For those who know why Istanbul has a “Polish people,” Polish President Andrzej Duda’s visit to the picturesque neighborhood this week was laden with symbolism that evokes the historical legacy that unites Turkey and Poland.
The “Polish people” – or Polonezkoy in Turkish – was founded in 1842 by Polish exiles who took refuge with the Ottomans in hopes of organizing the independence struggle in Poland after its invasion by Russia, Austria and Prussia. Its leader, Michal Czajkowski, known as Mehmet Sadik Pasha after converting to Islam, led an 8,000-strong regiment in the Ottoman army that, in coalition with the British and French, defeated Russia in the Crimean War of 1853-56.
Almost 170 years later, the Crimean issue unites Turks and Poles again. Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea Peninsula from Ukraine occupied a prominent place in Duda’s talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on May 24, along with other Russia-related issues, such as security in the Black Sea and the conflict between Kiev and the pro-Russians. separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Duda stressed that Crimea was under occupation, echoing Erdogan’s repeated refusals to annex Russia.
With their common position against Russia on this issue, the two sides took a crucial step in bilateral military cooperation beyond their partnership with NATO: a contract for the purchase of 24 Bayraktar TB2 armed drones from Poland, produced by a Turkish company owned by Erdogan’s son-in-law. law Selcuk Bayraktar. The first delivery is scheduled for 2022. The package also includes smart micro ammunition manufactured by Turkish company Roketsan, along with ground control stations and ground data terminals for drones.
As Erdogan stressed, the agreement makes Poland the first member of NATO and the European Union to buy Turkish drones. According to official data, a total of 180 Bayraktar TB2 drones are currently in the inventories of Turkey, Ukraine, Qatar and Azerbaijan.
Turkey’s opponents in the EU may not be exactly happy with the deal, but Erdogan’s calculation is not hard to discern. Based on his relationship with Duda, he seems to be aiming for two goals: to strengthen his position in NATO and to have a kind of “Trojan horse” in the EU. For Erdogan, the military partnership with Poland is proof that Turkey is contributing to NATO’s efforts to deter Russia. And with the added bonus of Turkey’s close relationship with Ukraine, it hopes to appeal to U.S. President Joe Biden as a valuable NATO partner against Russia. The two leaders are expected to have their first meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels on June 14, with Erdogan eager to break the ice with the president of the United States.
In a video conference with U.S. business leaders on May 26, Erdogan expressed optimism that the meeting “heralded a new era” between Ankara and Washington, despite what he described as “the additional burden” that Biden established. bilateral in recognizing the massacres of the Ottoman era. of the Armenians as genocide.
While the Turkish-Polish lineup against Russia is certainly good news for Washington, its deal with drones may not be well received, given its implications for commercial competition in the drone market. Turkish public broadcaster TRT portrayed the deal as “an important step in challenging the US monopoly” on the sector, noting that Turkey had become the world’s fourth largest producer of armed drones after the United States, Israel and China.
Another question is: to what extent can Warsaw help Ankara advance its interests?
Poland has maintained good relations with the United States for several decades and hosts American troops and infrastructure. The Turkish-Polish rapprochement has been facilitated by the political affinity between Erdogan and the right-wing Duda. Both are populist leaders, accused of undermining democracy in their respective countries, and both enjoyed extraordinary chemistry with U.S. President Donald Trump.
In the face of economic turmoil at home and diplomatic isolation abroad, Erdogan hopes that Polish support will strengthen its hand in NATO and normalize ties with the EU, especially to speed up the updating of the agreement. of the Turkish customs union with the bloc.
Warsaw, for its part, would like Ankara to also align itself with Bucharest Nine, a group of Eastern European countries set up at the initiative of Poland and Romania against perceived threats from Russia following its annexation of Crimea on 2014. At the joint press conference in Ankara, Erdogan welcomed Duda’s proposal to establish a trilateral dialogue that would include his Romanian counterpart. “Turkey is our strongest ally in this part of the world,” Duda said, suggesting he sees Turkey as a bulwark against Russian rule in the Black Sea region.
In 2019, Ankara irritated Warsaw and other NATO allies by blocking a NATO defense plan for the Baltic countries and Poland in an attempt to extract support for its campaign against Kurdish forces in Syria. He left his veto as part of efforts to repair fences with the West after the Biden election. During Duda’s visit, Erdogan announced that Turkey would deploy F-16 aircraft to Poland as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Police mission, another initiative aimed at deterring Russia, and commended Poland’s contribution to a NATO mission to help Turkey against regional security risks, based in Incirlik in southern Turkey.
But can Erdogan rely on strong Polish support in his dealings with the EU and NATO? Karol Wasilewski, a Turkish analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, notes that Poland has never stood out as a leading opponent of tougher policies against Turkey within the EU, although it has generally fostered political commitment. , mainly due to its “NATO”. first ”policy.
The analyst cites Turkey’s strained relationship with the United States as the biggest challenge to the development of Polish-Turkish ties. U.S. sanctions against Turkey over the purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems “are estimated not to hamper Turkey’s military cooperation with other NATO allies,” he writes, but the prospect of tougher sanctions in the absence of commitment “can complicate [Poland’s] similarly in defense of Turkey. “Similarly, the reactivation of Turkey’s policy of confrontation with EU members such as France, Greece and Cyprus” would force Poland to take a stand in the intra-EU debate on imposing sanctions. in Turkey “.
Meanwhile, from Turkey’s perspective, adding a military dimension to its ties with Poland could further strain its relationship with Russia, which is already irritated by Ankara’s military cooperation with Ukraine. In a new warning that coincided with Duda’s visit to Turkey, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged Ankara to “carefully analyze the situation and stop feeding Kiev’s militaristic sentiment.” Encouraging “aggressive” Ukrainian actions in the Crimea amounts to a violation of Russia’s territorial integrity, he added.
That said, many other aspects of Ankara’s attitudes keep alive doubts that Erdogan’s efforts to return to the Western landing are tactical moves to break free from diplomatic harassment and that he has not given up playing a double game between the United States and Russia.