What Does Turkey’s Election Mean for the World?

Emma Ashford: Hey Matt, have you seen the new Netflix show The Diplomat? I hear it’s making the State Department look more exciting than it has in years.

Matt Kroenig: I have seen all eight episodes! I was worried that I was wasting my time, but then it was reported that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan have also watched the series and even quizzed U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Jane Hartley on the details. If they can make time, I guess I can, too.

It is pretty good, but also pretty unrealistic. I never knew, for example, that the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom basically runs the world!

Have you seen it?

EA: Not yet. But I’m sure ambassador is a nice upgrade for Keri Russell from her previous role as a Russian illegal! We have a lot of things to chat about this week: elections in Turkey and Thailand and developments in Ukraine. Shall we start with the Turkish election? Were we all wrong to hope that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be given the boot by Turkish voters?

MK: I think we were wrong. Erdogan won a plurality, but not a majority, of votes, so it will go to a runoff election. But some of the voters for the now-eliminated candidates are likely to swing to Erdogan. If so, that will be too bad for Turkish institutions and also, potentially, for the NATO alliance. His major opponent, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is promising the restoration of Turkish democracy and a normalization of Turkey’s international role. Let’s see how the runoff election goes. It’s not over until it’s over. But I think Washington will need to manage with several more years of Erdogan in power.

EA: At least Kilicdaroglu was on the ballot, unlike some other candidates. But the obstacles he faced in running were in many ways worse. All the major Turkish media outlets highlighted Erdogan and ignored Kilicdaroglu, who ended up making home videos at his kitchen table for the internet.

Some other opposition leaders—most notably the former head of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas—have been in prison for years on trumped-up charges. The government even put pressure on Twitter to censor the opposition in the runup to the election. It’s small wonder that Kilicdaroglu wasn’t able to pull off an upset and that observers have described the election as “mostly free, anything but fair.”

Erdogan’s victory will not be good for the Biden administration, though I’m less convinced it’s bad for the United States more generally. Erdogan has always been very transactional and self-interested; not the ideal ally, but you can work with him. But President Joe Biden’s choice to emphasize democracy as the most important facet of U.S. foreign policy makes it more difficult to do so. Whatever you call the Turkish government these days—illiberal democracy, hybrid regime—it’s the only game in town on some issues.

MK: Well, I think the outcome will matter for the United States. Erdogan has been transactional, as you point out, whereas Kilicdaroglu promised a more pro-Western, pro-NATO foreign policy. That would be better. If Erdogan wins in the end, however, I agree that Washington will have no choice but to work with him.

Fortunately, on the near-term item that matters most, there might not be much difference. The best Turkey experts I talk to still expect Erdogan to approve Sweden’s entry into NATO—but not before the NATO summit in July, and maybe not until this fall.

So, you agree that Biden should work with Erdogan because he is “the only game in town”? I thought you were skeptical of the value of this alliance.

EA: Oh, I don’t think the Turks are good allies. I’m not convinced it’s a great idea to have them in NATO. But the last couple of years have also highlighted that the country still has significant geostrategic importance—look at its role controlling access into the Black Sea—as well as a key role to play in mediating between the West and other parties.

I view the U.S. relationship with Turkey very much like I view the relationship with Saudi Arabia: I don’t think either merits a formal defense commitment, but Ankara’s importance means Washington needs to maintain good diplomatic and economic ties with it. Not every country in the world has to be an “ally.”

MK: OK. We are not as far apart as I thought. Turkey is not a great ally, but Washington and Ankara still have shared interests when it comes to Iran, terrorism, and for some aspects of the Russia problem. I agree that it occupies an important geopolitical position. And given that Turkey is a long-standing member of NATO, it doesn’t make sense to kick them out as some have suggested.

In this new, more contested geopolitical environment, Americans need more, not fewer, friends.

EA: Or maybe talking about countries the way my kids talk about their preschool class is the wrong approach? Countries don’t have friends. They have relationships with other states that vary based on their interests.

Not every country wants to be a “friend,” and not every country wants to fall in line on some giant democracy-vs.-autocracy crusade. Turkey is the perfect example. And the sooner U.S. officials grasp that reality, the better the country will do in this contested environment.

MK: Well, we’ve debated this before. I think the democracy-vs.-autocracy framing is not a bad shorthand but agree that the Biden doctrine should be more flexible in allowing for cooperative relationships with pro-American non-democracies.

But there are other items in the news this week. There are obvious tensions between the Russian government and Roman Lenkov’s private military contractors. The United Kingdom Special Forces are planning a raid in France to arrest Lenkov, but some think Prime Minister Trowbridge is only ordering the operation to cover up his past shady dealings with Lenkov.

EA: Matt, are you watching Netflix while we’re meant to be writing this column?

MK: Oops. Sorry. I am not a great multitasker. Back to the column.

In the real world, there are tensions between the Russian military and the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor. There were even recent reports that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, was offering to provide information on Russian troop locations to Ukraine in exchange for laying off Wagner forces in Bakhmut. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

EA: Prigozhin has certainly been getting crazier in recent months—or at least more public in his madness. He’s been recording videos ranting about insufficient supplies and ammunition for his forces assaulting Bakhmut and complaining about the regular Russian military leadership. Many, myself included, suspect that he’s having a hard time making himself heard in Moscow’s upper echelons of power and so is resorting to kicking up a fuss publicly to try to get what he wants.

