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U.S. President Joe Biden has officially recognized the 1915 mass murder of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire as genocide. Now all eyes are on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to see how he will react to this public slap in the face for Ankara: with an emotional outburst, or another step closer to Russia? So far, however, the Turkish leader’s reaction has been considerably more restrained and rational than might have been expected from a politician renowned for his sharp tongue and temper.
Recognition of the Armenian genocide has long been an issue in international politics. Both houses of the U.S. Congress had previously passed resolutions recognizing the genocide, as have many European countries. Even Russia, one of Turkey’s main regional partners, officially acknowledged the killings as genocide back in 1995, but this hasn’t impacted on the strategic partnership between Moscow and Ankara.
What’s interesting is that Biden reportedly gave Erdogan advance warning of his intentions during a phone call. It’s likely that Biden chose to warn the Turkish leader personally in order to let him know that the United States is seriously unhappy with Turkey’s actions, but without severing any relationship of trust between the two nations.
In any case, the Turkish authorities were prepared for this turn of events. Ankara’s reaction differed very little from its responses to similar statements by other states. The Turkish Foreign Ministry said Biden’s statement would “open a deep wound that undermines our mutual trust and friendship,” and described it as a “grave mistake.” These are all standard formulae that have been heard time and time again.
The response from Erdogan himself was also relatively restrained. He called Biden’s comments “groundless and unfair,” said they would damage bilateral relations, and explained at length why it was “the wrong step” for the United States to have taken.
This restraint on Ankara’s part largely stems from the fact that recognition of the Armenian genocide is far from the main problem in U.S.-Turkish relations, which have been in crisis now for several years. There are plenty of far more practical difficulties and conflicts to tackle, from Syria and the Kurds to the military cooperation between Turkey and Russia.
Washington started putting pressure on Ankara over their differences on these issues back when Donald Trump was still U.S. president. The United States removed Turkey from the F-35 joint strike fighter program over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems, slapped additional tariffs on Turkish imports, and introduced sanctions against some Turkish politicians and companies. Ankara, for its part, was unhappy with Washington for supporting the Syrian Kurds and ignoring the controversy over the U.S.-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, whom the Turkish authorities accuse of involvement in the 2016 attempted coup.
Yet the U.S. measures outlined above, along with the refusal to sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Ankara or share other technology, have not had a major impact on Turkey’s defense industry. Its military hardware has recently proved its effectiveness in Karabakh, Libya, and against the Kurds, and has prospective buyers abroad. Turkey is building its own air defense system, and has turned to Russia for help.
What’s more, despite the pressure, Turkey is becoming an increasingly difficult ally for the United States. Ankara is in no rush to ask Washington for help in Syria, while actively cooperating with Russia on the peace process. It didn’t coordinate with Washington over its active role in the recent Karabakh war and peace process, or over Ukraine.
Turkey’s headstrong actions were already cause for concern in Washington under Trump, and those concerns have doubled under Biden, who has promised to restore America’s old alliances and moral leadership. But for now, the United States is wary of putting serious pressure on Turkey, not to mention risking really falling out with such an important ally. And so it sticks to measures like recognizing the genocide: high-profile enough to attract attention, but with limited practical consequences. They are designed to remind the Turkish leadership that Washington is displeased, and that things could get worse.
Still, despite the resonance of Biden’s statement, it doesn’t represent any kind of watershed moment in U.S.-Turkish relations. It’s rubbing salt in an old wound for Turkey, nothing more. It may be followed by decisive action, or it may result in attempts to reach an agreement. The Pentagon has already clarified that recognition of the genocide will not impact on military cooperation with Turkey, and expressed hope that the United States will continue to improve its relationship with an important NATO ally.
In all likelihood, it won’t impact on Russian-Turkish relations, either. Ties between the two countries have become too complex in recent years for anything to change that easily. On the one hand, there are many unresolved problems and differences between the two countries. On the other hand, Erdogan and Putin understand each other, have similar worldviews, and have both personally invested a lot of time and effort in their partnership. In these conditions, even a strong message from Washington won’t force Ankara to change course: it won’t run into Moscow’s arms in revenge against the Americans, nor will it repent and move closer to the United States at the cost of falling out with Russia.
In fact, the U.S. recognition of the genocide has more chance of influencing Russia’s relations with Armenia than with Turkey. The genocide is a sacred issue for Armenians, and has become a cornerstone of their national identity. With its recent statement, the United States has shown Armenians that it’s not just Russia that is prepared to defend their principles. Combined with the election campaign that is currently underway, it could give new impetus to the U.S. profile in Armenia, though that will not be easy, given the strength of Yerevan’s economic and security dependence on Moscow right now.
Erdogan, meanwhile, does not need to worry that an excessively weak reaction to the U.S. genocide statement will create problems for him at home. He’s at the peak of his career right now, and has more power than ever before. He controls the biggest political party and has successfully maintained unity, despite some dissent in the party’s ranks. A significant proportion of major business is also in Erdogan’s hands. The Turkish president no longer minces his words, but speaks openly at international platforms about what aspects of U.S. policy he doesn’t like. He dictates the terms of doing business in his country to U.S. business giants like Google, Twitter, and Apple, because the growing Turkish market of 80 million potential clients allows him to do so.
Erdogan is used to harsh and public criticism from Washington. His outbursts of rage are calculated carefully, and only occur when they could secure a clear and palpable advantage. Recognition of the Armenian genocide does not fall into that category, and will not make Turkey move closer to either the United States or Russia.
This article was published as part of the “Relaunching U.S.-Russia Dialogue on Global Challenges: The Role of the Next Generation” project, implemented in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy to Russia. The opinions, findings, and conclusions stated herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Embassy to Russia.
Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.
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