Turkey's perspective on the crisis in Ukraine

Talks To Defuse Russia-Ukraine Tensions Resolve Little
8 min read
24 January, 2022

The situation in Ukraine has led to global fears about the possibility of a large-scale military conflict on the European continent.

Turkey, which has strongly backed Kyiv, has high stakes in the outcome of Ukraine’s crisis. As a NATO member that shares the Black Sea with Ukraine, Turkey is backing Kyiv in various ways that are significant.

Yet Turkish support for Ukraine comes with logical limits. Considering efforts by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government to continue cooperating with Russia in numerous areas while avoiding a major confrontation with Moscow, Ankara will only go so far in terms of putting itself at risk vis-à-vis the standoff in Ukraine.

Mindful of Turkey’s current economic problems, Ankara is particularly determined to avoid sliding into a conflict with Russia. This is not to say, however, that Turkey won’t want to continue supporting Ukraine in ways aimed at strengthening the eastern European country’s position against Moscow.

Despite major growth in Turkish-Russian cooperation in energy, tourism, and other sectors in recent years, Ankara finds itself unsettled by much about Russia’s foreign policy. From Russia’s support to the Syrian government and Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar to Moscow’s actions vis-à-vis Ukraine, the Kremlin has spent years advancing agendas that conflict with Ankara’s interests.

"Since 2014, Turkey's leadership has strongly opposed Russia's annexation of Crimea and voiced support for the Ukrainian state's territorial integrity, social cohesion, and national sovereignty"

“Russia is increasingly acting as a revisionist and resurgent power in Europe and elsewhere, which disturbs Turkey,” said Serhat S. Çubukçuoğlu, a senior researcher in geopolitics and a doctoral candidate in International Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS in Washington, DC, in an interview with The New Arab.

“Turkey and Russia have developed close ties after the 2016 failed coup attempt, but Russia is acting more aggressively in the region and that creates anxiety in Ankara.”

Turkey's interests in Ukraine

Since 2014, Turkey’s leadership has strongly opposed Russia’s annexation of Crimea and voiced support for the Ukrainian state’s territorial integrity, social cohesion, and national sovereignty. Ankara’s interests in standing by Ukraine and condemning Russia’s actions in relation to Crimea and Donbas stem from geopolitical and security concerns, plus many cultural and historic factors too.

Aside from strong diplomatic, rhetorical, and moral support, Turkish support for Ukraine has been most significant in the sphere of defence. In the Ukrainian military’s armed conflict with separatists in Donbas, the Bayraktar TB2 drones which Ankara has sold Kyiv have been making a difference. The Turks have also built corvettes for the Ukrainian Navy’s Black Sea fleet and there has been engine technology cooperation.

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Turkey worries about Russia’s actions in relation to Ukraine for various reasons that have motivated Ankara to provide Kyiv with such support. A primary concern for the Turks, which other NATO members share, “was based on the assumption that [Russia’s actions vis-à-vis Crimea and Donbas] would create a new balance of power in the region and beyond, by disrupting the international order which was created after the Cold War,” Dr Valeria Giannotta, a Turkey-based Italian academic and expert, told TNA.

“Those occupied lands are of great importance for Turkey both from a historical and symbolic point of view,” she explained. “The legacy of the Crimean War and the strong link with the Crimean Tatar community plays a discriminant role in Ankara’s support to Ukraine to the extent that Turkey has been warming [up to] the [idea of] Ukrainian membership in NATO. Hence, many cooperation defence agreements, along several bilateral visits, regular diplomatic contacts, and other contracts have been signed between Ankara and Kyiv.”

By the same token, Turkey’s defence partnership with Ukraine unsettles Moscow. “Altogether Turkey and Ukraine have a developing defence partnership that adds to the anxiety in Moscow [with] the NATO alliance getting closer to Russia’s soft underbelly and prompting [Russia to seek] ways to counter that perceived threat from the south and the west,” Çubukçuoğlu told TNA.

Last year, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Ankara’s support for Kyiv’s ambitions of retaking control of Crimea constitutes an “encroachment on Russia’s territorial integrity” which has been “feeding Kyiv's militaristic sentiment”.

Turkey's defence partnership with Ukraine unsettles Moscow. [Getty]

Balancing the West and the East

It is simply not possible to examine Ankara’s position in relation to the Ukrainian crisis without seeing Turkey as a NATO member. “Turkish actions regarding concrete support to Ukraine should be expected in accordance and in coordination with NATO,” explained Dr Murat Aslan, a researcher at the SETA Foundation and a faculty member at Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, in an interview with TNA.

“It must be more than a single country. It should cover an overall alliance just to stop Russian advances…towards Europe.”

