Part II – Is Turkey with NATO or Against It?

By: Shujauddin Amini

In the first part, internal factors such as the Gezi Park protests, the unsuccessful coup of 2016, and Turkey’s failure to join the European Union, which have caused mistrust between Turkey and its Western allies, were discussed. In the second part, external factors, which many interpret as Turkey’s move away from the West and towards the East, will be discussed. This implies that Turkey’s dissatisfaction with its Western allies has led it to seek new allies in the East, such as Russia, China, and Iran.

  1. Turkey and Russia

Two factors can be seen as having been effective in Turkey’s return to Russia. Firstly, the global financial crisis of 2008 had an impact on the United States and there were verbal tensions between the officials of the two countries. Secondly, Turkey was disappointed at not being able to join the European Union, and so moved closer to Russia in response to the shortcomings of its Western allies. In 2014, when Russia captured Crimea, Turkey did not join the NATO convoy in its stance against Russia, but instead declared the Crimean Island an occupied zone, refusing to recognize it, and did not accompany NATO in applying sanctions against Russia. Furthermore, in 2017, despite NATO’s opposition, Turkey bought S400 anti-aircraft defense missiles from Russia, which led to the United States imposing sanctions on the Turkish defense industry and refusing to send F35 fighters to the Turkish Air Force. Additionally, Turkey abstained from voting in the Council of Europe to expel Russia from it, unlike other Western countries. In the current war in Ukraine, Turkey has also avoided accompanying the NATO convoy in military support for Ukraine and imposing sanctions against Russia, instead attempting to maintain a balance between Russia and Ukraine and not sacrificing one for the other. Recently, Ismail Demir, the head of the Turkish Defense Organization, stated that Turkey may purchase the second part of the S400 missiles from Russia, which could be a cause of concern for NATO members and further damage NATO’s relationship with Turkey.

Russia is the foremost trading partner of Turkey. According to the data from 2013, Turkey’s exports to Russia have risen from 1 billion dollars in the 1990s to 7 billion dollars, and imports from Russia have increased from 1 billion dollars to 25 billion dollars (Gul Mohammadi, 193: 1400). The commercial reliance of Turkey on Russia is asymmetrical, meaning that Turkey requires Russia more than Russia requires Turkey. For instance, Turkey is unable to easily find an alternative to Russian gas, but Russia can find a substitute for Turkish goods at a low cost.

Additionally, Russia does not wish for Turkey to depart from NATO. Turkey can be advantageous to Russia while being a member of NATO, however, this is in contrast to NATO’s actions, particularly in regards to the imposition of sanctions against Russia and the opposition to the membership of certain Eastern European countries, such as Sweden and Finland, in NATO. For Turkey to be able to make a breakthrough in NATO decisions, Russia desires for this country to remain a member of NATO.

  1. Turkey and China

The two factors that have been influential in Turkey’s relationship with Russia have also been influential in Turkey-China’s relationship. Following the Gezi Park protests in Turkey in 2013 and the transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system in 2017, protests were held against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in some European countries, including Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Austria, leading the Turkish leadership to suspect that the door to the European Union would not be opened to them soon. In response to the actions of European countries, Erdogan declared that he would no longer wait to join the EU and would instead opt for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization as an alternative. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization is led by China, a strong rival of the United States.

When the Justice and Development Party (AK) was not in power, Turkey was unable to hide its preference for the East. For instance, in June 1989, when the demonstrators were harshly repressed by the then government in Tiananmen Square in China, Turkey, unlike other NATO members, abstained from criticizing this occurrence and viewed it as an internal issue of China.

Turkey and China share common worries about terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism in their respective regions. The relationship between the two countries is largely confined to trade and has not resulted in the acquisition and sale of sophisticated weaponry, as Turkey had sought to purchase a missile defense system from China in 2015 but abandoned the plan after encountering NATO’s reaction. Nevertheless, in terms of trade, according to the data presented, Turkey’s trade volume with China was approximately one billion dollars in 2000, increasing to twenty-eight billion dollars in 2013 (previously two hundred and twenty-six).

