Recent geopolitical developments in Syria, the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and the Black Sea have placed Türkiye in a position where it has to walk a tightrope between its Western allies and flourishing relations with Russia. While the emergence of strategic disagreements between Türkiye and the U.S. led to Türkiye’s purchase of S-400 air defense systems from Russia, Türkiye and Russia cooperate in Syria, and recently their economic ties have improved significantly. However, Türkiye did shut down the Bosphorus to all warships curtailing Russian operations during the war against Ukraine, Turkish defense companies openly sell drones to Ukraine that are then used against the Russian army, and Türkiye also remains committed to Ukrainian territorial integrity. This curious situation rekindled a debate about Türkiye’s motives and the dynamics of Türkiye’s diplomatic acrobatics between Russia and the West. When exactly did Türkiye’s foreign policy maneuvering between the U.S. and Russia begin to crystallize? How can the recent debates regarding the emergence of a new ‘axis shift’ in Turkish foreign policy be evaluated? Do balancing tactics offer clues? Are we witnessing a tactical move that Ankara has resorted to simply to remind the U.S. of its strategic importance? Or is this a structural, therefore more durable, change in Türkiye’s foreign policy?
These are indeed some of the questions Çetinoğlu Harunoğlu, Sever, and Erşen address ably in their book Turkey between the United States and Russia: Surfing on the Edge. The book takes a striking detour of Türkiye’s foreign policy maneuvers between the U.S. and Russia starting with the Cold War period. Inspired by Snyder’s understanding of alliance politics during the Cold War, in which the fear of abandonment and the fear of entrapment are the two constituent elements of the ‘security dilemma’ that may emerge within an alliance relationship (p. 4), Çetinoğlu Harunoğlu, Sever, and Erşen depict Türkiye’s foreign policy moves during the Cold War as shaped by Türkiye’s simultaneous fear of abandonment and the fear of being trapped in its relations with the U.S. The authors examine in three chapters the triangular relations between Türkiye, the U.S., and Russia across two time periods during and after the Cold War.
In the first part, the authors deal with Türkiye’s relations between the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War and reflect on the reasons why and how Turkish leaders wanted to balance between these two countries from a historical perspective. The authors state that Türkiye, then a geostrategic ally of the U.S., continued its anti-Soviet stance to benefit more from the help of the West, despite the decrease in the security threat from the Soviets after the early years of the Cold War. The fact that Türkiye believed that the bipolar world order would continue and that it did not want to establish relations with the Soviets for political and ideological reasons also accounts for the limited relations between Türkiye and the Soviet Union.
Although gaining the support of the U.S. against the Soviets constituted the backbone of Turkish foreign policy during the Cold War, the book provides unambiguous evidence that the alterations to Cold War conditions encouraged and facilitated economic ties between Türkiye and the Soviets to strengthen. The book therefore duly notes Türkiye’s attempts to strengthen its economic ties with Russia during the Cold War and how Türkiye oscillated between the fear of abandonment and the fear of being trapped as Ankara realized painfully that through the Cyprus crisis, the Johnson letter, the increasing influence of the Greek and Armenian lobbies in the U.S. at the expense of Türkiye, that it was expendable.
The authors deal with the events in light of the post-Cold War U.S.-Türkiye relations in the second part. While providing a comprehensive discussion of various themes of cooperation and conflict and emphasizing a series of turning points, they discuss how Türkiye’s search for an ally against the U.S. has affected its relations with other major powers. They seek to drive home a significant continuity across two time periods. According to the authors, similar to the Cold War period, strategic concerns rather than common values, principles, and institutions shaped Turkish-American relations in the post-Cold War era. What has changed however is that, as evidenced by relations between President Trump and President Erdoğan, personal relations between the leaders of the two countries currently play a far greater role in shaping the course of Türkiye-U.S. relations than during the Cold War.
In the third part, the evolution of Türkiye-Russia relations after the collapse of the Soviet Union is discussed. Authors attribute Türkiye’s new approach to Moscow, at times of a nosedive in Ankara’s relations with the West, to Türkiye’s fear of being abandoned and trapped by the U.S. Authors do not however fail to note that the improvement in Türkiye and Russia relations is a cautious one. According to the authors, although Türkiye has treated Russia as an alternative partner, Turkish-Russian relations are an interests-based and benefits-oriented relationship rather than one standing tall on shared values, ideals, or vision.
What is clearly seen in the authors’ view is that Türkiye, while desiring to improve its relations with Russia with different motivations, cannot fully leave the Western club even when relations with the West deteriorate. Nonetheless, Türkiye has realized the necessity of finding alternative sources of support and has tried to show the U.S. and the West that it has different alternatives in the international arena.
As the authors emphasized in the chapters, Türkiye’s search for alternative partners is not a new phenomenon but a pattern that Türkiye has been using for many years and has an important place in its foreign policy. They rightly make the point that the change in Türkiye’s relations with the U.S. and Russia defies such simplification as an ‘axis shift.’ As a final point, the authors, referring to the discourse transformations of the Turkish political leaders in recent times, emphasized the importance of a new geopolitical perspective challenging the western axis that Türkiye has adopted since its foundation.
Turkey between the United States and Russia distinguishes itself from other studies in the literature by simultaneously considering tripartite relations in a historical context. The book has a good flow of chapters; it is concise, well-organized, and uncluttered. It provides readers with one of the most up-to-date accounts of Türkiye’s balancing act in its relations with Russia and the U.S. and therefore is a must-read for anyone interested in Türkiye’s foreign affairs.