Turkey is trying to offload its problems onto Trump

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to CNN.

Every week, I offer a glimpse of the kind of intelligence assessments that are likely to come across the desk of the President of the United States. Modeled on the President’s Daily Briefing, or PDB, which the director of national intelligence prepares for the President almost daily, my Presidential Weekly Briefing focuses on the topics and issues the President needs to know to make informed decisions.

Here’s this week’s briefing:

Going cold Turkey

We’ve come a long way since your fist-bumping with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the NATO summit last month. After you announced higher tariffs against Turkish steel and aluminum, viewed as a punishment for Erdogan’s refusal to release American pastor Andrew Brunson, Erdogan came out swinging against you and your policies. We are sharing our assessment on how Erdogan will likely respond to your actions and his own domestic pressures.

  • He won’t back down. Erdogan won’t release Brunson quickly. You and Erdogan may have worked out a deal to secure Brunson’s release, but it likely fell apart because Erdogan is moving the goalposts. He wants more from you, including the extradition of cleric Fethullah Gulen, who he blames for a failed coup attempt, among other reasons. And he’ll likely try to pressure you into turning over Gulen and giving more concessions than he already asked for because he thinks you’re fixated on Brunson’s release, even if at a high cost.
  • He’ll make this about you. Erdogan will make this a Trump story so the bad press is not about him. He can now conveniently blame you for Turkey’s economic mess, despite the fact that Turkey’s economy nosedived long before you sanctioned two of his officials and raised tariffs. The lira has been in a tailspin for months, but after it spiraled further on Friday, Erdogan referenced a “national struggle” against economic warfare that you started, while failing to mention downside risks to the Turkish economy that are of his making.
  • He’ll allow a hike. Erdogan managed to keep the Turkish economy stable for years, which benefited his lower- and middle-income base, but no more. Erdogan has stymied the independence of the Central Bank, installed his son-in-law as minister of finance and more generally curtailed sound economic policymaking. The lira has lost more than 30% of its value this month alone, his foreign debt ratio is through the roof and inflation is expected to reach 13% this year. So, he needs to do something, and we assess that the Central Bank will make an emergency interest rate hike to tamper inflation and try to assuage foreign investors’ concerns over whether the Central Bank is allowed to operate independently.
  • He’ll turn east. As a NATO ally, Erdogan agreed to last month’s Brussels Declaration, which stated that Russia’s aggressive actions “challenge the alliance.” But that hasn’t stopped him from cozying up to Russian President Vladimir Putin and buying defense assets from him (a US sanctions violation) or voicing contentment over Russia and Turkey’s ongoing cooperation in the energy and defense industry sectors during a conveniently timed phone call on Friday. Erdogan is likely trying to publicly signal he could go over to the dark side, aka the anti-NATO, Putin side. We should also expect Turkey to draw even closer to Iran. President Hassan Rouhani, President Putin and President Erdogan already work together on Syria, and now all three countries are under US sanctions (Turkey has already said they won’t implement your “unfair” sanctions against Iran.) Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran would stand by Turkey and decried your global bullying campaign. His statements echoed Erdogan’s statement last week that US “bullying will not cut it” with Turkey. Expect this threesome to share talking points against you while they draw closer together.
  • He will reciprocate: Erdogan wrote on Friday that Turkey “will take care of its own business if the United States refuses to listen.” Erdogan won’t take this lying down, he responded to your original sanctions against two of his government ministers by reciprocating with sanctions of his own. In response to your raising tariffs on steel and aluminum, he may want to take a reciprocal economic measure, but he is somewhat constrained because he doesn’t want to risk a trade war that could inflict more harm on the Turkish economy. So, Erdogan may be forced to make more of a symbolic gesture against you — like expelling a US diplomat or two — rather than risk actual economic warfare. If things escalate further, he could retaliate against our military to military relationship, including the depth of our intelligence sharing, the ability to place and operate assets and personnel (including nuclear weapons) at Incirlik Air Base, and Turkish contributions to NATO (it doesn’t meet the 2% defense spending commitment yet but has the second largest NATO army after the United States.)

Russia: Something’s cooking

If history is any guide, we should expect Putin to retaliate against your latest round of sanctions, and he’s probably planning how he’ll hit you back. He’s met your punitive actions against Russia in a reciprocal fashion in the past, and this time will be no different. When you expelled Russian diplomats from the United States and closed a Russian consulate, he did the same in return. When we required Russian media outlets to register as foreign agents, he required nine US backed media outlets to do the same in Russia. It’s a tit-for-tat relationship.

Your new sanctions on certain American exports to Russia — exports that could have military uses — already sentthe Russian ruble to a two-year low, and we expect a Russian response targeting Russian exports to the United States. But Putin is also under economic pressure and won’t want to cut off his nose to spite his face — meaning he’ll sanction something that won’t cost Russian firms a lot of money. One Russian lawmaker said Putin may stop the export of national security items like RD-180 rocket engines, which we use to launch government satellites into space.

But he may wait to see if you move ahead with the second stage of these sanctions, which kick in 90 days from now — assuming Russia doesn’t satisfy the requirements forestalling this second round of sanctions, which we think it is unlikely to do. The second tranche could even curb Aeroflot — Russia’s state airline — flights to the United States. If Aeroflot is banned, we could also see Putin ban specific flights by American carriers into Russia.

North Korea: Only you

We assess that North Korea is going to keep taking a divide and conquer approach with you. They have beentrying to separate Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “gangster-like” approach from your “intentions” for weeks, despite knowing that Pompeo, Ambassador Nikki Haley, and national security adviser John Bolton’s actions are likely official US government policy statements.

Adding to this trend, last week North Korea issued another statement, claiming that “[S]ome high-level officials within the US administration are making baseless allegations against us and making desperate attempts at intensifying the international sanctions and pressure,” which they say is “going against the intention of President Trump.”

In other words, Kim is trying to pit you against your team and make a not so subtle power play; he is messaging to the world that he knows your intentions better than your own team does. He is likely doing this because he’s upset that he hasn’t gotten any real sanctions relief from you despite the fact that he doesn’t deserve it — we’re still waiting for North Korea to take significant steps to denuclearize.

Kim probably thinks this divide and conquer strategy works. Putin has done it with palpable success. He has tried to distance you from your departments and agencies by not so subtly criticizing the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation and Department of Justice indictments against Russians, for example, while flattering you and meeting with you one-on-one in Helsinki. Kim’s probably following Putin’s divisive lead.

By Samantha Vinograd