The lurking Russian threat

August 31, 2016

While Russian President Vladimir Putin and his counterpart in Turkey are mending fences, Western officials are waffling: Allowing Russia to pull Turkey closer while openly questioning Turkey’s NATO membership just one month after a bloody coup attempt shook the country to its core.

I saw the events unfold first-hand — landing on the tarmac at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport in the middle of the attack, and staying there for several weeks to witness the chaotic aftermath.


As the dust settles following Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Ankara, the administration must remember that Putin is eager to exploit any cracks in the relationship. As the fallout with the West drags out, Turkey could react by embracing Russia — the wolf scratching at its door, which would like nothing more than to distance Turkey from the West.

Just consider a proposal that the Russians floated last year and resurfaced this month in the wake of the failed coup: a mechanism for both countries to trade with each other directly in their local currencies, without using the U.S. dollar as a common currency to conduct business. Momentum for the idea appeared to peter out as the Russian-Turkish conflict intensified, but the West’s lackluster response to the recent coup attempt threatens to put it back on the table.

If Russia pulls Turkey further into its sphere of influence, today’s crises will look like a picnic compared with what would take their place — further entrenching Russian power at a time when our allies and interests in Europe are under assault as never before.

In the short term, a Russian-Turkish currency deal could arm Russian banks with a new counterweight to the punishing wave of sanctions that were put in place last year by U.S. and European Union banking systems after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  In the long-term, it could help Putin in his quest to weaken power of the U.S. dollar as the world’s choice for international transactions, hurting the United States’ borrowing power worldwide.

Change must begin by taming the rhetoric on both sides. The chaos I saw on the ground in Turkey has fomented a rising tide of anti-Americanism egged on by some Turkish officials and party-controlled press. Asserting that the U.S. played a role in the coup must stop immediately.

At the same time, U.S. officials and commentators should acknowledge that Turkey’s most urgent need now is to defend the very fabric of its civil society. Like him or not, President Erdogan is the legitimately and democratically-elected choice of the Turkish people, a claim bolstered by the recent support he has seen from the main secular opposition parties. He has earned the right to speak on their behalf and that right should be respected.

In order to move forward, the governments of Turkey and the U.S. must establish a high-level mechanism in order to adequately address the broad range of critical issues between them. Like the strategic framework that governs U.S.-Chinese consultations, our two countries need a formal structure led by its most senior officials that meets regularly. Tensions have gotten to the point that only face-to-face discussions are going to suffice to repair the increasingly deep-seated misunderstandings between our two states.

A formal mechanism will help us reach a mutually acceptable solution to the Fethullah Terrorist Organization (FETO) problem. FETO is a danger to the stability in the region that the U.S. and NATO seek. A similar threat to democracy would produce an outcry of outrage if it happened to any other NATO member state. There have been united calls for the extradition of FETO’s leader, Fethullah Gulen, who is currently residing in the U.S. This is a reasonable request based on the widespread belief in Turkey — both the people and the main opposition parties — that FETO played a central role in the execution of the failed coup.

Historically, Russia has been very effective in exploiting geo-strategic opportunities.  If the U.S. continues to push its ally Turkey into Russia’s sphere of influence, it could threaten us at a time when our allies and interests are facing unprecedented threats.  Policymakers must recommit to the bilateral relationship, not cut and run.

Halil I. Danismaz is president of the Turkish Heritage Organization, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit aimed at strengthening the bilateral U.S.-Turkey relationship.