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Ukraine Conflict Offers Turkey Reset With Washington 

FILE - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a media conference after a summit at NATO headquarters in Brussels, March 24, 2022. Turkey has condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine since the start of the invasion in February.

Turkey's robust stance against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine is becoming an impetus to improve relations with the United States, a NATO ally.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has unequivocally condemned the invasion of Ukraine. At the same time, Ankara has sold — in the face of Moscow’s criticism — Turkish-made drones that continue to take a deadly toll on Russian forces. Ankara also closed access to the Black Sea to most Russian warships. Washington praised all these moves.

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow of the European Council, said Turkey’s stance offered an opportunity for a reset in U.S.-Turkish relations.

“It’s certainly introduced a level of stability and engagement that wasn’t there before the Ukrainian war," Aydintasbas said. "The Biden administration’s policy seemed to be social distancing, somewhat of a cold shouldering of Erdogan, based on Turkey’s authoritarian lurch and also because there were so many outstanding issues in the bilateral relationship.”

Framework for better ties

Senior American diplomats have made several visits to Turkey since the start of the Ukrainian conflict, with a framework announced last month to enhance ties.

Relations between the NATO allies have been deeply strained, in particular over Erdogan’s close relationship with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

FILE - First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019.
FILE - First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019.

Ankara's purchase of Russian S-400 missiles triggered American sanctions, barring Turkey from purchasing warplanes. Ankara is seeking an easing of the sanctions to purchase American F-16 fighter jets, Aydintasbas said.

"Turkish officials that I have spoken [with] feel you need to give us something to continue the bilateral cooperation," Aydintasbas said. "So, F-16s [sales] meet that purpose. The Turkish air force already run with this F-16. There are plenty. But over the past few years because of existing sanctions, they’ve not been able to maintain or find spare parts and replenish their fleet. I think F-16s is a good formula for both sides.”

Analysts say Ankara is increasingly concerned about its aging jet fighters given that its neighbor and rival Greece is engaged in renewing its defense forces.

Erdogan has raised the fighter jet purchase in conversations with U.S. President Joe Biden.

Hurdles in US Congress

But Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a research organization in the U.S., warned that the defense sales face a serious obstacle.

“In terms of congressional support for arms sales to Turkey, there is still cause for pessimism," Stein said. "Key members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, [Robert] Menendez and [James] Risch, have been both on the record very recently, saying that unless Turkey transfers out of the S-400, things like the F-16 sale will be unlikely if not impossible.

"Now things could change. The Biden administration could put considerable pressure on these senators, but we will see.”

Erdogan is ruling out any removal of the Russian S-400 missiles. Resolving the impasse is expected to top Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu's agenda when he visits Washington next month for talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.