Russia’s unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine has forced countries around the world to re-examine their geopolitical choices. Turkey, a strategic partner of the two warring states, has been hit harder than most nations. Caught in a lose-lose situation where taking either side in the conflict would lead to a major rift with the other partner, he attempted to maintain friendly relations with Russia and Ukraine.
At the same time, the war gave Turkish leaders a chance to turn the challenges of this fragile balance into an opportunity by positioning Ankara as a potential mediator between Moscow and Kyiv.
While brokering a quick peace or even a ceasefire in this war is highly unlikely in the short term, Turkey nonetheless had a unique opportunity to mend its broken relationship with the West.
However, nearly four months into the war, hopes for such a rapprochement are beginning to fade, as Turkey’s balance gives way to a tilt towards Moscow. If Turkey wants to use the crisis to build bridges with the West, its time is running out.
Prior to Russia’s invasion, Turkey and Ukraine had begun to develop a defense industry partnership that served to bolster the security of both nations. He also drew praise for Turkey’s entrenchment in the West, seemingly at the cost of deeper military ties between Ankara and Moscow.
Turkey has been firm in its political support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and has consistently refused to recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. In recent months, he dismissed Russian criticism of the delivery of “Bayraktar” drones to Ukraine. At the start of the war, he closed the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to Russian ships, raising hopes that he would align himself with the rest of NATO in the defense of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s active diplomatic efforts for a peaceful resolution to the conflict have also drawn public praise from its NATO allies, which Turkish leaders have greatly appreciated after years of frosty relations with the West and with national elections looming in 2023. Senior US diplomats have made several visits to Turkey since the April launch of a new US-Turkey strategic mechanism aimed at normalizing bilateral relations. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu traveled to the United States to meet Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the first bilateral meeting of cabinet officials since President Joe Biden took office.
For the first time in a long time, Turkey not only acted in agreement with its transatlantic allies, but also took the lead in the region in a way that reinforced its importance as a key member of NATO. US officials have gone so far as to suggest that Turkey transfer its S-400 missile defense systems to Ukraine in a bid to finally solve the problem of Russian air defense systems stationed in a NATO member state and the consequent Western sanctions imposed on Ankara.
Turkey flatly rejected this proposal.
Instead, he slowly let domestic issues, regional geopolitics and pragmatism dictate his approach to war. As a result, Turkish leaders again seem eager to continue business as usual with an increasingly isolated Russia.
Although only obliged to close the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits to warships from warring states under Article 19 of the Montreux Convention, Ankara has also denied access to non-littoral NATO states. . Turkey’s fears of losing to the West in its ambitions for some sort of regional ownership of the Black Sea have outweighed the security threats posed by Russia.
Turkey’s desire to limit the presence of NATO ships in the Black Sea, which could lead to further escalation with Russia, is understandable, even if it is not in line with Alliance objectives. It is harder to justify statements by Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar about whether mines discovered in the Black Sea were laid there deliberately to create an excuse for NATO minesweepers to enter those waters.
Turkey is also blocking Sweden and Finland’s early NATO membership, trying to use the situation to solve its own problems and voice its own security concerns. It is very unlikely that the Turkish leadership will block the membership of the two Nordic countries in the long term. Nonetheless, its current diplomatic negotiations have revealed major differences in threat perception between Ankara and other capitals. While for most European states the main threat to NATO’s eastern borders is a revisionist Russia, for Turkey it is the fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK). ) who operate in Syria and are said to have taken refuge in Finland. and Sweden.
Clearly, soaring anti-American sentiments in Turkey and a traditional mistrust of the West limit the scope for cooperation on Ukraine. While the majority of Turks support Ukraine in this war, polls show that more than 48% blame the US or NATO for the conflict while only 34% hold Russia responsible. There is a widespread belief in Turkish society that the war in Ukraine is just another regional conflict unleashed by Western powers after Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and others. Russia’s invasions and aggressions in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, and more recently Ukraine and Syria do not evoke a similar response among Turks.
Populist rhetoric, surging ahead of next year’s elections, as well as massive anti-Western propaganda in Turkish media featuring mainly retired generals, nationalist pundits and (pro-)Russian pundits with a strong eurasist program, do not help either.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s economic and strategic programs also depend on close coordination with Moscow. Russia supplies almost half of Turkey’s domestic gas demand, provides the technology for the country’s first nuclear power plant at Akkuyu and serves as a source for more than five million tourists a year. Kremlin support is also vital for Turkey to maintain its presence in the South Caucasus and the Middle East.
Çavuşoğlu’s recent meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Ankara clearly showed that Turkey is keen to stick to cooperation mechanisms with Russia, such as the Astana platform in Syria or the 3+3 format in the South Caucasus (which also involves Iran, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan). Instead of using this crisis as a chance to reduce its strategic dependence on Russia, Turkey seems eager to tie itself even more to Moscow in new formats.
Ukraine has so far largely respected Turkey’s sensitivities and has not overemphasized sanctions, instead focusing on arms supplies and Ankara’s mediating role. However, this dynamic is being strained by the Russian oligarchs who are using Turkey as a safe haven to circumvent European Union restrictions.
According to Lavrov’s recent statements, bilateral Russian-Turkish trade doubled in the first quarter of 2022, and talks are currently underway on expanding the use of the Russian payment system MIR in Turkey. In March, Erdoğan suggested to Putin that their countries switch to national currencies or gold in trade agreements instead of dollars or euros. Izzet Ekmekcibashi, the head of the Turkish-Russian Business Council (DEIK), said more than a thousand new Russian businesses opened in Turkey in March alone. More recently, a well-connected Turkish journalist reported on a Russian-Turkish deal to move the European headquarters of forty-three major Russian companies, including Gazprom, to Turkey.
Turkish-Russian cooperation in tourism has also developed rapidly. Turkish media reported that Turkish carriers were operating 438 weekly flights to Russia this summer at a time when sanctions have made it difficult for Moscow to organize flights. According to pro-government Sabah newspaper, Turkish Airlines has signed an agreement to bring in 1.5 million Russian tourists in 2022. The newspaper’s report suggests that Ankara also plans to issue state-guaranteed loans to support Turkish travel agencies working with Russian tourists and supporting a new airline with the specific mandate to fly Russian tourists to Turkey.
Ankara, which had previously called on Moscow to end its blockade of Ukrainian ports so that grain exports could restart, is now taking a more pro-Russian stance, pleading for the international community to help unblock not only grain trade and fertilizer from Ukraine but also from Russia through secure logistics, ship insurance and a return of Russian banks to the SWIFT system. During Lavrov’s recent visit to Turkey, Çavuşoğlu said Turkey considers Moscow’s demands “reasonable” and “achievable” and supports the relaxation of Western sanctions against Russia.
There is also ample evidence of Ankara’s involvement in the illegal shipment and trade of stolen Ukrainian grain by Russian forces to the Middle East through the Turkish ports of Samsun, Derince, Bandırma and Iskenderun. So far, despite strong evidence of Russian crimes and official appeals from Ukraine, Turkish authorities have remained silent on these cases.
These moves by Turkey not only undermine its credibility as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia, but also raise questions about Ankara’s geopolitical choices in a broader regional and transatlantic framework. As it leans toward Russia in a bid for domestic stability, Turkey risks finding itself estranged from the West and aligned with a pariah state on the international stage. The Ukrainian case will become a major test for Turkey. It remains to be seen whether Ankara prefers to use it to bridge the gaps with the West or to cut ties.
Yevgeniya Gaber is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY and the Center for Modern Turkish Studies, CaRleton University. Follow her on Twitter @GaberYevgeniya.