Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine, Europe’s security landscape has been rapidly changing. Defense spending is up in many European Union countries, NATO’s essence has been reinvigorated and Russia is now not only one of the most sanctioned states in the world but widely perceived as a pariah.
For many European countries, save Hungary and Serbia, picking a side has been rather easy with no strings attached. However, Turkey is in a much more precarious position. Compounding the complexity is its geographical location and its commercial, energy, and military ties with both Russia and Ukraine.
Thus far, Turkey has been mostly convergent with its NATO allies in supporting Ukraine. Apart from supplying Ukraine with lethal weapons, it also closed the Bosporus to Russian military vessels and its airspace to Russian jets flying to Syria. However, it refrained from imposing sanctions on Russia, primarily because these sanctions were not levied by the UN. Yet it is respected enough by both sides: Turkey remains the only country that has secured a face-to-face meeting between Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers since the start of the war and has even hosted a round of negotiations between Ukrainian and Russian delegations.
Inadvertently, Turkey's closure of the Bosporus is slowly placing Russia’s wider geopolitical designs in the Mediterranean under greater pressure, as it was its Black Sea fleet in Sevastopol that has been responsible for reinforcing its troops and allies in Syria and Libya.
Ankara has obvious economic, security, and geopolitical stakes in the current conflict, but it is careful not to burn bridges with Russia and end up entangled in economic conundrums. To start with, Russia is a vital trading partner, providing 45 percent of its natural gas, 17 percent of its oil demand, and a colossal 70 percent of its wheat, a high-priority import at a time of escalating bread prices. Russia is also Turkey’s biggest source of tourists—and thereby hard currency—with its 4.7 million visitors accounting for 19 percent of all travelers to the country in 2021. Russia’s energy giant ROSATOM is also building Turkey’s first nuclear power plant, meant to start operating in 2023. Turkey cannot afford to lose such a vital partner at a time when the Turkish lira lost 47 percent of its value in less than a year, and inflation increased to a 20-year high. Though Turkey and Russia have had a fluctuating relationship, including Turkey downing a Russian jet in 2015, it is worth recalling that it was the July 2016 coup attempt that brought the two leaders closer—while then-President Barack Obama and his European counterparts sat on a fence, Russian president Vladimir Putin immediately called Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and extended him all the support he could provide.
Of no less importance is Ukraine for Turkey. Turkey’s Erdogan denounced Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and is a firm supporter of Crimean Tatars who have suffered immensely under Russian rule. Trade between the two, as well as investments, has been on the rise. As of 2021, Turkey was the largest foreign investor in Ukraine, totaling nearly $4.5 billion, with more than 700 Turkish companies operating in Ukraine. Though Turkish officials have refused to disclose details of drone sales to Ukraine, independent estimates believe Ukraine has purchased between twenty and fifty Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drones as well as MILGEM Ada-class corvettes. For Turkey, Ukraine represents a venue where military products can be tested in real combat situations, which significantly raises their pricing and reputation on world markets. Because of strained relations with its NATO partners, Turkey is hedging its bets on increased military-technical cooperation with Ukraine. Last year, for example, Motor Sich agreed to provide Turkish defense company Baykar with thirty turboprop engines to use in its Akinci high-altitude strike drones. Such cooperation, using reliable Ukrainian engines and advanced Turkish technology, catapulted Turkey into the stratosphere of the global defense market.
Turkey’s support of Ukraine has ruffled feathers in Moscow. In March 2021, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov thundered: “We strongly recommend that our Turkish colleagues carefully analyse the situation and stop fueling Kyiv’s militaristic sentiment.”
Moscow emerged as a counter-balancer for Ankara when the strategic decoupling with Washington began back in 2014 over Washington’s support for Marxist Kurdish rebels. As a rising middle power bordering the Balkans, Mediterranean, Middle East, and Caucasus, Turkey sought a multifaceted foreign policy that often conflicted with its NATO allies. Now with the war in Ukraine, Erdogan, much like his World War II predecessor Ismet Inonu, seeks to keep Turkey out of the conflict while maximizing his own room to maneuver and carving out a framework for his country’s strategic autonomy. However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its hardening posture in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea triggered a startling NATO response. As Şaban Kardaş notes “The strategic ambiguity of Moscow’s designs has been laid bare. The main challenge to Turkey’s strategic autonomy will now be devising ways to live with a new Russia.'”
The Black Sea—once dubbed an Ottoman Lake due to the empire’s supremacy over it—has an important place in the country’s psyche. But the geopolitics and balance of power in Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region are now fundamentally changing. This means that the main challenge to Turkey’s strategic autonomy will be devising ways to live with a belligerent and ever more assertive Russia which sees the Black Sea as its access point to the Mediterranean region, where its role has been growing significantly in recent years. Turkey has demonstrated a keen interest in cooperating with Kyiv in subregional politics in order to counterbalance Russia in fields such as naval deterrence, food security, military cooperation, and energy. However, Turkey is all too aware that on the international stage, Russia has much more geostrategic value for Turkey than Ukraine does.
As we have seen in the cases of Syria and Iraq, Turkey often suffers the most from emerging instability in its neighborhood. Hence, maintaining a constructive engagement with a declining great power, at a very volatile period, will be immensely challenging, yet it will be the only viable path forward. Turkey will most likely continue to pursue a pragmatic foreign policy that is neither pro-Ukraine, nor pro-Russia, but entirely pro-Turkey.
Harun Karčić is a journalist and political analyst covering the Balkans and Turkey. Over the past decade, he has authored numerous articles on Islam and foreign influence in the region, including Saudi, Iranian, Turkish, and more recently Chinese and Russian. He also regularly reports on Muslim minorities in Europe and rising right-wing nationalism. He tweets @HarunKarcic.