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After Georgia: Turkey’s Looming Foreign

Summary: The Russian invasion
of Georgia is a stark reminder
Policy Dilemmas
of the unsettled nature of the
by Dr. Ian O. Lesser*
Turkish geopolitical scene. By all
indications, the crisis in Georgia
is unlikely to end anytime soon.
WASHINGTON — Turks are fond of relations over the last decade seems a
saying that they live in a “dangerous striking departure from historic pat-
Even if Russian forces withdraw neighborhood.” The Russian invasion terns. Have burgeoning energy trade,
to negotiated positions, there is of Georgia is a stark reminder of the investment, and tourism replaced
every prospect for a sustained unsettled nature of the Turkish geopo- geopolitics and the assertion of “hard
Russian political and security litical scene. By all indications, the crisis power” in Russian-Turkish relations?
in Georgia is unlikely to end anytime After years of rapid economic growth
presence in the country. Under
soon. Even if Russian forces withdraw and weak security challenges from
these conditions, Ankara will to negotiated positions, there is every across the Black Sea, many Turks have
once again face Russian power prospect for a sustained Russian politi- been inclined to think along these post-
directly on its borders. In the cal and security presence in the country. modern lines. As relations with Wash-
Under these conditions, Ankara will ington and Brussels have cooled, some
near-term, Turkey will face dif-
once again face Russian power directly Turkish strategists have even begun to
ficult policy choices in reconciling on its borders. In the near-term, Turkey consider the possibility of alternative
the country’s Russian and West- will face difficult policy choices in strategic alignments in Eurasia, and
ern interests. Even more difficult reconciling the country’s Russian and above all with Russia. The Georgian
dilemmas are on the horizon as
Western interests. Even more difficult crisis will place this emerging Turkish
dilemmas are on the horizon as a more debate in starker relief.
a more competitive relationship competitive relationship with Rus-
with Russia looms, and NATO sia looms, and NATO is compelled to The crisis has already posed difficult
is compelled to rethink its own rethink its own strategy and posture. choices for Ankara. After some initial
strategy and posture. hesitation, Ankara agreed to the pas-
An Inconvenient Intervention sage of American naval vessels through
Turkey has lived for centuries with the Turkish Straits for the purpose of
the reality of Russian power. For late humanitarian relief. Washington is
Ottoman Turkey, the competition with inclined to chafe at Turkey’s cautious
Russia was a defining strategic chal- and legalistic approach, but this is
lenge, and a key factor shaping relations very much in line with the country’s
with Europe. For Republican Turkey traditional sovereignty concerns and a
after 1945, the containment of Soviet commitment to strict interpretation of
power played an equally central role in the regime governing passage through
defining foreign policy priorities, not the Straits. The bigger concerns are
Washington, DC • Berlin • Bratislava • Paris
least the core strategic partnerships political and logistical. Against a back-
with NATO and the United States. Seen ground of mixed European reaction to
Brussels • Belgrade • Ankara • Bucharest
in these terms, the rapid expansion of Russian behavior, Turkish ambivalence Turkish-Russian economic and political could be a troubling harbinger of trans-
Dr. Ian O. Lesser is a senior transatlantic fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). The views expressed
here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of GMF.

atlantic disputes to come. In theory, Turkey’s proximity to the gence of a nuclear-armed Iran or a military confrontation over
crisis and desire to play a larger diplomatic role in the Black Sea Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Deeper Russian-Western friction
could make Turkey a lynchpin of NATO strategy in Georgia, would further dim the prospects for a diplomatic solution to
especially if rapprochement with Armenia is part of the equa- a nuclear crisis with Tehran in which Ankara is a significant
tion. But Turkish willingness to place its territory at the service stakeholder.
of Western policy in Georgia is highly uncertain. The issue
could arise sooner rather than later. A large-scale economic End of an “All-Azimuths” Foreign Policy?
and humanitarian assistance program for Georgia is virtually
inevitable, and Turkey would be a natural partner for U.S. and Across a range of issues, Turkey’s ability to conduct a foreign
European efforts. The United States and at least some NATO policy based on breadth rather than depth—engaging diverse
allies may go further and opt for significant military assistance partners with conflicting interests simultaneously—would be
to bolster what remains of Georgian independence, increase severely constrained by more overt competition between Russia
the country’s capacity for territorial defense, and raise the costs and the West. Since the end of the Cold War, Turkey has had the
of renewed Russian military operations. All of this will be luxury of not having to choose between the country’s West-
much more difficult without Turkish political and logistical ern and Eurasian interests. The looming NATO debate over
support. its strategic concept and the future balance between Article V
commitments and new missions will be especially relevant, and
Old Adversary, New Front Line especially difficult for Ankara. Turkey’s NATO traditionalists
may be heartened by a return to the core business of the alli-
In the near-term, Turks are likely to take a dim view of more ance, the defense of members’ territory and the reaffirmation of
assertive and confrontational strategies toward Moscow, and alliance security guarantees, both nuclear and conventional. But
Turkey has much to lose from a new Western strategy of the implementation of this strategy in Turkey’s neighborhood
isolation and containment affecting relations with its largest would imply a more assertive posture vis-a-vis Moscow, closer
trading partner. Over the longer-term, Turkey could well find defense cooperation with Washington and Brussels, and possi-
itself at the center of a new Western strategic competition bly more uncomfortable ties with Arab and Muslim neighbors.
with Russia, a competition that will go beyond the Caucasus None of these things will be popular with the Turkish public, or
and the Black Sea to affect the strategic environment from with a Turkish government accustomed to greater freedom of
the Mediterranean to the Middle East. Within NATO, Turkey action in international affairs.
is already most exposed to the proliferation of longer-range
missiles, potentially coupled with nuclear warheads. In this
Dr. Ian O. Lesser, Senior Transatlantic Fellow, GMF
context, Russian sales of military hardware to Syria, including
ballistic missiles and more capable air defense systems, will Dr. Lesser is a GMF senior transatlantic fellow in Washington, DC,
not be welcomed by Turkish planners. A decade ago, Turkish where he focuses on Mediterranean affairs, Turkey, and international
strategists worried about the sale of Russian S-300 surface- security issues. Prior to joining GMF, he was a public policy scholar
to-air missiles to Cyprus. Today, they will need to consider at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Dr. Lesser
the far more troubling prospect of a renewed Russian naval is also president of Mediterranean Advisors, LLC, a consultancy
presence in the eastern Mediterranean, reportedly including specializing in geopolitical risk.
access to the naval base at Tarsus in Syria.
About GMF

On Iran, Turkey has been among the “engagers,” and Turk- The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpar-
ish-Iranian diplomacy has become more active under the tisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated
AKP government. The recent and highly controversial visit to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North
of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to Istanbul is America and Europe. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany, on
the latest example of a Turkish policy that seeks to balance the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan, as a permanent memorial to
Western ties with closer relations to Eurasia and the Middle Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides
East. Turkish-Iranian relations may be stable, with some key of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF
points of convergence on the Kurdish issue and other matters. has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade,
But Turkish security would be strongly affected by the emer- Ankara, and Bucharest.