Erdogan with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Turkey shelters Hamas while getting closer to Israel. The Palestinian authorities have shown concern.

The contradictions of Turkish international relations


On the international scene, Turkey is a unique country because of its political paradoxes. It is a member of NATO, yet it buys arms from Russia. It is the only country in the world able to apply for membership of the European Union (EU) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) at the same time, the latter being an institution created by China. It does this while claiming to defend the Turkish peoples, including the Uighurs, who have been persecuted in China. Above all, Turkey achieves a tour de force by sheltering Hamas while getting closer to Israel, thus reaching the height of contradictions.

What do these contradictions mean? On what policy are they based? Do they really serve Turkey’s interests?

Turkey and NATO, continuous discrepancies

On 22 October 1951, in London, the Deputy Permanent Representatives of the North Atlantic Council sign the Protocol to the North Atlantic Treaty on the Accession of Greece and Turkey.
On October 22, 1951 in London, signing of the accession of Greece and Turkey to NATO.

Turkey joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1952 in the context of the Cold War. Indeed, the gateway from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean through the straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles put Turkey in a vulnerable position with respect to the Soviet Union. Turkey was potentially exposed to an attempt by the USSR to annex these straits. By joining NATO, Turkey’s security was thus guaranteed. However, at the same time, Turkey became a partner of Greece. This situation was supposed to ease relations between the two countries. However, the Cyprus crisis in 1974 led to a brake of all relations between the two countries. Thereafter, the disagreements between Greece and Turkey have continued to grow over the years but have never led to an open conflict.

Turkey’s decision to acquire the Russian ground-air defence system is another point of tension with other NATO countries. With Turkey stubbornly sticking to this choice, the United States has excluded it from the F35 program to replace its aging F16 fleet. Recep Tayip Erdoğan’s defiant stance toward NATO places Turkey in an ambiguous position in its relations with Russia. This ambiguity is now exacerbated with the conflict in Ukraine. Indeed, Turkey is opposed to Russia, which is at the origin of the conflict, while defending its interests which it has developed with the Kremlin. This attitude results in paradoxes, such as the sale of arms to Ukraine, while financing the war led by Russia, via rapidly increasing imports.

Relations between Turkey and Russia: defiance and opportunism

The relations between Turkey and Russia have long been contentious. The two countries confronted each other fourteen times during the Ottoman period. These relations have remained complex and sometimes contradictory. Opposed from a political point of view but linked by commercial projects, the two countries maintain an opportunistic relationship.

Over the past decade, events have shown that Turkey is opposed to Russia on the issues of Ukraine, Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. The situation in Syria had even prompted Turkey to shoot down a Russian fighter plane suspected of crossing the Syrian-Turkish border. This difference was swept aside after a message of support from Vladimir Putin to the Turkish president after the July 2016 coup attempt.

Despite these differences, Turkey and Russia have signed several major contracts. These include the construction of a nuclear power plant in Akkuyou, the construction of the Turkstream gas pipeline, the purchase of the S400 ground-to-air defense system and the order for 50 million doses of the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. Regardless of any event that directly or indirectly opposes the two nations, they undertake large-scale programs.

20 September 2022, at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Putin and Erdogan walk arm in arm
20 September 2022, Samarkand, Uzbekistan, Putin and Erdogan walk arm in arm

This situation is paradoxical because the realization of these projects establishes a form of dependence of Turkey on Russia and will inevitably lead to compromises. The Western countries are not happy with this situation, so Turkey is turning to Asia and is seeking to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

Turkey’s ambiguous position between Europe and China’s SCO

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization was established in 2001 with Russia, China and four former Soviet republics in Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. In 2016, the organization expanded to include India and Pakistan. In 2021, it was Iran’s turn to join the alliance.
Originally, the SCO was created for regional economic and security reasons. Today, China and Russia have used this organization as a flagship of their partnership and a vector of opposition to the presence of the United States in Asia. Within the SCO, Turkey has the status of a discussion partner.

The 22nd summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was held on September 15 and 16 in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. In addition to the alliance’s member states, two guests were particularly expected: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Ilham Aliyev. Asked by media outlets after the summit, the Turkish president said that Turkey is targeting SCO membership.
Such a prospect would be a first for a NATO member country. The argument for such a decision is that Asia was the birthplace of the Turkmen people. Being a cumbersome member in NATO and only difficult partner for integration into the European Union, Turkey will undoubtedly have to be more conciliant towards its new partners.

Erdogan is presented with a "Great Turan" card by his coalition partner, the leader of the ultra-nationalist MHP party, Devlet Bahçeli. This far-right party linked to the Grey Wolves keeps reiterating references to Turkey's Asian origins.
Erdogan is presented with a “Great Turan” card by his coalition partner, the leader of the ultra-nationalist MHP party, Devlet Bahçeli. This far-right party linked to the Grey Wolves keeps reiterating references to Turkey’s Asian origins.

Turkey’s paradoxical position as a defender of the Muslim people

Turkey’s need for influence drives Ankara’s policy. It tries to establish itself as a central defender of oppressed Muslim populations. The Tatar community is a Turkic Muslim people living under the oppression of Russia in Crimea. The Tatar people represent 20% of the population of the peninsula. However, 80% of this population is mobilized by Russia to fight in Ukraine. This situation pushes this community to flee their land to Turkey as it was already the case in 2014 during the annexation of Crimea by Russia. However, Turkey does not want to become a rear base for the Tatar protest.

The Turkish Muslim international of which Recep Tayip Erdoğan dreams remains subject to Turkey’s national interests. As with the Uyghurs (also Muslim Turks) and China, Turkey does not want to get into troubles with a major power. Beijing has repeatedly urged Ankara not to meddle in China’s Uyghur problems.

Erdogan with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Turkey shelters Hamas while getting closer to Israel. The Palestinian authorities have shown concern.
Erdogan with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Turkey shelters Hamas while getting closer to Israel. The Palestinian authorities have shown concern.

The Palestinian issue, on the other hand, is a high-profile issue for Turkey. Indeed, Turkey supports the efforts of the State of Palestine to be recognized as a state in international forums. Through the Turkish International Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) and the NGO Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), Turkey supports Palestine in the face of Israeli actions.

Paradoxically, this has not prevented Ankara from re-establishing its diplomatic ties with Jerusalem after a 10-year quarrel exacerbated by the Mavi Marmara affair. In the midst of an economic and energy crisis, in a context of war in Ukraine, Turkey is flirting with a state with which it is opposed in any case. The supposed objective of this rapprochement is energy cooperation, even if this hypothesis has little chance of succeeding. On the other hand, Turkey needs investments and thanks to a normalization of relations, Ankara can be optimistic about economic benefits.


Turkey’s international relations are ambivalent and based on one-sided interests. Support for Turkish minorities and the Muslim people is only a facade given Recep Tayip Erdoğan’s relations with certain countries. The foreign policy that Ankara is pursuing is a very risky bet for the future of modern Turkey on the eve of its centenary. Turkey has multiple relationships without having any real friends or allies.

Erdoğan is trying to restore Turkish pride on the centenary of the Republic, but does his policy really achieve this goal? Rather, it tends to divide and destabilize. It gives the image of an unstable, confused, indecisive and unreliable nation. Rather, it is a nation that is still searching for itself.

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