The relationship between Turkey and China has been overshadowed by the Turkish Uighurs. Turkey has expressed sympathy for the Uyghurs and taken a stand against China. In addition to the religious connection, Turkey has an ethnic-cultural bond with the Uyghurs, so instead of using the name “Xinjiang”, the rulers of Turkey use “Eastern Turkestan” more often. Turkey has provided a safe haven for anti-China Uyghurs and even allowed them to act against China on its soil.

  1. Turkey and Iran

Along with Russia and China, Turkey has declined to join NATO in imposing sanctions on Iran due to its nuclear program. Turkey’s relationship with Iran is not as strong as its relationship with Russia and China. In 2018, Turkey declared the United States’ unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and the imposition of unilateral sanctions against Iran to be unacceptable. In 2010, when Turkey was a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, it voted against the sanctions imposed on Iran by its Western allies. The volume of trade between these two countries also rose from $1 billion in 2001 to $16 billion in 2011. However, after the Western countries imposed more sanctions on Iran, the volume of trade between the two countries decreased.

At the same time, Turkey is attempting to strengthen its ties with Israel and back Azerbaijan’s actions against Iran. It appears that the Islamic ideology of the AK Party and Erdogan’s seemingly anti-Western rhetoric have maintained the delicate relationship between Turkey and Iran. As anti-Americanism is a key element of Iran’s foreign policy, when Erdogan speaks out against the United States, he gains Iran’s backing even if he is not well-liked by Iran.

Turkey’s discontentment with its Western allies has led it to adopt an active regionalism policy, despite having previously disregarded the “policy of not having troubles with its neighbors”, and making attempts to better its relations with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Egypt.

  1. Erdogan, Putin, and Xi Jinping

There are likely several similarities between Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, and Xi Jinping that have caused Erdogan to take a more serious stance towards the East:

–  All three are authoritarian. After AK won the parliamentary elections in 2011 and formed the cabinet on its own, Erdogan attempted to strengthen his power base and abandoned the “not having troubles with neighbors” policy, which many refer to as this period as “pseudo-authoritarianism”. Furthermore, many have labeled the repression caused by the failed coup of 2016 and the transition from a parliamentary to a presidential system as the period of “authoritarianism”. There is no doubt that Putin and Xi are authoritarian.

–  All three are discontented with their standing in the world; that is, they have a revisionist outlook, striving to acquire more power and renown. Erdogan’s oft-repeated maxim that the world is larger than five countries and much larger than one country can be used as proof.

–  Not all of them are faithful to the principles of liberal democracy. Putin and Xi‘s stance is evident, however, Erdogan‘s stance has become similar to theirs following the unsuccessful coup of 2016.

–  All three of them feel superior to others. Erdogan desires to reconstruct a new version of the Ottoman Empire and keep the Arab and Turkish East under a unified banner, while Russia seeks to reorganize the Russian Tsar‘s empire and extend its authority over half of the world. Xi wishes to revive the lost grandeur of China, which was once referred to as the center of the world. From Deng Xiaoping, a Chinese revolutionary leader to Xi, everyone follows a shared aspiration of restoring a world in which China is the leading nation and other related countries follow it, just as the masses had come to Beijing to pay homage and tribute (Allison, 2019: 193).


Turkey does not appear to be content with turning its back on NATO and withdrawing from it, as this would weaken the hegemony and control it has over its surroundings. It still does not seem that Turkey has completely abandoned the idea of joining the European Union, as it has advantages that cannot be achieved by staying with Russia and China. Turkey is attempting to maintain a balance between the West and the East for the time being. If Turkey finds out that the United States remains the only superior power and that China‘s economic rise does not undermine the unipolar world, and that the conditions for joining the European Union are favorable, it may reduce its dependence on Russia and China and turn back to the West. Additionally, if the secular forces take power in Turkey, this country will once again turn away from the East and turn to the West. Therefore, Turkey‘s current divergence to the East is not a strategic, pivotal, and irreversible turn, but a tactical and sectional turn.


  1. Gul Mohammadi, Wali (1400). In Search of Strategic Independence; Turkey’s Foreign Policy in the International Transition Era. Tehran, Publisher: Ebrar-e-Ma’aser.
  2. Allison, Graham (1399). “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” Tehran, Publisher: Ebrar-e-Ma’aser.