During the recent Russian troop buildup in occupied Crimea and across Ukraine’s eastern borders, Moscow announced that it was closing off parts of the Black Sea and Kerch Strait to foreign warships and other vessels from April 24 to October 31. The closure comes at a time of heightened political and military tensions not seen since the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and represents yet another unprovoked escalation in Moscow’s ongoing campaign to undermine and destabilize neighboring Ukraine.
The Kerch Strait is crucial to Ukraine as it connects the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea and hence ensures free passage to Ukrainian vessels from its port cities such as Mariupol to the outside world.
Russia is all too aware of the importance of the Black Sea.
Over the past two decades, Russia has consolidated its presence there by annexing Georgia’s Abkhazia region in 2008 and Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014. The Black Sea Fleet is responsible for bringing supplies to Russian forces in Syria, mostly based in the port of Tartus and Khmeimim air base, as well as for patrolling the eastern Mediterranean. The Kremlin’s 2015 Maritime Doctrine clearly prioritizes the Black Sea as a pillar of its power projection.
Once almost equally divided between littoral states, the annexation of Crimea tipped the balance of military power in the Black Sea in favor of Russia. Not only did Moscow cancel existing agreements with Ukraine which limited its Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol, but it stationed new military ships and submarines and installed a dense network of advanced weapons systems such as the S-400, the S-300, Pantsir-S1, and the Bastion-P anti-ship systems across the peninsula. It has also significantly increased its Exclusive Economic Zone and its Black Sea coastline.
Watching this military buildup with unease is Ukraine. Equally worried some 600km (375 miles) south is NATO member Turkey.
Turkey increasingly feels it is in the crosshairs of Russian regional ambitions. Turkey and Russia are no allies, but bitter frenemies. They support opposing sides from Bosnia, across Libya and all the way to Syria. Despite having robust commercial, energy, diplomatic, and military ties, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned back in 2016 that the Black Sea was becoming a “Russian lake’’ and advocated for a stronger NATO presence in the region.
Historically, the Ottoman Empire fought against Tsarist Russia twelve times between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries, losing almost all the wars. During the Cold War, Turkey covered NATO’s southern flank, bordered with the Soviet Union in what are today South Caucasus states and was projected to take a significant percentage of Soviet nuclear hits in the event of a war.
In Russia’s attempt to sew discord between two of the biggest standing armies in NATO, Moscow cleverly drew the wedge deeper after Ankara was angered following Washington’s arming of its archenemy—the Kurdish People’s Protection Units in Syria—an offshoot of the terrorist Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) organization. Then, following the U.S. procrastination to sell much-needed Patriot missiles to Turkey, Moscow stepped in and offered the equally advanced S-400 which Turkey badly needed to secure its southeastern border.
Though they may cooperate, there is no love.
So feeble is trust between Moscow and Ankara that when Turkey’s President Erdogan mildly supported Ukraine in the backdrop of a huge Russian military buildup along its borders in April, Russia immediately suspended all air travel to Turkey until June 1, ostensibly due to rising Covid-19 infection rates. However, all three sides understood the message. As a sign of gratitude to Ankara, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called on his fellow citizens to spend their summers in Turkey and make up for the loss of Russian tourists.
Conventional wisdom calls for greater cooperation between Ukraine and Turkey in order to constrain Russian designs in the Black Sea.
Geopolitically, the two countries were drawn closer together following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. Turkey denounced the annexation and voiced its support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but stopped short of slapping sanctions on Russia. Ankara views Ukraine as a crucial buffer against Russia and has been a strong advocate for its acceptance into NATO. Seeing the EU divided over Ukraine and fluctuating American interest during the Trump administration, Turkey stepped up its cooperation with Ukraine, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, seeing these countries as instrumental in balancing Russian military presence in the region. Turkey would love to see a greater NATO presence in the Black Sea, however, the 1936 Montreux Convention governing the free passage through the Bosporus Strait requires Ankara to limit the volume, tonnage, and length of stay of all vessels belonging to non-littoral Black Sea states. This is an uncomfortable position for Turkey, as it is legally obliged to limit NATO’s naval access to the Black Sea. Nevertheless, the Convention suits Moscow and explains Russian President Vladimir Putin’s insistence on preserving it, despite Turkey pondering on withdrawing its signature.
