And for the most part, former President Donald Trump’s administration turned a blind eye.
But as Erdogan arrives in Brussels for a critical NATO meeting Monday, he is facing a decidedly more sceptical Biden administration, as are other strongmen leaders once enabled by Trump.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who meets with President Joe Biden on Wednesday, has responded to the new order by growing even more belligerent, openly suppressing any signs of domestic political opposition and threatening Western security by massing troops on Ukraine’s border.
But for Erdogan, things are not that simple. Thanks to both the coronavirus pandemic and his mismanagement of the economy, he is now facing severe domestic strains, with soaring inflation and unemployment and a dangerously weakened lira that could trigger a debt crisis.
So he has dialled back his approach, already softening his positions on several issues in the hope of receiving badly needed investment from the West — something that Russia cannot provide. To reassure Western leaders, he has called off gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean, an activity that had infuriated NATO allies, and annoyed Moscow by supporting Ukraine against Russia’s threats and selling Turkish-made drones to Poland.
Yet Erdogan does have some important cards to play. Turkey’s presence in NATO, its role as a way station for millions of refugees and its military presence in Afghanistan have given him real leverage with the West.
So Erdogan is unlikely to reverse his drift toward authoritarianism, his deepening relationship with Putin and his purchase of the sophisticated Russian S-400 air defence system, even if that means clashing with Biden’s vision for a strengthened alliance of democracies.
One question is just how far Erdogan can be pushed in Biden’s direction before he grows frustrated and casts his lot with the Kremlin or even China, although having been let down by both countries over vaccine supplies, Erdogan is clear-eyed enough to keep his options open.
“How do you not lose Turkey while you try to curb Erdogan?” said Nigar Goksel, Turkey project director for the International Crisis Group.
As with Putin, Biden’s initial approach to Erdogan had been to maintain his distance, trying to avoid disagreements and handle matters at lower diplomatic levels.
Since assuming the presidency, Biden has spoken with Erdogan only once. That was to inform him that the US was recognising the massacre of Armenians in the last days of the Ottoman Empire as a genocide. While that was a humiliation for Erdogan that might have evoked a tantrum in previous years, it was met with a muted reaction along with the promise of a meeting at the NATO summit.
A bazaar in Istanbul, May 18, 2021. With Trump gone and Turkey’s economy in crisis, the country’s strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is now trying to placate Western leaders rather than antagonize them. But how far can he be pushed? (Bradley Secker/The New York Times)
Turkey badly wants to lift itself out of an economic crunch, deepened by the pandemic, which has destroyed its vital tourist industry. It is also anxious to avoid further US sanctions, imposed after Erdogan bought the S-400 missile system from Russia.
The economic troubles have taken a toll on Erdogan’s political standing. While elections are still two years away, his opponents have considerable momentum, said Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Turks will vote according to the state of the economy, he said, and for that reason alone, he needs the meeting with Biden.
Erdogan assured US business executives during a virtual roundtable discussion last month that the meeting with Biden would “herald a new era,” adding, “We have serious potential for cooperation with the USA in a wide range from Syria to Libya, from the fight against terrorism to energy, from trade to investments.”
The two leaders’ personal relationship goes back many years — Biden visited Erdogan at his home in 2011, when he was recovering from a medical procedure — yet they remain far apart on a range of issues.
The thorniest of a half-dozen disputes between the two countries is undoubtedly Erdogan’s refusal to walk back his purchase of the S-400s, which has made Turkey the only NATO country to be on the receiving end of US sanctions and removed from the F-35 fighter aircraft program.
Erdogan has even negotiated to purchase a second battery from Russia, but with the threat of further sanctions, he appears ready to shelve that deal.
At the heart of Erdogan’s purchase of the S-400 is his distrust of Washington, which he thinks is intent on seeing him replaced. That belief was only reinforced when Biden said last year, during the 2020 presidential campaign, that the United States should support the opposition in Turkey.
But there are worries that if pressed too hard, Erdogan, who badly needs a fifth-generation fighter plane, might even buy Russian Sukhois. There is also concern about some 50 US nuclear bombs stored at Turkey’s Incirlik air base, which is under joint Turkish-US control; Erdogan has at various times threatened to evict the Americans.
Washington has been preparing to work around the disagreement over the S-400s, focusing instead on the strategic areas where the two countries can agree — namely, Afghanistan, where Turkey has participated in the mission since 2001, and Iraq and Libya.
Turkey for its own reasons wants to retain a presence in Afghanistan, where it has a long affiliation and a shared history and religion. That is a central reason the US special envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, asked Erdogan to consider maintaining a military presence there when Khalilzad began negotiations with the Taliban over a US withdrawal.
But as the deadline for that withdrawal looms as early as next month, Erdogan has delayed making a commitment, creating anxiety in European capitals about maintaining safe access to the Kabul airport for their embassies.
Turkey would stay in Afghanistan if it were provided with political, financial and logistic support by its allies, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said earlier this month. The Taliban has given Erdogan further leverage by announcing that Turkish troops should leave Afghanistan along with the rest of the NATO force.
Libya, where Turkey’s military intervention last summer angered many, is another area of possible agreement. Turkey successfully stalled a Russian-backed assault on the capital of Tripoli, throwing a lifeline to the U.N.-backed government there and offering a chance for a negotiated settlement to the war.
In other areas, they will be talking past each other. US policy backing Kurdish forces in Syria is not expected to change despite bitter complaints from Turkey, and Erdogan has shown no signs of easing up on human rights.
“Biden knows he may have to choose between Turkey and democracy,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
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