Ioana Constantin-Bercean: Turkey’s strategic ambiguity is not possible in the case of Romania and Bulgaria

An interview with a Romanian expert on international relations about the recent developments in the Middle Eastern politics – Joe Biden’s visit in the region and Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran, about Turkey’s specific position of a mediator between “the West” and “the East” and about the prospects of Turkish-inspired “strategic ambiguity” for Romania and Bulgaria

An interview with a Romanian expert on international relations about the recent developments in the Middle Eastern politics – Joe Biden’s visit in the region and Vladimir Putin’s visit to Tehran, about Turkey’s specific position of a mediator between “the West” and “the East” and about the prospects of Turkish-inspired “strategic ambiguity” for Romania and Bulgaria.

Cross-border Talks’ Vladimir Mitev discussed with Ioana Constantin-Bercean, a Romanian expert on international relations from the Romanian Academy about Middle Eastern politics in the conditions of war in Ukraine, about Turkey’s role of mediator and how Bulgaria and Romania could approach the Russian-Turkish cooperation, which is strong in the energy domain. 

Ioana believes that Joe Biden’s visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia was meant to reassure the countries of the American security guarantees as now the prospects of the revival of the nuclear agreement with Iran are really good. As for the Russian-Iranian relationship, it is complex as both countries are under strong sanctions, but they are also competitors in the energy domain. Turkey’s role as mediator between Russia and Ukraine, between the West and “the East” is something which deserves greater attention, as Turkey’s president announced his country will pay for Russian gas in rubles. 

When asked whether Bulgaria and Romania, who have good relations with Turkey could emulate Turkey’s strategic ambiguity, Ioana Bercean was skeptical. She reminded that both countries are members of NATO and the EU and that means alignment with the West in foreign policy.

Vladimir Mitev: Welcome to an extraordinary discussion of Cross-Border Talks, in which we are going to focus our attention on developments in the Middle East and what they mean for the region of Black Sea as well. We are encouraged to discuss this because of the recent events. The American president, Joe Biden, made a Middle Eastern visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, while the Russian president Putin went recently to Tehran. Most recently in the week which we are now discussing in the Turkish President Recep Erdogan visited Sochi with promises for greater economic cooperation between Russia and Turkey, and a number of contradictions come out of that. We are going to discuss these various contradictions in a talk with Ioana Bercean, who is a Romanian expert on international relations. She works at the Romanian Academy at the Institute for Political Science and International Relations. She has a PhD that deals with Iran and its nuclear program and international relations from the University of Cluj-Napoca. And she’s also a frequent commentator on leading Romanian media on international relations. So I’m happy she agreed to join Cross-border Talks for this discussion. You are welcome, Ioana!

And first of all, let us start with a little bit chronologically, a bit with what is going on in the Middle East now. For a long time, at least, the coming of power of Joe Biden was somehow expected to mean a non-Trumpist foreign policy, let’s say a change. We remember that Joe Biden was strongly criticizing Saudi Arabia, for example. And there was always this issue that in Iran there was going to be some kind of renovation of the nuclear agreement. And we see that a lot of time has passed, some year and a half, since his coming to power. And still there are discussions about this nuclear agreements, but in fact they are quite stalled. How do you interpret the fact that Joe Biden visited the Middle East, visited Israel, visited Saudi Arabia, and it looks like he offered some security protection to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states? It looks like he made once again a Trumpist choice of foreign policy, by aligning with Israel. Or maybe you will disagree? What is your take on Joe Biden’s visit to the Middle East?

Good afternoon, Vladimir, and thank you very much for your kind invitation. I would like to send my kind regards to all your viewers and listeners. So let’s start with President Biden’s visit to the Middle East. As you know, he started his visit in Israel and then he made a stop in Riyadh and actually he made a stop in Ramallah. And it is, as you said, a little bit anti-Trump. It’s opposite from Trump policies regarding the Middle East, but not that opposite, if you like, just a small parenthesis as we speak now. As you said, it’s been more than one year or almost a year and a half since President Biden assumed office and nothing really changed regarding the nuclear Iran deal JCPOA. But I want to underline that two days ago, on the 4th of August, the nuclear negotiations resumed in Vienna. All the parts met in Vienna. And it’s for the first time since last year, when all the parts are pretty sure that they are close to to resume somehow either a new agreement, either to return to the provision of the former one, actually the Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, spokesman Nasser Kanani, has said that this round will focus on Tehran ideas on the EU proposal and exchanging ideas. Actually, he said that Iran hopes that the other side, with the necessary decision and serious focus, enables this round of negotiations. And also the Iranian part met with Mikhail Ulyanov, who is the Russian representative today in Vienna at these negotiations.