Then, faced with growing animosity in Western capitals, Ankara views Ukraine as a partner in the development of military technology. Turkey is working with Ukrainian companies to develop diesel engines for its fifth-generation fighter jets and Altay main battle tanks. Ukraine also produces engines for Turkey’s armed Bayraktar drones, which have tipped the balance of power in favor of Turkey’s allies in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh. In 2019, Ukraine purchased 12 Bayraktar TB2 military drones, with confirmed plans to acquire five more. In 2020, another contract between Turkey and Ukraine's engine developer company Icvhenko-Progress was signed to deliver AI-35 engines that are expected to be used in Turkey's new cruise missile—Gezgin. Recently, Ukraine also agreed to buy four of Turkey’s MILGEM Ada-class corvettes, famed for their maneuverability. Such cooperation, using reliable Ukrainian engines and Turkish advanced technology, allows Turkey to export its own military hardware without the worry of securing export licenses that it can no longer obtain from the United States or Europe. As for Kiev, after having been cut off from the Russian market, Turkey provides access to advanced technological know-how and is a new partner for cooperation.
Crimean Tatars are another factor that bind Ukraine and Turkey. The Crimean Khanate existed as an autonomous entity within the Ottoman Empire for six centuries before Russia’s occupation of the peninsula in 1783. In the early twentieth century, millions of Crimean Tatars were ethnically cleansed—either massacred or forced abroad death trains to Central Asia—with most survivors fleeing to the safety of Turkey. This sizeable Crimean Tatar minority today is vocal, active, and influential in Turkey and a major lobbying force for greater Turkish involvement in Crimea. Tatars still feature prominently in Turkey’s foreign policy agenda and are often utilized as proof of Ankara’s care for its Turkic kin. On the other hand, Ukraine—though having discriminated against and marginalized its Tatar population prior to losing Crimea in 2014—now uses them as a major talking point in evoking Turkey’s sentimental soft spot for their Muslim brethren.
Turkey alone cannot be blamed for intensifying its commercial and military cooperation with Russia. After all, fellow NATO member Germany is defiant on completing its Nord Stream II pipeline (that will transport Russian gas directly to Germany)—despite Washington’s objections—and continues to be Russia’s top trading partner. Unlike Turkey which ardently supports Ukraine’s NATO membership, Germany openly opposes including Kiev in the alliance, fearing that it will anger Moscow. Likewise, French President Emmanuel Macron called for a dialogue with Russia and not for more sanctions in the backdrop of increased Russian malign activity in Europe.
The Trump administration did treat Ukraine as an encumbrance and a political football. Such an approach seems to have emboldened Vladimir Putin to pursue his aggressive foreign policy and shows no signs of retreating so far as the Black Sea is concerned. Moscow continues to stonewall every Western-backed opportunity for a negotiated settlement, gambling on the eventual collapse of international interest to find a peaceful solution.
But Moscow will not satisfy its appetite with Ukraine. It has never given up on the Balkans, nor the Caucasus either. That is why reinvigorating military relations with Ukraine will contribute to American interests by thwarting Russian territorial expansionism, foiling its designs in the Black Sea, safeguarding NATO allies in the Balkans, and boosting pro-American deterrence in a region that has become a springboard for Russian military power projection in the Middle East.
But Ukraine can hardly achieve any of these goals without the support of Turkey. As James Jeffrey, the former U.S. envoy to Syria, recently stated, “We really can’t do the Middle East, the Caucuses, or the Black Sea without Turkey. And, Turkey is a natural opponent of Russia and Iran.”
The United States and Turkey have been on opposing ends over a number of regional issues lately. But if President Joe Biden is serious about containing Russia and Iran, he will need Turkey’s exponentially expanded geopolitical and military clout. So, instead of having a perpetual punitive approach toward the second-largest NATO member, President Biden needs a better understanding of Ankara’s legitimate security concerns.