How Far Will Turkey Go to Support Ukraine ?

In recent weeks, as Russia positioned more than 130,000 troops along the Russian-Ukrainian border and the United States warned of an imminent Russian invasion, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has emphasized his support for Ukraine. The Black Sea neighbors have become critical trade and defense partners during Erdogan’s time in office, signing free trade agreements in the billions of dollars and lucrative weapons production deals. Turkey also controls Ukraine’s only waterway to the Mediterranean—the Bosphorus—critical for the country’s connection to the global market.

The Turkish president underlined the importance of the partnership and the Ukrainian autonomy that facilitates it in an interview with the Turkish broadcaster NTV on Jan. 26.

“I hope that Russia will not make an armed attack or occupy Ukraine. Such a step will not be a wise act for Russia or the region,” he said.

This is a sentiment Erdogan has long repeated, particularly since Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which Turkey still does not recognize. This is done ostensibly in the name of the Crimean Tatar community there, which Turkey views as part of a larger Turkic brotherhood. Crimea was a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1783, when Russia invaded the peninsula and subsequently settled ethnic Russians and displaced ethnic Crimeans there.

In 1944, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin ordered the violent deportation of hundreds of thousands of the remaining Crimean Tatars, an incident Erdogan and many of his supporters liken to the 2014 invasion and annexation by Putin’s Russia. The plight of this community has been a rallying cry for Erdogan in his attempts at pan-Turkic diplomacy and has enabled the strengthening of Turkey’s relationship with Ukraine. In remarks on Feb. 3, he said the Tatars were “kinsmen” who form a “historical bridge of friendship between our countries.”

Erdogan traveled to Ukraine himself in early February to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and deepen Turkey’s trade and defense ties with the country. He has offered to act as a peace broker between Moscow and Kyiv. By all appearances, the Turkish president has signaled solidarity with Kyiv in case of a conflict, even selling drones to Ukrainian government forces fighting Russia-backed separatists in the Donbass region.

But that signaling is likely as far as Turkey is willing to go. Despite standing on opposite sides of conflicts around the world—in Syria, Libya, and now Ukraine—Turkey is deeply reliant on its relationship with Russia. The two countries maintain a “competitive cooperation,” according to Asli Aydintasbas, a journalist and senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Turkey relies on Russian natural gas for more than 40 percent of its total natural gas needs and is likely to import more in the wake of a four-year deal signed between the Russian gas giant Gazprom and Turkey’s Botas. Especially in the face of a domestic energy crisis, as prices rise and Iran cuts supply to the country, and Turkey’s ever-worsening relationship with its Western allies due to the country’s human rights abuses, Erdogan is unlikely to threaten a tenuous Russian alliance, even for Turkey’s NATO allies.

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Turkey’s support for Ukraine reflects an unease with what seems to be Russian expansion in the Black Sea region. The Ukraine-Turkey relationship is also undergirded by the significant bilateral defense and economic agreements inked by the current Turkish government. Turkey, as of 2021, is the largest foreign investor in Ukraine, with $4.5 billion in annual investment—and trade between the two countries totaling over $5 billion. During their recent meeting in Kyiv, Erdogan and Zelensky signed a free-trade deal that they say will boost trade to $10 billion and vastly expanded defense cooperation.

Ukraine is also a critical partner for Turkey in the production and sale of military weaponry. Since 2018, Turkey has sold Bayraktar TB2 drones to Kyiv, the same equipment that helped enable the Turkish-backed Azerbaijani victory in Nagorno-Karabakh. During their February meeting, Erdogan and Zelensky signed a deal to co-produce Bayraktar TB2s at a production facility in Ukraine that will also include a training facility for Ukrainian pilots.

Bayraktar TB2s have been used in the Ukraine conflict since October 2021, when the Ukrainian government was trading blows with Russian-backed separatists in Donbass. Despite this clearly agitating Russian President Vladimir Putin—he called Erdogan shortly after the drones were deployed—Ankara has not signaled it will stop supplying drones to Kyiv.

“These are revolutionary systems and tactics,” said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan and now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “The fact that they decided to sell them to Ukraine at this tense moment is a powerful sign.”

But the Bayraktar TB2s might not be as effective if the Russians pursue a more traditional invasion with heavy weaponry, like that which is being massed on the border.

Turkish and Ukrainian defense cooperation extends beyond Bayraktar drones. After a previous meeting between the two leaders in October 2020, the countries charted a path toward joint production of a range of defense and security technologies, including more drones and jet engines, a sector in which Ukraine excels. This was widely seen as a move to counter Russia’s power in the Black Sea region, but it also greatly increased Turkey’s defense production capacity for domestic use and export.

