EU’s cohesion faces a challenge as assertive autocrats take advantage of a distracted America.
PARIS—The twin threat of Russia’s and Turkey’s assertive autocracies on the European Union’s doorstep is testing the ability of the bloc’s members to find a common front in an increasingly unstable neighborhood.
The Baltic and Nordic states, as well as Poland, are focused on the formidable danger posed by neighboring Russia, and have traditionally viewed distant Turkey—a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—as an ally that could shore up their own defenses.
On the EU’s southern flank, Greece and Cyprus, nations historically friendly to Russia, consider Turkey as their principal threat—and have been bolstered by France in their recent confrontation with Ankara over the delimitation of exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean. Italy and Spain are more accommodating to Turkey, while Germany, backed by key EU officials in Brussels, has tried to walk a middle line, maintaining an open dialogue with Ankara.
All this tension burst into the open this fall, as Cyprus held up EU sanctions for over a month against Belarus, a Russian ally, saying that the bloc also needed to respond to Turkey’s challenges against Greek and Cypriot sovereignty. Cyprus agreed to the sanctions on Belarus last month, after German Chancellor Angela Merkel convinced her colleagues to give Turkey time to defuse tensions until a summit of European leaders slated for Dec. 10.
Since then, however, Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan proclaimed that French President Emmanuel Macron needed “mental treatment” because of his alleged hostility to Islam and called for a boycott of French goods. French officials say Turkish incitement contributed to a series of Islamist terrorist attacks that roiled France in recent weeks.
“The threat from Turkey is more immediate than from Russia. In Erdogan we are dealing with a loose cannon, with someone who is unpredictable,” a senior French official said. “We have no illusions about [Russian President Vladimir] Putin either, but Putin is not unpredictable.”
Adding fuel to the fire, Turkey in recent weeks also sent its ships into what Greece and Cyprus consider their own waters, and ferried Syrian militants to Azerbaijan to participate in a Turkish-backed campaign to seize the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
These Turkish moves have left Ms. Merkel’s diplomatic initiative largely discredited. German officials now accept that EU sanctions on Turkey may become inevitable next month.
“On Turkey in December, it’s hard to imagine that we will tilt towards the carrot rather than the stick,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
The U.S., distracted by a polarizing election campaign and its strategic rivalry with China, has largely stayed on the sidelines of this tussle between its NATO allies—highlighting Europe’s growing need, and apparent inability, to take care of its own security.
“Europe over the past decades has become so detached from the real world of international relations and foreign policy that it finds it hard to adequately deal even with its two biggest immediate neighbors,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “From the EU standpoint, both are bad, and it is not important which is worse. The real issue is that Europe has no tools, techniques or strategy for dealing with either.”
EU economic sanctions on Russia have been in place since the 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and invasion of its Donbas region, and have been unanimously extended every six months since then, despite occasional protestations by relatively Moscow-friendly governments in countries such as Hungary or Italy. The EU imposed additional targeted sanctions against some of Mr. Putin’s inner circle last month over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and there is little expectation that the sanctions regime will be eased soon. From unrest in Belarus and Kyrgyzstan to the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, WSJ explores how the crises unfolding in Russia’s backyard mark a turning point in Vladimir Putin’s rule and put him at risk of losing influence in the former Soviet Union. Video/Photo Composite: Michelle Inez Simon
“We are in a bizarre paralysis with Russia which is actually quite convenient for governments across the spectrum—the hard-liners and those who favor a softer approach. To an extent we can forget that Russia is there,” a senior EU diplomat said.
No such consensus exists on Turkey—at least not yet.
“In the EU, there is a different approach toward Turkey and Russia,” Cypriot Foreign Minister Nikos Christodoulides said in an interview. “Some member states emphasize the fact that Turkey is a NATO member state, that it is an EU candidate member state, that it plays an important role regarding migration. At the same time, a number of EU member states have interests in Turkey.”
Still, he added, attitudes toward Ankara are hardening across the board, too: “We see a change in tone toward Turkey. We see more EU member states approaching Turkey with a more critical eye.”
Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Rinkevics agreed. “Slowly, we do see that in the last year or so, there is more and more understanding by eastern and southern flanks of the EU that we should be united and listen to each others’ assessments,” he said in an interview. “Our common risk assessment is actually growing.”
Yet, though the authoritarian nature of both governments is clear, treating Turkey the same way as Russia would be a mistake, said Nathalie Tocci, director of the Institute of International Affairs in Rome who advises the European Commission.
“I really struggle to see where it is that we have convergent interests with Russia. But there are cases where we have fairly convergent interests with Turkey, and by not recognizing that we risk pushing Turkey into Russia’s lap,” she said.
Moscow and Ankara are by no means allies, and their proxies are fighting each other in local conflicts that range from Libya to Syria to, now, Nagorno-Karabakh. Yet, despite these disagreements, Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin have managed to maintain a strategic understanding, so far.
“They have this ability to flip-flop and reach accommodation on tactical issues,” a senior French official said. “The reason is because they share the same overriding goal: to challenge the international order.”
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at firstname.lastname@example.org and Laurence Norman at email@example.com