But he may soon cross a line, or indeed, may have already done so. He was already unpopular with many in the regular Russian military, but reports suggesting he opened a private channel to Ukraine may undermine his standing with Russian President Vladimir Putin. And either way, it’s a reminder that the war is not going well for Russia: Wagner convict soldiers have made most of the concrete gains in the conflict in recent months, and even those have been limited to tiny slices of one city.

On a related note, though, what happened to the Ukrainian offensive that was expected this spring? It’s almost June, and we’ve seen no real signs of a major push from Ukrainian forces.

MK: Let me say a word first on Prigozhin. Some have talked about Russia possibly breaking up due to the stresses of this war. I still think that is a long shot, but given the escalating dispute between Prigozhin and the Russian military, it is not unimaginable that they could turn on each other at some point. I don’t know that anyone is prepared for another Russian civil war.

EA: I think it’s implausible, but if we’ve learned one thing from history, it is that if you wish for a Russian civil war, you might get more than you bargained for.

MK: On the Ukrainian counteroffensive, I think it is coming. The Ukrainians need it. Their goal is to take back all of the lost Ukrainian territory, and they cannot do that without a successful counteroffensive. They also need it to show progress, which will be helpful for maintaining support from the West. And, given the evident lack of morale and ammunition in the Russian military, there is a real chance it could be successful.

I, too, am puzzled by the delay. I would have expected it sooner. I don’t know why they haven’t moved yet. The element of surprise is important for military matters, and this has perhaps been the most widely publicized military counteroffensive in history. Perhaps the Ukrainians are at least trying to surprise the Russians when it comes to timing? But I really don’t know.

EA: As you say, it’s particularly surprising because there are strong incentives for the Ukrainians to do this sooner rather than later. Western funding will start to dry up, and the Russians are likely to get stronger over time, particularly if there’s another mobilization wave later this year. I worry that the Ukrainians have poured so much into defending Bakhmut that they have left themselves with too few resources for a good offensive. Or perhaps we are seeing an offensive now, and it’s not particularly successful?

MK: Nah, I still think it is coming. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is doing his best to maintain Western support. Over the weekend, he made a four-country tour—through Italy, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom—in which he was promised billions of dollars in additional aid. It doesn’t look like the Western funding will dry up any time soon.

In fact, the British and the Dutch announced a plan to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16s, and to transfer several jets. And other Western-provided weapon systems are proving effective on the battlefield, with Ukraine using air defenses to shoot down multiple Russian hypersonic missiles this week.

EA: Yes, I know I’m often down on the United States’ European allies, so I want to give them a round of applause for their commitments on Zelensky’s trip! It’s nice to see the countries closer to the conflict and with more at stake stepping up so that the United States doesn’t have to do it all. But I do wonder how long this support will last in the absence of a successful Ukrainian offensive.

There’s also the question of the recent leaks about Zelensky and some of the proposals he’s made in private about the conduct of the war. They’re pretty extreme. He’s apparently suggested blowing up the Druzhba oil pipeline to cut off oil to Hungary and trying to seize Russian towns in order to gain leverage. I’m not exactly comfortable to learn that these options are being discussed by the Ukrainians.

MK: I don’t know about the oil pipeline, but seizing Russian towns should be fair game. This is war, not tiddlywinks. The Russian homeland should not be a sanctuary. To be most effective, Ukrainian forces should defend themselves from attacking Russian forces and military supply lines located in both Ukraine and Russia.

EA: That’s fine, but I think the Ukrainians might find European states—along with many members of the U.S. Congress—are far less happy to be supplying and funding them if they take such drastic steps. Not to mention how they might feel if Ukraine effectively destroyed the economies of several European Union and NATO member states who have exemptions to import Russian pipeline gas. If this is true, it certainly makes me wonder how much the Ukrainian government actually knew about the sabotage of Nord Stream.

Anyway, I suspect we’ll be back in a few weeks to discuss a Ukrainian offensive. Anything else before we wrap up?

MK: How about something that might turn out to be good news? In Thailand’s elections, the reformist Move Forward Party won a plurality of votes. They and their Harvard-educated leader, Pita Limjaroenrat, won on a campaign of reducing the influence of the military and the monarchy and strengthening Thailand’s democracy and business environment. They are even promising to relax Thailand’s draconian lèse-majesté laws, which prohibit criticism of the monarchy.

They still have some hurdles to overcome to form an effective government, but this could be a move in the right direction for a country that is technically a formal treaty ally of the United States.

EA: It certainly came as a surprise to me, and to many others, who had regretfully written off Thai democracy in recent years. But the new party appears to be reasonable, not excessively anti-monarchical, and also not connected to the Pheu Thai Party of Yingluck Shinawatra, the daughter of divisive former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The real question is whether the Thai military will let the new government actually take the helm. But with such an outpouring of popular support, hopefully the generals will feel pressure to cede at least some power.

It’s nice to have a good news story for once!

MK: Well, I hope the military cedes power. If not, we can always send in Ambassador Kate Wyler and Foreign Minister Austin Dennison. I just hope their obvious romantic chemistry does not get in the way of the mission.

EA: Dammit. I’m gonna have to watch this TV show just so I get the references, aren’t I?

MK: Yes. Well, only if you don’t want to be stuck with Hal on the sidelines of the real action.

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