Vladimir Putin conveyed his congratulations on the Turkish president’s seventieth birthday by phone earlier this week. The last time the two spoke on the phone was last October. In better times for bilateral relations, the monthly phone call between Putin and Erdogan was considered part of the political routine. The cancellation of the Russian president’s planned visit to Turkey in mid-February proves that things between Moscow and Ankara are not at their best. There are increasing signs of deterioration in Russian-Turkish relations.

This politically significant development coincides with a marked improvement in Turkey’s relations with the West. There is even talk of the beginnings of a normalization.

“The number of issues on which we agree with the United States is increasing,” Erdogan said on the flight back from his recent visit to Egypt. Relations between Washington and Ankara have been strained for months. At times the situation was so tense that talks of a NATO without Turkey made the rounds in Washington.

Turkish fighter aircraft type F-16

A key point is the enlargement of NATO

The turning point was Turkey’s belated ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership. In the end, the issue was no longer about the Nordic country. In exchange for lifting the veto, the Turks won Washington’s approval for the delivery of state-of-the-art F-16 fighter jets. In a complex process, the Americans combined the sale of F-16s to Ankara with a commitment to provide the Greeks with technologically advanced F-35 fighter jets.

On this occasion, Washington subtly but firmly communicated to the warring allies on NATO’s southeastern flank that the aircraft were not intended to be used against each other.

Lately we have been noticing a new, positive dynamic in American-Turkish relations. After Congress approved the F-16 deal, an announcement by Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland caused a sensation: “If we can get the S-400 problem under control, which we would very much like to do, the United States would be very happy to welcome Turkey back to the F-35 family.”

It is recalled that Washington excluded the Turks from the F-35 production program in 2019 after Erdogan bought the Russian S-400 anti-missile system. Since then, Putin’s missiles have poisoned relations between Ankara and Washington more than almost any other issue.

Even if there is no indication that Erdogan is willing to give up Russian weapons, Ms. Nuland’s statement demonstrates Washington’s increased interest in putting relations with Erdogan on a new footing. At a time when warnings are mounting about the dangers of a new major war, arms deals are increasingly coming to the fore.

In contrast to the fighter issue, which dominated the headlines, the geostrategically no less important decision by Athens and Ankara to join the European Sky Shield Initiative (ESSI) has received comparatively little public attention.

Yasar Guler, Boris Pistorius, Nikos Dendias in Brussels
The MNEs of Greece and Turkey sign a declaration of intent for the ESSI initiative

The German ESSI initiative

It is a German initiative that started at the end of 2022 against the background of the Russian attack on Ukraine. According to NATO – and Berlin – Putin’s aggressive war has revealed the need for additional allied efforts, particularly in air defense. The new initiative aims to help fill gaps in the European air defense system.

In particular, it is about the defense against ballistic missiles, the fight against unmanned aircraft and cruise missiles. The fact that the defense ministers of Turkey and Greece jointly signed a declaration of intent to participate in the European missile initiative reflects the significant improvement in relations between Athens and Ankara in recent months.

The invitation to Turkey was issued only after Turkey ratified Sweden’s accession to NATO. Therefore, this development can be seen as another step towards the normalization of Turkey’s relations with the Western Alliance.

But the story does not end here: There are already speculations that Ankara’s participation in the European anti-missile shield, which is promoted by Berlin, could have a positive impact on defense cooperation between Germany and Turkey.

The eye immediately turns to Turkey’s stated interest in purchasing Eurofighter fighter jets. These aircraft are manufactured by a European consortium, which includes the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy and Germany. While London and Madrid have already expressed interest in the lucrative deal with Ankara, Berlin has so far stood in the way.

It will not be easy for the German government to justify its veto on the Eurofighter issue at a time when Berlin is including Turkey in the strategically important Western air defense initiative. Citing a source in the Turkish Defense Ministry, the BBC’s Turkish service points out that Ankara is counting on a “positive attitude” from Berlin. Meanwhile, the German government is avoiding a clear answer. “In principle, the German government’s restrictive policy on arms exports remains in place,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.

Until recently Berlin used similar language to reject the Eurofighter sale to Saudi Arabia. The approval of the sale of these aircraft to Riyadh has justifiably fueled Turkish expectations. Erdogan’s pro-Western shift increases pressure on Berlin to revise its stance.

Dr. Ronald Maynardous is a political analyst and commentator and Principal Researcher of ELIAMEP.