March 28, 2018
It has been two roller coaster weeks.
On March 15, 2018 the US imposed new sanctions on 24 Russian entities and individuals for interfering in the 2016 election and conducting a series of damaging cyberattacks.
On March 20, President Trump called President Putin to congratulate him on his election victory. “We had a very good call, and I suspect that we’ll probably be meeting in the not-too-distant future to discuss the arms race, which is getting out of control, but we will never allow anybody to have anything even close to what we have. And also to discuss Ukraine and Syria and North Korea and various other things” he told reporters.
On March 26, the White House announced the expulsion of sixty Russian intelligence officers from the United States and the closure of the Russian consulate in Seattle due to its proximity to an American submarine base and Boeing.
The same day many EU countries and others also made similar announcements. NATO’s expulsion of seven Russian diplomats followed two days later.
EU’s decision to expel Russian intelligence officers was taken at the European Council meeting of March 22-23 in Brussels. The meeting was already on Council’s calendar and the presence of heads of state and government provided an opportunity to address the Salisbury attack and enabled joint action.
In Western media expulsions have been presented as a remarkable display of Western solidarity, even more significant since they came at a time when EU-UK relations are strained due to the Brexit negotiations. Indeed, at a time of disharmony not only within the EU but also between two sides of the Atlantic this collective Western response is impressive. However, it doesn’t do much harm to Russia’s concrete interests. While many EU countries have acted in solidarity with the UK, EU-Russia trade volume is more than ten times bigger than that of Russia-US, and some European countries are largely dependent on Russian energy supplies.
In announcing Germany’s decision to stand shoulder to shoulder with the UK, German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said “Despite the decisive reaction of Germany and our allies and partners today, we remain prepared to enter into dialogue with Russia.” And, in announcing the NATO’s decision to expel seven Russian diplomats, Mr. Stoltenberg said this does not change NATO’s policy towards Russia. “NATO remains committed to our dual-track approach of strong defense and openness to dialogue, including by working to prepare the next meeting of the NATO-Russia Council” he added.
As for Turkey, on Monday the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in response to a question said “Turkey considers the use of chemical weapons as a crime against humanity and views the attack in the UK as such and condemns it. Turkey joined the North Atlantic Council statement on March the 14th. Turkey’s views on this attack were also expressed in the OSCE, the Conference on Disarmament and the Council of Europe.”
The references to Chemical Weapons Convention in EU and NATO statements must have given Ankara a clue because when it refers to chemical weapons it has nobody else but President Assad in mind.
Turkey, like its Balkan neighbors Bulgaria and Greece has refrained from expelling Russian diplomats. Even ten years ago this would have been a tough choice. But today, with the downing of a Russian military aircraft in 2015, the murder of the Russian Ambassador in Ankara a year later, and the imperative to work with Russia in Syria in the background, expelling Russian diplomats is out of the question. On his way back from Varna President Erdogan reportedly said that Turkey could not act upon allegations even if other countries did.
I have often said that Turkey is running in a narrow alley between Russia and the US in Syria. Though some know-it-all foreign experts may see them as adding to Turkey’s value as a partner, further Russia-West tensions would make Ankara’s task even more difficult. The appointment of hardliners to top positions in the Trump administration may also create additional challenges. With a new Iran crisis looming Turkey needs to be in close consultation with the EU since they also dread another conflict in the Middle East. Under current circumstances, however, even this may prove to be difficult.
The European Council meeting of 22-23 March condemned the Salisbury attack “in the strongest possible terms”. And, it “strongly condemned Turkey’s continued illegal actions in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea and underlined its full solidarity with Cyprus and Greece”. Relations with Russia and Turkey being addressed in similar if not identical language is not entirely surprising, but it is revealing. One step further, EU and Turkey would be asking themselves whether they are friend or foe.
As expected, EU-Turkey leaders’ meeting in Varna on Monday reflected nothing but an overarching problem of chemistry. Remarks by Donald Tusk after the meeting only covered the problem of migration and a list of criticisms. The now defunct accession process was not even mentioned. Thus, the EU-Turkey agenda is reduced to two items: migration for the EU and visa free travel for Turkey.
This is not to say that EU and Turkey no longer need each other’s cooperation. They do. However, in an adversarial relationship this can only be transactional, if at all.
Transactional cooperation or compartmentalization of problems may also be a way of managing Russia-West relations. If nothing else, Russia and the US have a moral obligation as major powers to stop giving lip-service to ending the violence in Syria and do something about it. While many have criticized President Trump for his phone call and mentioning the possibility of a meeting with President Putin in the not-too-distant future, it may be an opportunity.