Turkish influence in Eurasia is something we need to pay attention to as much as Russian, Chinese, or Iranian influence. Arguably, with regards to Eastern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, we ought to pay a lot more attention to it considering history.
Over the past 6 months many (in the West) have finally realized how big of a player Turkey is in the region and ultimately the world. But their influence has been deeply rooted for a long time, and it’s rapidly becoming one of the most significant voices at the world table.
Turkey can comfortably walk a line of indifference to Sweden & Finland joining NATO. On one hand, they gain greater mutual defense and enjoy greater economic trade opportunities. But on the other, a stronger NATO means a weaker Pan-Eurasian Turkey.
It is not hyperbolic to recognize the historical significance of Turkish ambition and reach. Until World War I, the Ottoman Turks held a significant amount of territory and control across Eastern Europe, Asia, North Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula. To this day they maintain both a populous and diplomatic reach in these areas, and in some they are kinetically involved with either civil unrest or cross-border conflicts.
Turkey’s current objections to a stronger NATO have nothing to do with any empathy or solidarity toward Russia. They don’t want western imperialism on their doorstep anymore than they wanted Soviet imperialism in their backyard. In fact, if you compare the current diaspora of Turkish population to that of the territory ruled by the Ottoman Turks, the expansion of Turkish people into former Soviet republics in the south of Asia is significant. Kazakhstan, for example, has a significant population of Turks, as does Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan.
While these former Soviet republics still enjoy stronger relations and some even participate in a military defense alliance with Russia, others like Azerbaijan have become closely aligned with Turkey and in fact are the second highest importer of Turkish military arms in the world. Turkey is a staunch ally of Azerbaijan in their current conflict with Armenia.
Turkey’s reach is not currently narrowed to only the Caucuses and former Soviet republics, they have also been deeply engaged in both diplomatic and kinetic actions in the Libyan civil unrest. Recently, Turkey also shelled areas in Syria.
Turkey has been taking cross-border action against Iraqi Kurds for months, and in fact has forces occupying Iraqi territory in the north.
Lebanon just recently received a proposal from Turkey for oil drilling and exploration along their southern maritime border with Israel.
While Turkey has been a critical arbiter—and really the only arbiter—with regards to the war in Ukraine, they are also a net exporter of arms to Ukraine. (There is a significant population of Turks in both Ukraine and Russia). Sooner or later, Turkey will have to make a decision to either participate in the conflict or mediate it. They won’t be able to continue to do both. Turkey wants a region where they are the sole, expansive power.
While the depletion of the Russian military and diplomatic voice works in Turkey’s long term favor, it comes at big risk for them—the Western militarization of Eastern Europe.
What should be most concerning to Americans is the lack of engagement between President Biden and Turkish President Recep Erdoğan. The two last met in June, in a rather unimpressive meeting that was confined mostly to the subject of Ukraine, and the bid of Sweden & Finland to join NATO.
While the US and Russia are consumed with their proxy war in Ukraine, Turkey is running around amok in the region, unchecked and freely taking advantage of the current weaknesses of those two former world superpowers and their respective leadership incompetencies.
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