So coming back to Mr. Biden’s visiting in the Middle East, I think he was due for this visit because the American administration was well aware about these upcoming negotiations in Vienna, which started two days ago. So basically he went to Israel to reassure the strategic partner of the transparency and of the security umbrella which the United States is offering to Israel. So basically he went there and if you remember, he mentioned the word peace and negotiations, and he said that the United States preferred the diplomatic path, not to be aggressive on the use of hard power or to exclude somehow any possible war.

On the other hand, of course, Israel has a more aggressive rhetoric, as we know, because if we look in the bigger picture, Iran and Israel need each other because they enforce each other. If you will, if you want to become a hegemon in the region, you always need an adversary. So basically for Iran, Israel is the main adversary and vice versa, also Iran for Israel, it is empowering if you want the external for the external policy and for Israel’s regional policy. So basically it’s like “friendship with benefits.”

So the negotiations resumed afterwards Mr. Biden went also to Saudi Arabia in the context of the regional war. We have a war in Ukraine and we have an energy crisis. And the United States, as the European Union, are looking for alternative sources for oil and gas. So basically Saudi Arabia and the OPEC states are a very good resource because the main resources of oil and gas are in Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Iran and pretty much in the Middle East. So even if it was contested and some Republicans or a certain part of the political arm in the United States criticize this visit, because Mr. Biden, we all remember that he criticized the Saudi prince regarding with journalist Khashoggi’s murder and so on, and regarding human rights and so on and so forth, it is an alliance with benefits. So Mr. Biden went there to look for alternative resources, for energy. Saudi Arabia was quite reluctant to do this, but it’s a first step. So it’s not quite anti-Trump. It’s because also Mr. Trump went there, but pretty much was looking for some business to sell weapons and to make these kinds of deals, because at that time, we didn’t have this war in Ukraine.

What is coming up next? We shall see, because it was the first step and everything that was discussed there will be developed within the next months. It’s not going to come up suddenly. We shall not know tomorrow or the day after tomorrow exactly the deep discussion or the result of the discussion. But it’s a first step and I think it was due. I do believe that it was a strategic step toward the opening of this horizon of new engagements towards the Middle East.

Ioana Contantin-Bercean is a frequent guest of the leading Romanian TV emissions on international relations (source: Facebook)

Okay. You mentioned the phrase “friendship with benefits” a few times. How would you describe the relationship between Russia and Iran? We remember that a few months ago it was in fact Russia, which created some obstacles to the Vienna talks. And now, after the visit of Vladimir Putin to Tehran, it looks like, in fact, Russia seems to be very supportive of the nuclear talks. So what is going on there – are they allies? Are they competitors? There are various opinions about that. I mean, we know that some people with anti-western agenda constantly hope that Russia and Iran will unite against the West or something like that. But at the same time, their economic profile, economic relations are not that strong. For example, Turkish Russian trade is around $30 billion, while Iranian and Russian trade is much smaller. And also Iran is something like a competitor on markets of oil, for example. So what is the type of relationship between Russia and Iran now and over time?

At first sight, we might say that they are strong competitors because both of them have this main product which is well looked for nowadays – oil. But Russia is under very strong sanctions. So is Iran, actually. Regarding Russia-Iran relations, I might say that it’s an alliance with some opportunities at some points. It’s an alliance, if you will, regarding the other events or it’s conditioned by the other events in the international system for now. You know, as you well mentioned Mr. Putin, Mr. Erdogan and president met in Tehran and they discussed security of the region, Syria, and of course, they discussed some economic issues.

I want to mention that Iran and Russia are the first two countries regarding the number of sanctions. Before the seventh package of sanctions imposed on Russia, Iran was the most sanctioned country in the world. Now Russia passes because it has more sanctions than Iran has. However, none of them can export oil to the Western countries because both countries are excluded from the SWIFT system. And the United States imposed very strong sanctions to those countries making business in this field of industry so none of them can export to Europe or to the United States.

However, both of them are exporting towards China. China and Iran have just signed a 25 year agreement a year or so ago. So Iran has this alternative to go toward China. And Iran really doesn’t mind to be the band wagon of China, to be behind China’s policy. On the other hand, Russia wouldn’t like this position because China and Russia want to be considered equal. Russia wants to be a great power and an international great power. Iran is just a regional power in this context.

