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Turkey’s Delicate Balance between Russia and Ukraine

Turkish foreign policy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has in the last years always been a matter of treading a fine line, mixing a brinkmanship that has ruffled the West with pragmatism to avert disaster when required. At a time of economic crisis at home, keeping this balance has become even more important. Irrespective of what kind of intervention Russia could launch in Ukraine, the crisis over Turkey’s fellow Black Sea littoral state risks creating a potentially dangerous wobble for the authorities as Turkey walks a strategic tightrope.

Personal Ties between Erdogan and Putin

Ever since the night of July 15, 2016, Turkey’s relationship with Russia has been a pillar of foreign policy under Erdogan. It was on that summer evening that President Vladimir Putin – with far greater alacrity than any Western counterpart, picked up the phone and gave Erdogan his full backing in the wake of the coup attempt. The gesture sealed a reconciliation that had already been agreed earlier that summer to end a row sparked by the downing of a Russian warplane over Syria by Turkey that had sparked a bitterly personal shouting match between Erdogan and Putin.

From then on, both sides have profited from an alliance that has consistently troubled the West with its robustness and ability to overcome crises. Even if both countries were on different sides in the conflicts in Libya, Syria and even to a certain extent Nagorno-Karabakh, they found ways to cooperate and catch an often-sleeping West unawares. Erdogan now has an immense personal stake in the relationship with “dostum” (my friend) Putin, with whom he shares so much in common in his strongman leadership of a young nation still obsessed with its imperial past. It gives resource-poor Turkey a new aspect to its coveted strategic leverage with the West, while Russia is also behind critical infrastructure projects in the country like the TurkStream pipeline and the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.

But throughout this period of repeated telephone calls and sun-kissed summits amid the palms at Putin’s residence in Sochi on the Black Sea, the issue of Ukraine has lurked. Erdogan never moved to downgrade ties with Russia’s pro-EU neighbour which harbours an ambition to join Ankara as a key NATO member on the eastern flank. 

The Ukrainian Dilemma

Turkey remains a staunch opponent of Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea where, according to activists, the Turkic Tatar minority are the targets of persecution by the Russian local authorities. The Ankara-Kyiv relationship is in many ways a much more logical bond than Ankara-Moscow. Of comparable geographic size, the two countries’ relationship is burdened by none of the historical baggage that shadows ties between Turkey and Russia whose predecessor states fought for supremacy in the Black Sea region for centuries. Parts of modern Ukraine were even for a brief period part of Ottoman territory – think of the minaret that to this day stands outside the St Peter and Paul Cathedral in the western town of Kamianets-Podilskyi. The vast square in central Kyiv that was the centre of the uprising that ousted the pro-Russian authorities in 2014 is known to all as the maidan, a word for square from Middle Eastern rather than Slavic languages. Turkish investment has flowed into Ukraine over the last years, while at least until the pandemic flag carrier Turkish Airlines was flying to a bewildering number of destinations in the country (Istanbul-Zaporizhzhya anyone?).

Above all, Turkey took the pivotal strategic decision to supply Ukraine with his armed drones, probably the most successful and sought-after military hardware Turkey has produced at home. Under the stewardship of Erdogan’s son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar, this weaponry has proved game changing in theatres including Libya and Karabakh. Ukraine has already deployed the TB2 Bayraktar drones to fight the pro-Moscow separatists who control two breakaway unrecognised regions in the east of the country. Putin in a telephone call on December 3 expressed irritation to Erdogan over Ukraine’s use of the drones, which he describes as “provocative”. The tensions prompted another January 2 telephone call with Erdogan that was clearly about more than just New Year greetings. It seems that the relationship between Turkey and Russia is unbalanced, with Turkey more dependent on Russia than the other way around. Russian gas supplies keep Turkey's homes warm while the southern Mediterranean coast's economy is dependent on the influx of Russian tourists - a lever Moscow has not been afraid to use in past crises.

Turkey has been getting away with the brazen double-dealing that has seen Ankara's foreign policy based on a partnership with Russia that occupies and backs separatists in Turkey's natural and longstanding ally Ukraine until now.. But an outbreak of a new conflict sparked by a Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a nightmare for Erdogan, one that Turkey would find hard to use to its advantage given its claim to be the perfect mediator. So far, Moscow has shown no sign of interest in Ankara's mediation noises.  The Turkish leader is not one to shy away from risk, but he has gambled that the extreme scenarios of an invasion leading to an explosive post-Cold War conflict will not materialize.. But a war could alter the balance of the Russia-Turkey relationship by exposing in the face of the Kremlin the extent of Ankara’s military cooperation with Kyiv through Ukraine’s use of the Bayraktar drones. On the other hand, it could also show up Turkey as an unreliable NATO ally that prefers to stay on the side-lines even when a conflict erupts within its very own eastern neighbourhood. In a rare warning to Russia, Erdogan in January urged Putin not to invade Ukraine, describing the nation as a “powerful” country and saying: “You can’t just deal with issues by saying 'I will invade, and I will take it'.

To Where from Here

A favourite axiom of foreign policy under Erdogan in the more harmonious early days of his rule was komşularla sıfır sorun (zero problems with neighbours). With the Turkish leader under heavy economic pressure ahead of the 2023 presidential elections, the slogan is now making a comeback as Ankara seeks to ease external tensions. Reconciliation is now underway with Armenia, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. But a new conflict in Ukraine would cause a lot of problems with a lot of neighbours.

Stuart Williams
Stuart Williams

Stuart Willams is a journalist specialising in international affairs in Europe and the Black Sea region. He has worked for Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency in postings including Tehran, Moscow and Istanbul. He speaks languages including Russian and Turkish.

Foreword There have been numerous significant developments for TPQ since 2022. Our recent rebranding as Transatlantic Policy Quarterly not only reflects our expanded focus on international issues with broad implications for European and American politics, but also incorporates a new vision for the future. Our most recent issues focused on various aspects of the broader challenges and...