Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Turkey has chosen to maintain a delicate balance, adopting a strategy that seemed fraught with risks. Ankara consistently supported Ukraine politically and militarily without economically alienating Russia. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly asserted his ability to mediate between Russia and the West, often extracting valuable concessions in the process. Turkey’s actions, which could have strained Moscow-Ankara relations, included a shift in Turkey’s stance regarding Sweden’s NATO membership and the drones’ sale to Kyiv, both of which heightened tensions between the two countries. Additionally, Ankara’s release of five leaders of the Azov Battalion in violation of an agreement that required their continued detention further contributed to the escalation of tensions until the end of the war.
The Azov Battalion led the defense of Mariupol city, located on the Sea of Azov, until its fall to Russian forces in May 2022. At that time, several battalion leaders surrendered after holding out for over three months in tunnels and shelters beneath the Azovstal.
In this study, we examine Turkey’s key policies regarding the crisis in Ukraine, exploring the reasons that led Turkey to maintain its relations with Russia while simultaneously upholding its commitments as a member of NATO. We also analyze the losses and gains Turkey has experienced and may continue to experience as a result of its policy.
Highlighting Turkey’s Central Role within NATO
Despite Turkey’s membership in NATO, its strategic relations with Russia have positioned it to play a crucial role in the Ukrainian war. Erdogan seems to be balancing between NATO, Russia, and Ukraine. It is reasonable to say that Turkey’s actions alongside Western nations have played a role in affirming Turkey’s significance and central role there. This influence is evident not only concerning Russia and Ukraine but also within NATO, where Turkey boasts the second-largest military.
Erdogan’s situations have attracted criticism from Russian lawmakers and hardline nationalists. The Turkish president publicly stated that Ukraine also deserves NATO membership at some point in the future. There have been several points of tension between Turkey and Russia since the onset of the Ukrainian war in February 2022.
Time will determine whether Turkey’s pro-Western stances will pave the way for its accession to the European Union, However, Turkey’s influence within NATO and its expanding role in the Ukrainian conflict enhance Ankara’s strength. While some analysts believe Turkey’s shift towards the West is primarily due to its economic crisis, it also appears to reap military benefits. One day after President Erdogan dropped his resistance regarding Sweden’s NATO acceession, the United States announced its intention to proceed with the transfer of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey.
Despite Ankara often appearing as a supporter of Ukraine, the United States simultaneously imposed sanctions on Turkish entities, accusing them of aiding Moscow in circumventing American sanctions. This seemingly stems from Turkey not joining the American sanctions alliance against Moscow since the outbreak of the war. Putin and Erdogan have maintained a close relationship.
This isn’t the first time the collaboration between the two countries persists despite clear political differences. Both Russia and Turkey have supported conflicting parties in various ongoing conflicts, including Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh.
Analyses suggest that Putin views Ankara as a reliable axis capable of mediating in the Black Sea Grain Deal before Russia’s withdrawal from the agreement. Based on this, Erdogan informed Putin in September 2022 that Turkey was prepared to mediate in negotiations regarding security at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station.
In collaboration with the United Nations, Turkey mediated an agreement in July 2022 allowing Ukraine to resume shipping foodstuffs from three ports on the Black Sea. Under this initiative, ship inspections and cargo oversight were supervised by Turkey, facilitating the movement of ships to and from Ukraine. Approximately 33,000 tons of grain left Ukraine during the agreement’s validity, with Ankara playing a crucial role.
For Turkey, it seems imperative to continue striking a delicate balance in light of its current economic crisis, leading to an increasing reliance on foreign currencies, where Russia remains a significant source. Naturally, Russia also acknowledges its need for unconventional trade routes provided by Turkey. Therefore, analysts believe that a significant deterioration in relations between the two countries in the near future is unlikely. In fact, it is recognized that Moscow understands Turkey’s commitments to NATO. A Kremlin spokesperson emphasized that Russia has no illusions regarding Ankara’s responsibilities within the NATO alliance.
Turkey sees the possibility of becoming a potential center for gas exports to Europe, stemming from its refusal to join Western sanctions imposed on Russia. On the sidelines of the regional summit that brought together the leaders of both countries in Kazakhstan on October 13, 2023, Putin proposed to Erdogan the construction of a new gas pipeline in Turkey. This pipeline could theoretically supply Europe with Russian energy, especially after the disruption of the Nord Stream routes in the Baltic Sea last month. The aim is to transform Turkey into a new supply hub, attempting to maintain Russian energy influence in Europe.
This project positions Turkey as a hub for redirecting Russian gas to Europe, leveraging the benefits of the TurkStream gas pipeline that runs beneath the Black Sea to Turkey. The regular and complete flow of natural gas from Russia to Turkey, particularly as Moscow sees Ankara as the most reliable partner for gas delivery to the European Union, has encouraged Erdogan to undertake the construction of an international gas hub in Turkey. This move aligns with Russia’s strategic, long-term goal for the country.
Turkey’s interest in prolonging the duration of the war.
Many observers believe that Turkey is actively working to prolong the duration of the war in Ukraine because either a Russian defeat or victory does not serve Turkish interests. A completely weakened Russia does not benefit Turkey, as Turkey recognizes that its unique relationship with the Kremlin provides it with the ability to influence its allies in NATO. However, by keeping Russia engaged in Ukraine, Turkey reduces Russia’s ability to exert economic pressure or assert its strength in the Turkish sphere of influence in Central Asian republics. A weakened Russia would have fewer means to challenge Turkey in various conflicts.
