Turkey has so far tried to steer a careful response to Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, striving, in the words of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to “not give up” the country’s ties with either Russia or Ukraine. This isn’t surprising, given the “balancing act” that Erdoğan has long pursued between his NATO allies and their top European adversary, Russia. More notable for Western policymakers, perhaps, should be the attitude of ordinary Turkish citizens, pro- and anti-Erdoğan alike, to the war: When asked in a survey by prominent Turkish pollster Metropoll whom they held responsible for the war, only 33.7 percent actually blamed Moscow. Nearly half of respondents, on the other hand, blamed the United States and NATO.
Why would so many more people polled in Turkey, a NATO member since 1952, blame the alliance and the United States for the war instead of the obvious aggressor, Russia? And how should Turkey’s Western allies, who appear to be indulging in a rapprochement with Ankara, interpret this data?
Some analysts have pointed to a longstanding “Russophilia” in Turkey to explain the poll results. Many Turkish people are indeed enamored with Russia. Particularly for secular liberals with a penchant for European culture but resentment of Western arrogance, the Russian fine arts are not only admirable in their own right but also as a politically palatable alternative to their Western counterparts. This same attitude could apply to Russian foreign policy, prompting an image of Russia in Turkey not as an imperialist aggressor but as a plucky underdog. This is why even those Turkish people who in fact oppose Russian adventurism can nevertheless view it as an understandable response to encroaching U.S. influence in Russia’s—and Turkey’s—neighborhood, which they oppose equally, if not more.
Of course, Erdoğan’s decades-long “West-bashing,” as other Turkey watchers have emphasized, has been a much stronger factor in shaping contemporary public opinion. Facing a steep economic crisis ahead of a cut-throat election next summer, Erdoğan now sees Turkey’s Western allies—and their riches—as a quick fix to his political conundrum. Accordingly, since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, he has been mindful not to antagonize NATO partners. But this is a departure from his usual rhetoric; in fact, he and his media have dedicated the last 20 years to infecting Turkey with conspiracy theories that paint Western allies as evil powers attempting to sow discord around the globe to maintain their own economic hegemonies. Although the Erdoğanists were hardly the first people to promote this discourse, their decades in power and dominance over the media have, as historian Soner Cağaptay observed, brought such narratives into the mainstream.
Yet the public distrust of the West in Turkey should not be simply dismissed as conspiratorial nonsense. This distrust, however ideological, is informed by real misgivings about U.S. and NATO policies over the last century—especially those that came at the expense of democratic processes, human rights, and national sovereignty in Turkey and its neighbors. For left-wing Turks and Kurds, for example, the United States’ and NATO’s blind eye to, if not actual sponsorship of, Turkey’s far-right thugs and brutal military juntas throughout the Cold War is still an open wound. For both left- and right-wing citizens, covert U.S. efforts to instigate regime change, especially against popularly elected leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere, remain fresh in the memory, reinforced by the United States’ continuing support for autocratic regimes in the region. For most Turks, who hold deep-seated fears of Kurdish secession from Turkey, the U.S. military interventions in Iraq and Syria, which empowered Kurdish nationalism in both places, are examples of dangerous U.S. meddling in other countries, including in Turkey’s backyard. For the Kurds, conversely, Western support for successive Turkish governments that have denied basic rights to Kurdish citizens is proof of U.S. and NATO double standards on democracy and human rights. When Erdoğan’s media machine promotes anti-Western rhetoric and conspiracy theories, these underlying misgivings help those narratives find an audience well beyond the president’s ideological loyalists.
None of this, of course, means that Turkish citizens actually support Putin’s war. On the contrary, opinion polls show that 90 percent are quite worried about it—and fearful of its impact on their own country. Turkey is highly dependent on Russia for energy, wheat, and tourism. And Turkey’s geographic location makes the country highly vulnerable to any Russian confrontation with a neighbor in the Black Sea. This is why 80 percent of Turkey’s population, as polls show, wants Turkey to remain neutral in the Ukraine conflict—and why Erdoğan is unlikely to change his balancing act between Ukraine and Russia, with or without Western pressure.
Still, as the Ukraine war seems to be driving a rapprochement between Ankara and its transatlantic allies, Turkish public attitudes about who is responsible for the conflict bear an important message for these partners. Appreciative of Erdoğan’s mediating role in the Ukraine war and seeing an opportunity to pull Turkey away from Russia, several NATO countries have helped boost Erdoğan’s image in recent weeks with high-level diplomatic visits and new offers of previously off-limits arms deals.
These policies surely please Erdoğan (and his military), at least enough to keep Ankara from buying even more weapons from Russia for a while. Yet they also come as Turkey faces heightening political oppression, a crushing (and largely self-inflicted) economic crisis, and the lowest rate of public confidence in Erdoğan’s government in two decades. To many Turkish citizens, such Western efforts to shore up ties with a loathed Turkish autocrat—while trumpeting the cause of democracy in Ukraine, no less—only serve to reaffirm some of the key reasons why they distrust the West’s intentions, in Turkey as well as Ukraine, in the first place.
Photo Credit: Ron Przysucha / U.S. Department of State on Flickr