Symbols are powerful.
The 46th president of the United States will make the first foreign visit of his mandate to Europe. There, he will participate in a packed series of events: the G7 summit in Cornwall, the NATO summit in Brussels, the first U.S.-EU summit in seven years, and a string of bilateral meetings.
On these occasions, Joe Biden will underline that the United States has no stronger allies than those in Europe and will continue to provide security guarantees to them, while asking them to boost their financial contributions to NATO.
It is worth recalling the May 2017 NATO summit in Brussels in order to picture how the European side will welcome an honest and courteous dialogue with an American president.
Beyond the diplomatic choreography, transatlantic partners will have to cope with the momentous issues left behind by former U.S. president Donald Trump, whose actions were characterized by unpredictability, abrupt moves, and an affinity of sorts with authoritarian leaders. Trump often boasted his personal relationship with both Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
He took decisions in favor of their policies, such as recalling troops from northeastern Syria or reacting to Turkey’s purchase of Russian missiles only in the last few weeks of his tenure. Biden has a lot of broken china to fix.
In geostrategic terms, the Trump presidency offered golden opportunities to the Kremlin. The latter used them in a swift and efficient manner, consistent with its prevailing perception of NATO as a threat to Russia. The military consequences for the Atlantic alliance are nothing less than momentous.
After former U.S. president Barack Obama refused to sell Patriot missiles to Turkey, Russia managed to sell to Ankara its S-400 missile systems, thereby erasing the prospect of seeing “hostile” Patriot batteries deployed in Anatolia, its immediate southern neighborhood.
When, as a consequence of the S-400 deployment, the U.S. predictably cancelled the sale of 100 F-35 stealth aircraft—potentially 120 in total—Russia benefited a second time from the elimination of another “threat” on its southern flank.
Russia now stands to benefit from the disruptive effect of the Turkish air force being split between a conventional component connected to NATO—mainly 293 fighter-bomber aircraft—and a missile defense force equipped with Russian S-400 gear. The latter is incompatible with NATO systems and dependent on the Russian air force for maintenance.
And when the United States ousted Turkey’s aerospace partners from the F-35 industrial program, Russia stood to benefit, again, from the weakening of Ankara’s future technological capabilities.
All things considered, with Russia’s strategy of boosting its defensive posture against NATO on its southern flank and Turkey’s declared policy of building a balanced relationship with all its major partners—the United States, Europe, Russia, China—the transatlantic alliance is faced with a tough conundrum.
Whatever way forward will be found during the NATO summit on June 14, one thing is certain: NATO partners’ trust in Erdoğan has been critically dented.
The latest example of Turkey’s disruptive posture was the hijacking of a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius by Belarusian authorities for the purpose of snatching a political dissident. When it came to agreeing on a NATO statement in reaction to an outrageous act akin to state piracy, the text had to be substantially watered down at Ankara’s insistence.
Paradoxically, Turkey’s ambivalent foreign policy is not exempt of major incidents with Russia, from the November 2015 downing by Turkey of a Russian air force plane on the border with Syria to the February 2020 disabling of an entire mechanized infantry battalion by Russia in the same region.
More recently, Turkey’s announcements of drone sales to both Poland and Ukraine as well as its pronunciations in favor of Tatar minorities in Crimea have drawn criticism and warnings from Moscow. Maybe these decisions will improve the atmosphere for the bilateral Biden-Erdoğan meeting in the margins of the NATO summit.
Ankara has high expectations for the meeting—probably based on an inflated perception of Turkey’s position in the alliance and on a refusal to acknowledge the strategic damage done by the S-400 deployment.
If one assumes that Erdoğan’s political situation will allow him to accept a freeze of S-400 missiles and that the Kremlin will go along with the decision, then hopes for a qualified successful meeting are permitted. However, these are highly hazardous predictions.
In addition, the long list of grievances between the two presidents translates into as many stumbling blocks on the way to a pacified relationship. They include the dismantling of the rule of law; withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women; absurd accusations of espionage against U.S. citizens (academic Henri Barkey) and Turkish ones (philanthropist Osman Kavala); a decision to support a two-state solution in Cyprus; and the lack of compliance with the Berlin Conference conclusions and UN Security Council Resolution 2571 on Libya, among others.
In short, it may well be that beyond nice words on Turkey’s critical importance to NATO, the country’s standing will simply shrink.
Maybe only topical agreements will be made on subjects such as Turkish forces in Afghanistan or Turkey’s participation in NATO operations in the Black Sea.
Now that would be a telling outcome of the Biden-Erdoğan talks. It would confirm Turkey’s diminished status within the alliance and illustrate its willingness to pay a price for a more independent posture on the world stage.