Within this context, the Ukrainian crisis has helped Turkey improve relations with the US and other NATO allies. Considering several issues that have caused tension between Ankara and its traditional allies - including the S-400 missile defence spat, Western governments’ sponsorship of the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) in Syria, Turkey’s domestic affairs, etc. - Turkey benefits from the fact that the situation in Ukraine is showing how useful Ankara is as an ally of the US and other member-countries in the alliance.

The EastMed Pipeline project is a case in point. Although Washington was never involved in this pipeline connecting Israel, Cyprus, and Greece, the Trump administration backed it. Now the Biden administration has told Tel Aviv and Athens that Washington ceases to support this multibillion-dollar project, which was meant to counter Ankara’s position in the eastern Mediterranean while making Europe less dependent on Russian gas.

"Turkey and Russia have developed close ties after the 2016 failed coup attempt, but Russia is acting more aggressively in the region and that creates anxiety in Ankara"

Various analysts largely attribute this decision on the Biden administration's part to the White House’s desire to improve ties with Turkey because of the tense situation in Ukraine.

But there are many real limits to how closely Turkey wants to align with its NATO allies against Russia. “Turkey is treading a fine line of balance between NATO and Moscow,” Çubukçuoğlu told TNA. Experts seem to agree that Turkey will probably continue selling more armed UAVs to Kyiv. But Turkish support will stop short of any level that could subject Ankara to serious risks of a direct conflict with Russia.

“Erdogan cannot afford another fallout with Putin,” explained Çubukçuoğlu. “Thinking of examples in the past - from the downing of the Russian Su-24M in 2015 to the airstrike in Idlib, Syria that killed 34 Turkish soldiers in 2020 - Ankara can’t afford another crisis like that. Turkey’s interests lay in a stable, secure, and cooperative environment in the Black Sea. But it doesn’t have power to alter the facts on the ground,” he said.

“Expected gains from a military intervention on behalf of Kyiv are minuscule compared to the collateral damage that Russia would inflict on Turkey if hostilities break out into an armed conflict. Anyhow, Turkey is not obliged under binding treaty articles to assist Ukraine in any [Russian invasion] - neither is NATO.”

Trade is also an important factor. Bilateral trade between Turkey and Russia sits around $30 billion with the balance very much in the latter’s favour. As the Turks grapple with very serious economic problems, there is a huge interest in keeping Russian tourists coming to their country each year and keeping the flow of Russian gas into Turkey. Indeed, any interruption to the energy relationship between these two countries could make Turkey suffer severely.

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“Turkey would be on the receiving end of damages in the event of a major fallout with Russia,” emphasised Çubukçuoğlu. “Almost a third of Turkish gas imports are sourced from Russia, and of course there’s the potential use of energy as a weapon as we saw in Europe as a risk premium on Turkey’s economic outlook. Turkey’s going through dire straits in terms of its economy.”

At the end of the day, Turkey will approach the crisis in Ukraine in a way that is highly pragmatic. Ankara’s strategies for standing against Moscow in relation to Ukraine will be cautious and mindful of the various ways in which Russia has leverage over Turkey.

When it comes to Crimea, Donbas, and other sensitive international files concerning Moscow, Erdogan’s government will probably continue playing eastern and western powers off each other to Ankara’s own advantage.

Ukraine has unquestionably complicated this strategy, which aims to assert Turkey as an increasingly independent country that can rely on the NATO alliance to push back against Russia’s foreign policy agenda while also preventing Ankara from becoming too dependent on North American and European powers.

"Erdogan cannot afford another fallout with Putin"

Can Turkey be key to a diplomatic breakthrough?

An optimistic view of Turkey’s foreign policy suggests that Ankara’s unique position vis-à-vis Kyiv and Moscow could enable Turkey to help deescalate the Ukrainian crisis.

Although Russia has previously rejected the idea of permitting Turkey to mediate in the conflict because of its NATO membership, this month Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov spoke to the media about Ankara’s proposals for cooling the tensions in Ukraine. Peskov said, “If our Turkish partners are able to influence Kyiv and the implementation of the earlier reached agreements, this could only be welcomed.”

The Turkish head of state recently stated that he has plans to go to Ukraine next month and hopefully bring Russia and Ukraine’s leaders together for talks. “A psychology of war in the region upsets us, as a country that has ties with both sides,” explained President Erdogan at a press conference in Ankara. “Our wish is to bring Mr Putin and Mr Zelenskiy together as soon as possible.”

It would behove both NATO and Russia to welcome Ankara's efforts to move the sides toward reaching a middle ground that averts further escalation. Yet time will tell whether Turkey’s diplomatic energy can help bring about this outcome, which would be desirable for the whole world.

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics. 

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero