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Turkey, Russia and the Struggle for Power in the Middle East and North Africa

February 3, 2022

Speaker: Marc Pierini, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe and former EU ambassador to Turkey (2006–2011), Tunisia and Libya (2002–2006), Syria (1998–2002), and Morocco (1991–1995).Moderator: Professor Michael Leigh, Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe.After a brief introduction by SAIS professor Michael Leigh, Ambassador Pierini began his remarks on the role of Turkey and Russia in the Middle East and North Africa. He said that although we tend to think of World War II as the “end of wars” in Europe, “the strategic chessboard” of Europe has been “unstable for centuries,” and today we are witnessing a new kind of instability caused by Russia and Turkey.
Pierini provided an overview of Russian and Turkish foreign policy in the region. Since 2015, Russia has expanded its presence in the Middle East through its intervention in the Syrian Civil War and in Africa through interventions in Libya and the Central African Republic. Additionally, Russia has gained influence in Turkey through arms sales and through its support of Erdogan after the 2016 coup attempt. Pierini said that Russia’s closer relations with Turkey have come at the expense of NATO, and that Russia’s overall strategy is to be taken seriously as a world power.
Turkey, like Russia, is also increasingly pursuing a disruptive foreign policy. Pierini described how since the 2016 coup attempt, Turkey jailed thousands of alleged dissidents, taken advantage of anti-American and anti-European narratives put forth by the Turkish Nationalist Party (MHP), questioned the settlement of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty with Greece, and has increased its presence in Syria and western Libya. The overall Turkish strategy, he said, is to assert itself as a regional power and to be a balance between Russia and NATO.
Pierini warned that a potential area of conflict between Russia and Turkey could be eastern Ukraine. If Ukraine continues to deploy and use Turkish-made drones in a conflict against Russia, it is unclear if and how Russia will retaliate against Turkey. Pierini also spoke to the roles of NATO and the EU vis-à-vis Turkey and Russia, and how while NATO has increased its presence in eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, the EU is relatively absent. Pierini concluded his remarks saying that although the region has become more authoritarian in recent years, civil society groups in Belarus, Turkey, Hungary, and other countries still stand by democratic values and are a source of hope.
Former President of the European Commission and Prime Minister of Italy Romano Prodi opened the Q&A section of the seminar by asking Ambassador Pierini for his assessment of the future of Russia-Turkey relations. Pierini responded saying that the relationship is opportunistic on both sides, and that the future will depend on how Turkey manages to balance itself between Russia and NATO, particularly in light of Russia’s weapons sales to Turkey. The relationship will also depend on what happens in eastern Ukraine. Ambassador Pierini also spoke to the role of the EU in the region, saying that the 2007 Lisbon Treaty failed to produce integration in foreign policy and that the 2015 migrant crisis revealed deep, unresolved divisions in the bloc that impedes cooperation to this day.
To conclude the seminar, Ambassador Pierini responded to several more questions from faculty and students on a range of topics, including the impact of upcoming elections in Turkey on its foreign policy, the role of Russian mercenary groups in, North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa (CAR, Mali), and the role of oil and gas in relations between Russia and the EU.