Therefore, it could politically isolate Turkey. However, as Turkey historically anchored itself in the Western alliance system I do not think there is and will be any replacement of NATO in the near future. 

Does Turkey’s strategic rapprochement with the Eurasian states and institutions since the deterioration of Ankara’s relations with its traditional NATO allies signify a major strategic reorientation in Turkish foreign policy? 

In a broad sense Turkish foreign policy since the 2000s can be classified into three periods. The period of 2000-2010 is the period of Davutoglu’s concept of ‘zero problems with neighboring countries.’ The main characteristics of this era could be lined as follows; multilateral proactive foreign policy, rhythmic diplomacy, soft power projection active brokering regional problems. This has been coupled with Turkey’s great efforts in its EU accession process. This led Turkey to be seen as a role model onset of the Arab Spring. The era of 2010-2016 can be described as careful engagements, still proactive foreign policy, hard power projection, a break with traditional foreign policy by excessive involvement in neighboring countries in the MENA region which coupled with improvement in Turkey-Russia relations through the Memorandum of Understanding in Sochi. The period of 2016- until present can be mainly characterized as a reconciliation in neighboring countries including Israel and Greece, still, a proactive foreign policy that couples with Turkey’s opening to Africa. Accordingly, as an otherwise swing is underway, I argue the shift in Turkish foreign policy has reached its limits compared to its orthodox foreign policy. Therefore, I assert that Turkey’s reorientation in foreign policies to Eurasia is not prone to produce negative major strategic outcomes, but rather strategic positive settlements in line with its traditional policies. Because the main source of the power behind Turkey’s possible power projection in Eurasia lies in its commitment to the Western alliance and ‘shared values’ along with its dual identity including its historical, cultural, and ethnic ties with the region. On the contrary to common belief among the scholars, I do not think that Russia has a strong desire to have Turkey cut its relations with the West because Turkey’s balancing role with the West is crucial for Russia as well, particularly Turkey’s role as an energy hub and energy security provider in its grand energy strategy. 

What is your opinion on the possibility of Eurasia becoming an alternative geopolitical concept to Europe or the West? 

I understand this question in two ways. First Turkey’s envision of the Eurasian concept and its possible realization. The second is Turkey’s potential membership in the Eurasian Economic Union which consists of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia, as an alternative to the EU.  

Turkey’s aspiration of Eurasia is sometimes confused. It is better first to understand Turkey’s understanding of the Eurasian concept. Turkey has three types of groups imagination regarding the Eurasia concept. The biggest group, which was also supported at the leadership level, strives for a Turkish World with the nationalist motivation of being led by Turkey as a ‘big brother’ for the Turkish republics in the Caucasus. The second group, who feels sympathy for socialism refusing capitalism, is thus prone to any project but Western capitalism. This group is not large enough to potentially create an impact on society. The third group is the smallest but maybe the most prominent group, that sees Russia as the most reliable partner to ally with. Accordingly, it is the first group that could make a change in Turkish foreign policy. However, this group’s vision is not in conflict with the interest of the EU and the US as well, rather in the 1990s after the demise of Soviet Russia, Turkey was stimulated by the West in its rapprochement to the region. 

When it comes to Turkey’s potential membership in the Eurasian Economic Union, it is better first to look at the economic data to acknowledge how rational it would be either to be a member of the EU or the Eurasian Economic Union. The EU is the biggest import/export partner including investments in Turkey. Total trade in goods between the EU and Turkey in 2020 amounted to approximately $150 billion, whereas the biggest country in the Eurasian Economic Union total trade as of 2020 traded only around $3 billion. Besides, when Turkey-EU relations were at a peak between 2005-2011 Turkey was in the top 20 economies, but when a deterioration happened between the Turkey-West relations, Turkey dropped below the top 20 economies. Most importantly the EU is not only an economic power but also an ideational power stemming from Copenhagen criteria such as rule of law, democracy, and human rights. When looking at Belarus and the recent developments at its border with the migration issue, a clear lack of understanding of human rights is seen. Thus for Turkey, no other union can alternate the EU and vice versa. 