Therefore, Turkey would stand to lose a key component of its fledgling defense industry by sacrificing its relationship with Ukraine to appease Putin. Failure to support Ukraine could also lead to the loss of lucrative defense sales to the country, such as the 2020 agreement for Turkey to supply Ukraine with naval defense vessels. As Bryza put it, “This is a business opportunity for Turkey that has national security implications.”

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Support for Ukraine also has the effect of ingratiating Turkey with its Western NATO allies, in particular the United States. The United States and many other NATO allies have criticized Turkey for its human rights violations since the attempted coup in July 2016, including the ongoing imprisonment of prominent figures such as Kurdish politician Selahattin Demirtas and philanthropist Osman Kavala and the jailing of hundreds of journalists and opposition figures.

Turkey has also been booted from the United States’ F-35 fighter jet program over its decision to purchase S-400 missile defense systems from Russia. The U.S. government is currently debating whether to sell F-16 fighter jets to Ankara. Staunch support for Ukraine and alignment with NATO could help thaw the relationship and lead to better relations with the West overall.

However, Erdogan is unlikely to go as far as he did in supporting Azerbaijan directly in its recent war with Armenia. The Erdogan-Putin relationship, Aydintasbas said, is one solidified not by institutions but by a “strong handshake” between two charismatic leaders who tend to shape the state in their image.

Onur Isci, a Russia expert at Bilkent University, attributes this alignment to a belief in Bismarckian realpolitik shared by the Turkish and Russian leaders. Putin and Erdogan, he says, can maintain overlapping and sometimes incongruous alliances because they think of diplomacy in terms of the state and what will directly benefit it.

Each government, in other words, is willing to be patient and wait for a solution to emerge that benefits it most. Often, that solution has pointed to cooperation with the other, leading to an unlikely alliance that serves to challenge the U.S.-led Western world order.

This balancing act has lasted through more than two decades of rule by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party. There was the bitter and brief Russian-Georgian War in 2008, in which after initially signaling support for its neighbor, Turkey changed tack and tacitly supported Moscow. Then, after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, an act that Turkey widely condemned, Ankara refused to obey sanctions imposed on Moscow by the United States, Canada, and the European Union. And even after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in 2015, the two countries were able to revive a working relationship because Erdogan issued an apology; the only sanctions levied by Russia that remained in place were on Turkish tomatoes.

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This does not mean that the countries are not willing to retaliate for losses suffered. When 33 Turkish soldiers were killed by Russian-backed fighters in Syria in February 2020, Turkish forces responded by targeting 200 government sites with weaponry and drones and killed 309 Russian-backed Syrian government troops. After two Turkish soldiers were killed in September 2021, Turkey deployed forces to Idlib in northwestern Syria, just days before a meeting between Erdogan and Putin in Sochi. However, the relationship remains intact.

This unlikely balance is further supported by “levers,” as Dimitar Bechev, a Russia-Turkey expert and lecturer at the University of Oxford, described it. Each country can threaten to pull these to keep the other in line.

“It doesn’t take much,” he said. “There are pressure points.”

Putin can threaten a full-blown assault on Idlib, currently surrounded by Russian-backed forces, which could send millions of Syrian refugees over the Turkish border, creating a refugee crisis just before the planned June 2023 elections. Or Russia could threaten to cut off fuel to Turkey, on which it is deeply reliant, particularly in colder months and amid a nationwide natural gas shortage. Turkey could threaten to cut off Russian access to the Bosphorus under the wartime provisions of the Montreux Convention, though it is unlikely.

This balance of power and these threats of destruction all but ensure that if Russia invades Ukraine, and if NATO promises direct military involvement, Turkey will do all it can to avoid coming face to face with Russia.

Erdogan said on Jan. 26 that he is “ready to do whatever is necessary” to avoid war. He has openly offered to mediate the conflict, an offer that Zelensky has expressed enthusiasm for and which Russia, after an initial rejection, said it would consider. “If, as Ukraine, you can get a NATO member state, one that is helping you diplomatically by condemning the annexation of Crimea or by providing drones to the Donbass or by selling you new stealth frigates, that’s a pretty good mediator,” Bryza said. “There is no other NATO member state that Russia would even theoretically agree to be that mediator.”

The question is whether there is still time for mediation. Following his Kyiv trip, Erdogan also invited Putin to Turkey, per Turkish state media. The Kremlin accepted but said dates would be announced following the Beijing Winter Olympics—the same point at which many fear Russia could choose to invade Ukraine if its recent claims of de-escalation are not genuine.

Erin O’Brien is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul. Twitter: @e_h_obrien

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