So Russia and Iran’s foreign policy are a little bit different. And as you said, some parts of Iranian political realm would like to open toward the West. That’s why they are still engaging in this negotiation regarding the Iran nuclear deal. Otherwise, they wouldn’t at all. We really don’t know at this time which will be the outcome. But they are still going there and they are still negotiating. And they do have business or economic ties with Switzerland, with Germany, even with France. On the other hand, Russia is cut off from any kind of business, this so-called friendship between Moscow and Tehran. I called it a long time ago, if you want an alliance at the moment, it’s some point in time when they do fit each other or when they can support each other’s rhetoric. But this is just for that moment, if something with more benefits shows up for Iran, they will take that path. In the past.

In the past they also had relations, because Russia had been on, for example, to build a nuclear plant. The process is ongoing, it is not finished yet. However, I have no doubt that if Iran is offered an opportunity to to open toward the West, it will take that that opportunity regardless of what Moscow will say or what Moscow will offer, because from a pragmatic point of view, from realpolitik point of view, it will be more beneficial for for the Iranian part. And they know that Russia is a lost cause, because by invading Ukraine, Russia undermined its own rhetoric, its own credibility. And Iran has nothing to do with it. I mean, even if they support the Kremlin’s rhetoric, they wouldn’t mind switching their discourse toward something which would bring more benefits to them.

Yes, we are aware of certain Iranian official positions. We even publish it with our media now that the war in Ukraine is a fact, Russia no longer can be the arbiter in the Middle East. It is no longer equally connected or equally disconnected from all the parties in the region. Apparently, Turkey is coming out as some kind of mediator and arbiter, some kind of middle space in the conflict in Ukraine. And that is another issue I would like to take up with you.

We see that Turkish drones are very popular within the Ukrainian army and they’re causing some damage to Russian forces. At the same time, Russian-Turkish nuclear cooperation is advancing. And Turkey’s one of the maybe the few countries of. the region, which increased its trade with Russia in the conditions when there are sanctions upon Russia. So it is quite an interesting position which Turkey has and what is the explanation how Turkey manages to have this position, given that he is also a NATO member? And what does this position mean for the countries of South Eastern Europe where we are with you?

I think this war invasion, as cynical as it sounds, brought many advantages for Turkey and actually put Erdogan in a very favorable position because as you well mentioned, Turkey sent to Ukraine those famous drones Bayraktar, which really caused huge damages among the Russian army. On the other hand, President Erdogan was the first one to mediate the first encounter between Russia and Ukraine, even if so to say the second or third level. It was not a high diplomatic meeting, but those parts met for the first time in Turkey. That was a few months ago. And then also they mediated this deal under whose provision for the first time since the war started, Ukraine is able to export some grains. And actually there are already four ships which sailed from Ukraine. One ship sailed to Lebanon, if I’m not mistaken, to Tripoli, port in the north and Lebanon. And another three ships sailed, one to Turkey, another one to Ireland and another one to Great Britain. So basically Turkey mediated, somehow managed to put these two parts at the negotiating table and to write down some provisions and if those provisions will be respected some of the Ukrainian grains are going to be sent to each country again. Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan. They just met in Sochi and they also discussed Syria and they discussed Ukraine and they also discussed enhanced cooperation in diverse fields of industry and economics. And I might say I would dare to say that Erdogan is quite bold and he is playing his card very well. He is a very close ally to Ukraine, because it helps Ukraine and sends military capabilities. On the other hand, he knows how to handle Vladimir Putin. And he’s also an ally of the Western countries because Turkey is a NATO member, and is the second army in NATO in Turkey. The United States has some nuclear capabilities at Incirlik military base. So basically, if you want Turkey, it’s all over the places it is in everything and it’s playing very well. This card, how long is this going to last? We just have to wait and to see if at one point the Western countries, particularly the United States, will ask Turkey to pick up a side because you cannot play in the both sides – to be friend with Putin and and to be the Western friend or if Turkey will be allowed to play further on this strategic ambiguity, if you want. It’s very interesting because for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, this year is very important and next year is going to be more important because next year Turkey is going to celebrate the centennial of the republic, and they will also have presidential elections. So Erdogan is showing also that he can play foreign policy and he can put Turkey in that position to be a very important actor on the international stage, although it doesn’t really have the means, the necessary means to be a great power. It’s not going to be a great power, but at least it’s enforcing its position as a very strong regional power.

