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The Ukrainian Crisis and Dilemmas for Turkish Foreign Policy

Dr Md. Muddassir Quamar is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • March 14, 2022

    The Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 is the most serious escalation in the dispute between Moscow and Kyiv since 2014. Russia considers Ukraine a sphere of influence and wants it to keep away from North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). For Moscow, NATO’s eastward expansion is a pressing concern. Ukrainian attempts to join NATO poses a security threat and challenges Russian supremacy in its “near abroad”. Ukraine, on the other hand, aspires to develop closer ties with the European Union (EU) and NATO, and eventually join both these groupings, for it will be economically rewarding and would provide a security cover, which is essential for maintaining its sovereignty and independence. For the EU, Ukraine is a prospective partner not only for its economic potentials but also as a security buffer between Russia and Western Europe.

    Notwithstanding the geopolitical contours of the crisis, neighbouring Turkey faces tough choices in responding to the conflict. For Ankara, the problem is manifold with far-reaching implications for its struggling economy, damaged relations with the United States (US) and EU, its complex partnership with Russia, but above all, the regional security architecture in the Black Sea.

    Turkish response to the crisis underlines some of the dilemmas facing Ankara. While it has taken a clear stand against the use of force by Russia, Ankara has been careful not to come out as too hostile to Moscow. A Turkish foreign ministry press release on 24 February, soon after Russia announced its “military operation” in Ukraine, noted that Turkey “consider[s] the military operation launched by the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation against Ukraine unacceptable and reject it”.1 The carefully drafted statement underlined that the attack “is a grave violation of international law and poses a serious threat to regional and global security”. Turkish statement emphasised the “necessity to respect the territorial integrity and sovereignty of countries”, and expressed its opposition to “changing of borders by use of arms”.2 The statement called on Moscow to reconsider its actions and extended support for the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine.

    Ankara has proactively engaged with all parties involved as well as held consultations with regional leaders, EU members, NATO and the US. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in touch with the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and has talked to him at least three times over phone since 24 February, expressing Turkey’s support for Ukraine’s unity and seeking support for Turkish mediation efforts. On 6 March, Erdogan talked to Russian President Vladimir Putin. According to the Turkish side, the talks focused on the need for immediate end of hostilities and ceasefire on humanitarian grounds.3 Erdogan apparently offered Turkish mediation to “pave the way” for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. In between, Erdogan held telephonic conversations with several regional and international leaders to discuss the developing situation.

    A careful examination of the Turkish response to the Ukrainian crisis underlines four foreign policy dimensions to it. Firstly, Ankara is concerned with the impact on Turkey–Russia relations. Given the delicate partnership between the two countries, Ankara does not want to take any step that might harm the relationship. The two sides have enhanced bilateral trade, energy and business cooperation in recent years. Further, Turkey depends on Russian gas imports for its energy security and has procured Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missile system reflecting growing strategic ties. Besides, Turkey and Russia have stakes in regional issues, such as Syria, Libya and Nagorno–Karabakh conflict, wherein they have engaged in a complicated balancing to manage divergent interests. From Ankara’s perspective, Russia is a bigger neighbour, a strong military and a great power with which Turkey has shared interests, making it irreplaceable to Turkey’s economic and territorial security. Ankara has also grown sceptical of relying on NATO and West for its security, especially after its experiences in Syria, Libya and Eastern Mediterranean, as reflected by President Erdogan on several occasions on the need for Turkey to be strong economically as well as militarily.4

    Secondly, there are concerns regarding relations with the Western powers. In fact, over the past decade, Turkey’s relations with the US, NATO and EU have gone through tumultuous times with divergent views on a myriad domestic, regional and international issues. Turkey is frustrated with the EU for not making any progress in its accession efforts. On the other hand, it has faced scathing criticism from EU and its members for its falling human rights record and democratic backsliding. It has locked horns with EU members, especially France and Greece, due to differences over claims in the Eastern Mediterranean.5 Turkey­­­–US relations have also suffered in the past decade due to serious problems in bilateral ties. A case in point was President Erdogan had to wait nearly six months for meeting President Joe Biden after the latter took over US Administration.6 There are several outstanding bilateral issues but the most contentious one is the US opposition to Turkey buying Russian S-400 missile system that in Washington’s view goes against the bilateral partnership and violates Turkey’s commitment to NATO. Turkey, on the other hand, has been miffed at the US support for Kurdish fighters in northern Syria that Ankara considers a serious security threat and terms them as terrorists.

    Notwithstanding the problems, Ankara has engaged in extensive consultations with EU, NATO and the US to exchange views on the Ukrainian crisis. On 25 February, President Erdogan attended the extraordinary virtual NATO summit, but not before issuing a veiled criticism of NATO for failing to take “a more decisive step”.7 Turkish officials have been in constant touch with their counterparts in the US and Europe. Wendy Sherman, the US Deputy Secretary of State, was in Ankara on 5 March to hold discussions on the Ukraine crisis with her Turkish counterparts.8 Besides, Ibrahim Kalin, the presidential spokesperson and a close aide of Erdogan had held multiple conversations with officials in US, Russia and other countries.

    Thirdly, an important concern for Turkey is the regional geopolitics in the Black Sea. Ankara carefully invoked the 1936 Montreux Convention to close the Bosporus Strait for passage of warships to and from the Sea. The measure was seen as a hostile step against Russia after specific request was received from Ukraine, and gained praise from EU and NATO.9 But the move is well considered as from a Russian point of view the Montreux Convention, which Russia is also a signatory of, effectively prevents the possibility of a direct NATO military intervention in the Black Sea. Hence, Russia has not reacted sharply to this Turkish move.

    Finally, Turkish position gets complicated because of its strong economic and security relations with Ukraine. Turkish defence manufacturers have deals with Ukrainian armed forces for supply of drones, which have been deployed to fight the Russian forces. In the wake of the media debate on the issue, Ankara, while acknowledging the supply of drones to Ukraine, has sought to underscore the “impartial” stand and underplay the Turkish government’s role to placate possible Russian anger.10

    Thus far, Ankara’s response has treaded a fine line of maintaining neutrality without jeopardising relations with either Russia or Ukraine, and at the same time, not taking any position that can harm ties with EU and NATO. Turkey has offered itself as a possible mediator to diffuse the crisis. However,  a trilateral meeting of Turkish, Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers on the side-lines of Antalya Diplomacy Forum on 10 March failed to achieve any breakthrough.11 Turkey is the only country, besides Israel, which is currently able to engage in diplomatic exchanges with both Russia and Ukraine, and is talking to Western powers as well. Ankara is seeking international support for Turkish mediation efforts, and if it succeeds, this will be considered a major foreign policy achievement of President Erdogan who is trying to arrest his falling popularity at home. Besides, this can also help repair some of the damage in relations with the US, NATO and EU, and enhance Turkey’s international status, as part of the ongoing realignment in Turkish foreign policy. This also does no harm to Turkey’s existing partnership and cooperation with both Russia and Ukraine.

    Turkey is facing serious challenges in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In addition to the implications on regional and global security, Turkey is concerned with the immediate fallouts of the conflict on its economy, security and external relations. It has treaded a fine line of expressing solidarity with Ukraine, not taking steps to antagonise and harm relations with Russia, and simultaneously, engaging the US, NATO and EU. This serves the Turkish foreign policy interest of maintaining a delicate balance vis-à-vis Russia and the West, and yet not shy away from expressing its support and solidarity with Ukraine.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.