Central Asian republics are among the places where Turkey could gain from Russian weakness. With the onset of the war, countries in the region became more cautious about aligning closely with Russia. The war and Russia’s economic isolation from the West undermine its economic influence in the region, weakening its role as a regional security leader. This opens the door for other geopolitical competitors like Turkey and China to enhance their presence in the former Soviet space. Ankara’s ambitions in Central Asia and the Caucasus have long clashed with Russian dominance. Moscow has openly opposed Turkey’s desire to establish a military base in Azerbaijan and views the Turkic Council with suspicion.
The Russian site Rhythm Eurasia suggests that Turkey is actively seeking to form a union of Turkish-speaking countries similar to the European Union. Through a flexible policy, Turkey aims to provide expertise and military support to these countries.
Turkey supplied military drones to Kyrgyzstan following the outbreak of the military conflict with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan’s announcement of importing Turkish drones. Central Asian armies have also received training from Turkish trainers, and Ankara has provided support in the form of ammunition and weapons supplies. according to the Russian site.
Turkey has an opportunity to gain U.S. support in its efforts to extend its influence in Central Asian republics, weakening its regional competitors in a resource-rich area. The growing global interest in Central Asian countries, particularly due to economic and security crises in the region, including the war in Ukraine, contributes to this opportunity.
The decline of Russian military operations in Ukraine and Ukraine’s emergence as a modern and well-trained military force can help deter Russian presence in the Black Sea without expanding NATO’s permanent presence. This strategic shift is likely to tilt the military balance in favor of Ankara in Syria and the Mediterranean, where Russia has also been a strategic competitor to Turkey.
The necessity of maintaining relations with Moscow.
Turkey aims, through its non-hostile policies towards Russia, to gain more freedom in its movements regarding regional issues of common interest, as seen in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Ankara was able to sign a memorandum of understanding on October 3, 2022, with the outgoing Government of National Unity in Libya, led by Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibah, regarding oil and gas exploration in the eastern Mediterranean.
Turkey also needs Moscow’s approval for its operations in Syria and Iraq against Kurdish forces, which are considered terrorist groups. These forces are crucial allies of the United States in the fight against the Islamic State. Erdogan seeks to leverage this situation at a time when the United States and other Western countries need Turkey.
Continuing relations with Moscow helps mitigate the negative repercussions of the war in Syria. The Russian presence in Syria could create problems for Turkey by destabilizing border regions and causing new refugee flows from Syria.
Turkey has close trade relations with Russia, especially with the trade volume between the two countries nearly doubling to around $30.7 billion in the first half of 2022, compared to about $15.3 billion during the corresponding period in 2021. This surge in bilateral trade occurred despite the Ukraine war’s repercussions and its impact on the tension in Black Sea navigation, connecting the two nations. Russia has now become Turkey’s largest supplier of goods, surpassing China, which was Turkey’s previous top supplier.
Russia represented 17% of Turkey’s imports from April to June 2022, compared to a 10% share in the corresponding period of the previous year. Turkey has also become a base for Russia to replenish its imports from abroad, thanks to the financial methods and approaches Ankara follows in its trade relationship with Moscow. Turkey ignores Western concerns about violating sanctions imposed on Moscow, justifying that Russian commodity flows simply reflect a shift in the trade patterns adopted by the private sector legally.
The Potential Risks
The nuanced Turkish policy towards the war in Ukraine carries risks for Turkey’s position and standing with Western countries. While economic cooperation between Turkey and Russia allowed for short-term solutions for Turkey, it had a long-term negative impact on Turkey’s overall perception of Ukraine and the West. According to a survey conducted by the New Europe Center, the level of distrust in Erdogan among Ukrainians jumped from 19.5% in 2021 to 46.6% in 2022.
Furthermore, deepening ties with the Russian economy could lead Turkey into an ‘economic disaster.’ Despite the doubling of Turkish-Russian trade between 2021 and 2022, reaching $68.1 billion, the European Union remains Turkey’s largest market, with trade amounting to $196.4 billion in 2022, making Ankara’s relations with European partners a top priority.
With the country’s ongoing need for significant foreign investments and reconstruction assistance following devastating earthquakes, Turkey may increasingly find itself compelled to lean towards the West to secure the necessary investments to rescue its ailing economy, as Russia may not offer much in this regard.
- Russia remains a primary source of Turkish energy imports and economic benefits. These considerations have significantly influenced Turkey’s desire to keep channels of cooperation with Russia open.
- Despite occasional warnings from the United States and Europe about the consequences of thriving trade with Russia, subject to increasing sanctions, Turkey received praise from Ukraine and the West for its firm refusal to recognize the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and its insistence on the territorial integrity of Crimea within the borders of 1991.
- Turkey has already benefited from the disruption of military operations in Ukraine. It started to push Russia out of the South Caucasus, gradually replacing it as a security partner for Turkic republics in Central Asia.
- Moscow’s overall weakened grip from the Adriatic Sea to the South China Sea presents multiple opportunities for Turkey, surpassing the short-term gains of trade deals.
- Ankara has shifted its regional cooperation focus from broad Turkish nationalist ideas to infrastructure and energy projects. Given the European Union’s goal to bypass Russia in oil and gas transit, Turkey’s regional activity is likely to be welcomed by the EU and the United States.
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