Turkey may be a better strategic partner than Russia to both the U.S. and Europe.
Just as the Western Roman Empire could not survive without access to the riches of its better-financed Eastern counterpart — such as daily Egyptian grain imports into the city of Rome itself — Europe today cannot survive without access to a steady supply of natural resources from the East.
The only question for Europe is whether it will be supplied from resource-rich Russia — destined to increase its energy portfolio even further through Arctic exploration — or another power such as Turkey, a burgeoning energy hub with historic links to energy powerhouses such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan.
The question becomes even more critical given current geopolitical tensions between Russia and Turkey, as well as between Russia and the West; the role energy and access to it will play in 21st century geopolitics; and the realization that Europe itself is competing with other large energy consumers, most notably China.
Leveraging utility (or not)
As the world has become increasingly multi-polar, states such as Russia, Turkey, and China find themselves in a unique position to chart independent, interest-driven foreign policies. This is definitely the case with Russia, due to tensions with the West over its actions in Ukraine and the Crimea.
The world had barely come to grips with the enormity of that particular situation when Russia further announced its decision to take action and play a decisive role in the Syrian Civil War, laying the groundwork for expanded influence at any subsequent peace talks among the concerned parties.
The recent downing of a Russian commercial airliner in the Sinai and the Paris bombings have increased common interest between Russia and Europe (notably France) in combating ISIS, despite lingering tensions over the Ukraine crisis. Russia is being looked at, reluctantly by some, as being quite valuable in helping Europe combat a rising threat and ameliorate its Syrian refugee problem.
Turkey, on the other hand, has recently been plagued by allegations that it is actually using ISIS for its own ends. Lacking Russia’s size, Turkey punches far above its geographic weight. This is due partially to its strategic location between Europe and Asia but, more importantly, is is also due to the influence it wields as a legacy of its Ottoman imperial past.
This influence is present to such a degree that it remains strong in Chechnya as well as the energy-rich Caucasus and Central Asian regions. Turkey’s influence even stretches as far north and west as China’s Xinjiang province due to the Turkic origin of its Uyghur population.
Play, or get played
While Russia may be larger, more resource-abundant, and militarily more powerful than Turkey, at the end of the day Turkey may still have more room for maneuvering than Russia.
Even though the value of Russia in combating ISIS; the realization that Russia will have a role to play in solving Europe’s refugee crisis; and the realization that dialogue with Russia will be unavoidable in solving the Ukraine crisis are all in the ascendant, these views are predominantly held by select European states, not the United States.
Because of Russia’s inherent challenge to the U.S.-led world order through its Ukrainian actions, U.S. relations will be chilly for quite some time to come. To compensate, Russia has announced its own pivot to China, strategically and economically. However, this may only give China more leverage over its erstwhile ally, especially since overall U.S.-China relations are still better than current U.S.-Russia relations.
Conversely, NATO ally Turkey realizes the U.S. is going to need it to counter the rising influence of Iran in the Middle East, as well as U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. More than likely, this will remain the case despite Turkey’s recent anti-democratic moves. This is because the rise of ISIS has taken nearly everyone by surprise, including even al-Qaeda, which claimed responsibility for the recent Mali attack in part to draw attention back to itself.
With the recent Turkish elections, “Neo-Ottomanism” has been on the rise as Turkey tries to expand its sphere of influence deeper into the Middle East, the U.S.’s overriding area of concern.
Turkey, however, has been leveraging its strategic position to pursue new opportunities in many directions. It is a dialogue partner of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and has made overtures regarding possibly joining China’s Silk Road Economic Belt as well as Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. It has even broached the possibility of buying a Chinese missile defense system, despite objections from its NATO allies.
Because of its Ottoman legacy, Turkey can cause trouble in sensitive areas in both Russia and China. Turkey may be a better strategic partner to the U.S. than Russia and, as a result, may be a better strategic and economic partner to Europe.