Do you think this ‘pivot to Eurasia’ is an instrument of the current Turkish government to obtain greater diplomatic leverage? 

As I aforementioned in question 6, Turkey’s envision of a Turkish World in the Eurasia concept is one of the important strategic assets that can give Turkey flexibility to manoeuvre in international politics. This could be used as leverage to preserve its advantageous position. However, two crucial points should be highlighted. First, most of the studies show that the driving power behind Turkey’s pivotal status is its EU relation and ties that attach it to the West alliance system. In this framework, I think the real delusion of Davutoglu’s concept was his bow-arrow analogy arguing that ‘the more you stretch the bow to the depths of Asia, the stronger the arrow will go to the west.’ Here the main power driver is Asia whereas most of the studies show the contrary. The second one is both EU and Turkey’s energy supply diversification away from Russia that can be met from this region. For example, lately, Turkey and Armenia have agreed to stabilize their relations through special representatives to start a dialogue aiming at opening the Laçın Corridor between Turkey and Azerbaijan. As a result, these relations make it difficult for Turkey to change its direction completely to Eurasia.

Would Turkey’s aspiration in becoming a regional power in this multi-polar world order allow them to eventually become a ‘balancing’ power between Russia and the West? 

Turkey has traditionally been a ‘balancing’ power between great powers. Pivot states can play active roles as well as passive ones in international politics. In this context, during the Cold War period, when Turkey was in the Western bloc, it could be able to develop good relations with Soviet Russia by following quite a passive resistance against the expansion of Soviet Russia. This yielded to have its first natural gas agreement -the Russia – Turkey Natural Gas Pipeline (West Line). Turkey’s pivotal status offers it to have multiple engagements with multiple goals with multiple great powers not necessarily worsening its relation with Russia but balancing it. Besides Turkey was an associate member of the Western European Union until the end of 2011. I believe this can be revitalized and Turkey would have a significant contribution to European security architecture amidst the current discussions regarding the Strategic Autonomy of Europe. 

How would this change in geopolitical dynamics affect the security strategy of the West and Russia?

I would like to first mention the Western perspective. First, it is better to understand the US’s type of hegemony. The US hegemony relies on pursuing different strategies in different regions in the idea of ‘self-determination and democratization.’ While the USA in Europe formed a credible military presence against Russian aggression, it heavily depended on an alliance or partner system with a relatively small military in the Middle East. In this context, the US started to pivot to Turkey in its sphere of influence by deploying numerous troops in Greece. Furthermore, the US adapts its relation to the West through its energy supplier in the Middle East. In this sense, the US joined the Eastern Mediterranean Gas forum that was initiated by Israel and Greece. Similarly, the geopolitical shift that Israel, Egypt, and Greece engendered by expanding their spheres of influence through multilateral agreements and the formation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas forum caused a reconciliation in Turkey’s relations in the region. Accordingly, I believe this reconciliation process could lead to some window of opportunities to be developed by the West, namely in energy security. This in return could have an improvement in institutional relations amongst the partners. However, as we are currently in the phase of both power transition and a transformation from US hegemony to multipolar global order, for more analysis more concrete settlements are yet to be seen. 

Amidst these changing dynamics, it is likely to expect stronger Iran-Russia cooperation in the region in the face of Turkey’s rapprochement to the Caucasus region. Turkey’s reconciliation and reorientation to the Eurasian region could be circumvented similar to when Russia launched the Near Abroad policy in 1993 demonstrating its will of expansion in spheres of influence on Soviet Russia’s former states. However, Russia’s investments in Turkey, its current good relations, their position in Syria and Libya could give relative flexibility compared to in the 1990s in terms of Turkey’s engagements with Eurasian countries. Ukraine’s purchase of Turkish drones is another security crisis between Turkey and Russia. Hence how far Russia could tolerate Turkey in the Caucasus is to the extent that the benefits outweigh the costs, as stated in interdependence theory. 

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