At this point, when we speak, the most important pivots are Poland and Turkey, because Poland is very strong against Russia and it helps Ukraine a lot and is taking a very strong position against the Kremlin. And the leadership from Poland never hesitated to condemn and to take very strong and bold actions against Moscow. And on the other hand, we have Turkey with President Erdogan playing strong, playing board on both sides on the western side and also on Asian or Russian side. And he’s not afraid to do this. As I said, I cannot say right now how long he’s going to do this, how long he will be able to do this, because we can wake up one day with this position coming from Washington of sending a message toward Ankara: “Ok, you have to choose which side we are playing on the western side or the Russian side.” We’ll see then what kind of decision President Erdogan will take? But I assume at this point that his game, if you want, metaphorically speaking, it’s quite long and he can play at least for a medium term. He can play as a mediator and he can play, on the other hand, as a NATO member and Western ally.

Let us also have some kind of a perspective from the position of Southeastern Europeans on this Turkish strategic ambiguity. Just yesterday, the leader of the party he Bulgarian Turks Karadayı was on all media in Bulgaria, and he unveiled that he had a recent meeting with Erdogan, and he said that a harsh winter is coming and Turkey can be of support. Basically, that was the message. And also, curiously, we have a temporary government in Sofia, which makes some hints of possible return to Gazprom as a source of natural gas. And we know that Gazprom supplies Bulgaria and also maybe Romania through Turkey. Even yesterday, there were protests in Sofia against such a possible return to Gazprom as a source of natural gas. So I may ask you, what is Romanian or what is the regional perspective on this strategic ambiguity? Are our countries going to become a little bit more strategic, ambiguous themselves like maybe Bulgaria tries to do maybe or not? We will see. And what is the Romanian interest or position in these conditions?

As far as I know, Romania does not have a huge dependency on Russian gas. We just started to exploit those reserves from the Black Sea. We shall see how long they will take. How long it will take up to the maximum point of extraction, so we can use the full capacity, whatever we take from there. But what I would take out from here is the following: both Romania and Bulgaria are NATO members and EU members. So basically their foreign policy is going to be the very same as is the United States and the European Union. So if your country decides, for example, to resume the import to Gazprom, which is a Russian company, it’s the Russian gas that it means… I do not have very big knowledge about your internal policy either or about domestic Romanian domestic policies. But I’m sure there are some contingency plans and the main line of our policy is going to be aligned with the Western one because it has to be like this and any other discussions on the side of this line. It shouldn’t be taken into account. Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s a red line which has been crossed. But other matters, economic matters, domestic matters, have to be aligned to the Western policy. As we can see even nowadays, Germany is importing some gas from Russia.

But it is the European policy to disconnect as soon as possible from all these natural reserves coming from Russia. It takes time. It cannot happen from one day to another. We need logistics. We need some kind of infrastructure. So we need some kind of supplier. And that’s why Mr. Biden went to Saudi Arabia and even the European partners are negotiating with some countries from the Middle East and North Africa region. So it’s going to be a process. And I’m quite sure that in a couple of years, two, three years maximum, the Western countries, the EU countries, including Romania and Bulgaria, somehow will manage to disconnect from Russia regarding the oil and gas import.

Regarding our country’s relations with Turkey. As far as I know, they are quite good. There are diplomatic ties, very well diplomatic ties. We have this common space – the Black Sea region, we are three of us, different countries. So as far as I know, up to this point, there are no points of controversy. Erdogan is adapting and is building his own strategy. Romania is building its own strategy, but it’s leaning towards the west. Romania cannot be in the same negotiating position as Mr. Erdogan is. We are approaching this issue very differently. Turkey, of course, and it can and it wants Turkey to pose itself as a mediator. No one. I speak Romania did not assume this position. And if you ask me, Romania took the right path up to this point. You need to position yourself at that point or in a point where you can handle the situation. We don’t believe that he can handle the situation and we shall see if he’s going to do it to the end. I do not believe in Romania either. Bulgaria, as I said, I’m not very updated with the internal politics of Bulgaria, but up to date I can really say that Romania did not adopt a strategic ambiguity. Everything. It came from the Romanian presidency or from the Romanian Minister of Foreign Affairs exclusively toward the West. Any line of foreign policy is in line exclusively with Washington or the European Union policy.

Ioana, thank you very much for this interview. I understand that there are a lot of speculations when there is war and when there are all types of combinations and attempts to somehow progress or at least not have many damages. So I believe we are thinking a little bit more critically about all the issues which we discussed. And I invite our listeners and viewers and readers as well to follow Cross-border Talks on all media, which we are at, like YouTube, Telegram, Twitter, etc. Thank you.

Photo: The Turkish president Recep Erdogan enjoys the trust of his Russian colleague Vladimir Putin, while delivering drones to the Ukrainian army that confronts the Russian troops (source: http://www.kremlin.ru)

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