A number of Turkish top officials as well as politicians from almost all parties can today be seen trolling the West for its perceived inability or unwillingness to see a ‘strong’ Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership, arguing further that an alliance with the West has cost Turkey a lot. On the other hand, the kind of nights being celebrated in Turkey since July 16 and the ‘revolutionary’ spirit these celebration are reportedly displaying speaks volumes not only about the strong hold Erdogan has come to establish in the wake of this crisis, but also about the possible shift Turkey’s polity is about to take. It is AKP’s victory against the ‘plotters’ that has enabled Erdogan to send a chilly warning to the West—and the fact that he is paving the way for a possible shift away from the EU and the US to Russia.
Just as this was and still is happening, the secretary-general of the Council of Europe Thornjorn Hoagland, arrived in Turkey to work out the fractured bond with the EU. Erdogan and many Turks have been incensed by what they see as Western concern over a post-coup crackdown but indifference to the bloody events themselves, in which more than 230 people were killed as rogue soldiers bombed parliament and seized bridges with tanks and helicopters. So damaged are relations that Germany’s foreign minister said this week there was no basis for discussions and that “we are talking with each other like emissaries from two different planets.” Austria’s chancellor suggested talks on Turkish membership of the EU should be suspended.
What is important to see is that Hoagland arrived just at a time when Erdogan is due to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin on August 9. It is also important to note that this is, so far, the only official visit from the West since July 15 and is a strong indication of the fact that EU officials and diplomats are worried and are “watching warily” the Turkish-Russian rapprochement.
The rapprochement, as circumstances indicate, is not merely rooted in ending the Syrian conflict, it is equally, and perhaps more, about possible gas pipeline project, Turkstream. A series of statements from the Turkish and Russian sides suggest that an inter-governmental agreement is within sight, finally, on starting the TurkStream gas pipeline project bringing more Russian gas to Turkey. Turkey needs one line of TurkStream carrying 16 bcm to meet its needs but may also be persuaded to agree to be a transit country for Russian supplies to southern Europe.
It is this particular development rather than the question of keeping Turkey as a “key NATO country” that led Hoagland to issue a public apology for not being ‘quick’ enough to understand crisis in Turkey. “I would like to say there has been too little understanding from Europe over what challenges this (coup) has caused to the democratic and state institutions of Turkey,” he admitted after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara on last Wednesday (August 3, 2016).
The reason for this particular—and suddenly changed—approach of the E.U is the wider geopolitical implications of the gas deal between Turkey and Russia and the fact that Russia will acquire a strong foothold in Europe. This is in marked contrast to what the U.S. and E.U have long been seeking: minimum dependence upon Russian supplies to allow NATO a strategic advantage. As such, were Turkey to become a transit land for Russian gas, this project would almost kill the trans-Caspian gas project that virtually bypasses Russia and reaches Europe directly. Furthermore, this agreement will also render Ukraine almost meaningless for the supply of gas from Russia to Europe. Hence, the West would lose the ‘Ukrainian excuse’ to thrash sanctions on Russia. On the other hand, TurkStream not only adds to Turkey’s own energy security but enhances Turkey’s importance for Russia in its geo-strategies, apart from the fact that it would also enable it to position itself as an energy hub for Europe (which becomes a trump card in Turkey’s tortuous accession negotiations with the EU).
Against a wider geo-political context, this TurkStream would also render the whole Syrian crisis meaningless—a crisis that had potentially started to cleanse Syria of the “Shia” elements to make it safe for Qatar’s gas supply to Europe via Turkey. Qatar’s famous plan of 2009 to lay a pipeline via Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria connecting the massive North Pars gas fields with European market, to replace Russian supplies as well as forestall future Iranian export gas to the West was shot down by President Bashar al-Assad, which ultimately led to the ‘regime change’ agenda to overthrow him, emergence of ISIS and other “terror” groups and umpteen loss of life and property in the Middle East.
Against this context, rift between Turkey and Russia was of utmost importance for the Western interests to remain secure—and to make sure that Europe’s dependence upon Russian gas does not exceed a certain point. As such, the coup happened just at a time when rapprochement was taking place and Turkey had officially apologised for shooting down Russian jet. This rapprochement and Turkish participation in Russian project would certainly neutralize the Western gas projects and enable Russia to establish its own strategic superiority—a situation that would have far reaching consequences of both economic and military nature.
With Turkey depending for almost 50 per cent of its gas needs on Russia, an alliance between them is natural. Apart from it, Ankara is aware that Russia can be of decisive help in preventing the creation of a Kurdistan enclave on its borders, which is a hugely consequential issues for Turkey’s national security.
That Turkey is gravitating to Russia certainly implies that the West would no longer be in a position to ‘trap’ it into doing something it did in November 2015 when it shot down Russian jet. Although Turkey would still remain a member of NATO, the West might no longer be able to materialize its economic and strategic interests in the Middle East and beyond without Turkey playing a pivotal role in it. Hence, Erdogan’s message to the West, “mind your own business” while Turkey minds its own and prepares for a big leap forward towards Russia.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.