Appease and enable: The West’s disastrous Russia and Turkey policies

Cengiz Aktar is a professor of political science at the University of Athens and an essayist. His latest book “The Turkish Malaise” was published in London.

Despite how odd Turkey’s strategic choices as a NATO member may be, the West continues to do business as usual with Ankara.  

Western powers once again make excuses for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, understanding Turkey’s mysterious “legitimate security concerns,” which often equates to a license to kill. But by appeasing him for the sake of “keeping” the country within NATO, they miss the point that the Turkish leader is not so different from Russian President Vladimir Putin — and that once again, a policy of appeasement simply won’t work. 

As the war in Ukraine has unfolded, Turkey has been allowed to indulge in its long-running double game, continuing to play Russia and the West against each other, delivering pre-ordered drones to Kyiv on the one hand, while ignoring sanctions against Moscow and opposing Finland and Sweden’s applications to join NATO on the other. 

But as pointless offers to broker peace by Turkey’s president have “convinced” the West of Ankara’s “strategic value,” Erdoğan — “the dictator we need,” to quote Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi — is back on the global stage once more. Even United States President Joe Biden’s administration has started lobbying lawmakers to agree to the delivery of fighter jets to Ankara. 

Yet the similarities between Russia and Turkey today, as well as the strongmen who have shaped them, draw an obvious and ominous parallel that should be noted by Western leaders.  

Topping the list of citizen complaints before the European Court of Human Rights, the systems Erdoğan and Putin have crafted disregard the rule of law and supersede it with one-man rule, as they both have surrounded themselves by oligarchs and yes-men. Both countries are undemocratic, their elections neither free nor fair,  their regimes pushing narratives and pursuing actions that are irredentist, revisionist and bellicose.  

In both Russia and Turkey, the opposition — or what remains of it — is systematically hounded and repressed, its leaders attacked or jailed, as in the cases of Alexei Navalny and Selahattin Demirtaş. And there still exist large crowds who recklessly support “their” regimes. 

In Europe, Germany has played a central role in appeasing these dictators over the years. And while the country’s elite has started some timid soul-searching about its policy toward Russia in the wake of Ukraine’s invasion, it remains wedded to appeasement and engagement with Turkey.  

During her time in office, former Chancellor Angela Merkel developed a Faustian pact with Erdoğan, paying 10 visits to Turkey— three in 2016 alone, when the country was politically and morally devastated — setting a record among Western leaders. And as Merkel continued to visit and welcome Erdoğan in Germany, neither his authoritarian drive at home, nor Turkey’s aggressive moves in the Eastern Mediterranean, Iraq, Libya and Syria or its U.N.-documented sponsorship of jihadi terrorism lessened. None of this deterred Merkel’s unconditional support either, including arms sales — just as with Russia.   

Since 2015, the EU has followed this appeasement policy initiated and led by Merkel. And Ankara’s pro-EU utterances, its empty rhetoric on reforms and tactical retreats from confrontation are systematically taken for granted by the pro-Ankara axis.

This cynical agenda is driven by the fear of losing “NATO partner Turkey” to Russia. In addition, Europeans have been avoiding jeopardizing their economic interests in Turkey and are fearful of placing their refugee deal with Ankara at risk. They have also been terrified of doing anything that might trigger a social implosion — despite the fact that appeasement is not an adequate answer to any of these of these angsts.

The more the EU and the West appease, the more brazen and entrenched Erdoğan becomes, and the more insolent and dangerous he is for others. Exactly like Putin.

There are strong similarities between Russian arrogance toward Ukrainians and Turkish high-handedness toward the Kurds.Ankara targets anything that sounds or looks Kurdish — inside or outside the country. And both Erdoğan and Putin see it as their historic missions to “civilize” these “substandard” and finally “non-existing” nations, to invoke their right to self-defense and preventive strikes against Nazis and terrorists respectively, who they say threaten to attack “peace-loving” Russia or Turkey.

When it comes to the rules of “war” — a proscribed term in both countries — both armies outdo others’ war crimes against civilians. Putin targets Ukrainian grain warehouses; Erdoğan steals the olive oil of Syrian Kurds; and both have cut water supplies. Forced relocation and ethnic cleansing have been common practice in both countries. In Turkish-occupied northern Syria, the Kurdish language is banned in official institutions and schools and replaced by Turkish, much like in occupied Ukrainian land, where Russian has ousted the Ukrainian and Turkish Tatar languages.

Despite the disastrous consequences of its pre-invasion policy toward Russia, the West continues to indulge their illusions about Turkey. Appeasers fail to understand that Western standards, values and principles are obstacles to the functioning of these regimes.

Thus, they cannot be engaged through values and rules-based approaches but need to be treated as what they are — security threats.