Reading too much into the warlike and conflictual history between Turkey and Russia, most analyses conclude that relations between the two are doomed to be tense. Even when there is a sunny spell, as has been the case for the past few years, it is not taken seriously. Fixated on our view of their often turbulent past, we fail to give due appreciation to the rapprochement between the two countries.1
To be sure, it is true that the Tsarist and Ottoman empires clashed militarily all the time, with the former almost always coming out on top. It is also true that during the post-imperial stages, apart from a brief period of entente between Lenin and Mustafa Kemal in the 1920s, relations were often complicated, especially at the height of the Cold War when Moscow and Ankara found themselves in opposing camps.
But since the end of the Cold War, and not just in the last few years as some analyses suggest, relations between the two countries became more balanced, with exchanges in all fields, ushering in a new, more peaceable phase. They had their rivalries, in the Black Sea, the Caucasus and Central Asia, but this competition was handled well, and did not lead to a major crisis between the two big states.2 Turkey faces a kind of encirclement. Since its annexation of Crimea, Russia has more warships in the Black Sea and controls a larger maritime space. In Syria, where the Turks find themselves in direct contact with the Russians, the two countries adhere to conflicting solutions, despite their overall relative understanding. Ankara still espouses an anti-Bashar position; against a regime whose survival is squarely down to Russian support. In Libya too, the two countries are at odds, with Russia closely allied to Field-Marshal Haftar, the "bete noire" of Turkey, which in turn supports the legitimate, UN-recognised government. There is rivalry also in Karabakh, where Turkey is unshakeably committed to Azerbaijan, while Russia’s policy is less favourable to Baku. When it comes to Ukraine, Turkey’s attitude is more measured. To understand why, a brief look at relations between Ankara and Kiev is in order.
Such a precious neighbour
To discern the choice which Ankara may – or may not – make in the Russo-Ukraine conflict, it is vital to understand that Ukraine has a special place and plays a very significant role in Turkish eyes. In a very polarised geopolitical context, where Turkey has very complicated relations with most of its neighbours, Ukraine is the only one with which Ankara has no differences. Moreover, although officially relations between the two countries are only 30 years old, i.e. since Ukraine attained independence, their ties in fact go much further back. For the Turks, Ukraine is also Crimea, the peninsula where the Tatar Khanate was for long a vassal of the Ottoman empire. Part of the Turkish population is of Tatar origin, for example former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, lending a romantic dimension to relations between the two countries. Finally, Ukraine is also useful to Turkey because of its geographical position. Together with Georgia and Armenia, it provides a buffer zone with Russia, an awkward neighbour as Moscow’s conflicts with most of its neighbours attest.
But Ukraine’s importance is not only geographical. Ukrainian tourists are among the top five regular visitors to Turkey’s coasts. And the agricultural giant provides a large part of Turkey’s wheat requirements. Lastly, and above all, in a political context where Turkey trusts neither its “historic enemy” Russia, nor its traditional western partners, whom it accuses of lacking solidarity, Ukraine is a precious ally. In the sensitive area of arms procurement, it buys Turkish weaponry, notably drones, and above all, it allows Ankara to withstand the military embargo imposed by its NATO allies.3 In fact, fed up with Turkey’s human rights abuses, its interventionist policies in its neighbourhood, and its relations with Russia, the western powers withhold from it certain key technologies vital to the production of its drones, a new battle tank and its future jet fighter. So, Ankara’s relationship with Kiev helps to alleviate the effect of these sanctions.
So, each in its own way, Ukraine and Russia are both important to Turkey; even for something as basic as bread, the Turks import their wheat from both countries. Thus, the Turkish government finds itself with a dilemma, facing a particularly difficult choice. At a time when it is at odds with its traditional partners (Europe and the US), and the vagaries of its foreign policy of turning eastwards have led it to flirt with Russia, China, Iran and other far from democratically ideal countries, the Ukrainian crisis may oblige Turkey and the western countries to mend their fences to restore Ankara to the bosom of the West. For Turkey the alternative, especially in the case of a Russian victory, would be to do the reverse, to consolidate its position with the East, concluding that the West was no longer capable of defending its allies.
In fact, however, irrespective of the outcome of the war, Turkish leaders will probably opt for a third way, continuing their current course, which is to navigate around the rocks and pursue a policy of non-alignment which has prevailed for nearly two decades.
The first of these three possibilities was given potential credence by the early steps taken by the Erdoğan government during the current crisis. As custodian of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles by virtue of the 1936 Montreux Convention regulating movement in the straits in times of war and peace, Turkey has in effect already declared a “state of war” in the area around the straits. The aim of that declaration is to secure the legal means to block the movement of Russian warships, which would amount to a form of military support for Ukraine and could be seen as a rapprochement with the West. It should, moreover, be noted that Turkish support for Ukraine largely preceded the current Russian invasion. Ankara, as said, has developed a policy of military cooperation with Ukraine, selling it arms, notably the drones. The use of the drones may not transform the balance of power as it did in Libya and Karabakh, but it none the less represents a far from negligible resort for the numerically inferior Ukrainian army, against the Russian steamroller.4 However, it would be wrong to conclude that Turkish support for Ukraine means that Ankara is going to strengthen its ties with the West, for a number of reasons.
For Turkey, supporting Ukraine does not imply signing up to the way the West is handling the Ukrainian crisis, nor does it mean that all the misunderstandings with the western powers have disappeared. Turkey may well go on repeating its commitment to the territorial integrity of Ukraine and declaring its solidarity with the Tatars of Crimea who object to the annexation of the peninsula to the Russian Federation, but that does not in itself mean that it espouses the Ukrainians’ pro-western discourse. This western trope of Ukraine is even somewhat annoying for the current Turkish government. Above all, the grounds for divorce between Turkey and the western allies are too serious to be resolved just for the sake of the Ukrainian crisis: Turkey’s authoritarian drift, its policy in Syria, its recent support for Azerbaijan in Upper Karabakh, and, of course, its policy of rapprochement with Russia.
The Syrian bone of contention
Syria has an important place in Turkey’s splits with the West, notably with the US.5 Turkey’s military presence in certain parts of the country and its actions against what it calls Syrian Kurdish “terrorist groups”, dominated by the PKK, are a problem. These are the very forces that the West rightly considers heroes of the fight against the “Islamic State”. Whatever the outcome of the war in Ukraine and the position adopted by Turkey, it will not change its position on Syria in the short term. Even if the next Turkish elections are won by the opposition, it will likely be as interventionist in foreign policy as the current government.
Given these different elements, provided the Ukraine situation does not degenerate into a wider conflict and does not touch Turkey itself directly, it is not very likely that Ankara will adopt a decisive position. For Turkey, the Ukraine war is not so much between Russia and Ukraine as it is between Russia and the West. And Turkey is just as dependent, mistrustful, and vulnerable vis-a-vis the one as it is the other. When it comes to Russia, Turkey fears for its security. Not least because in Syria, Ankara feels very vulnerable: even if Russia has paradoxically understood Turkey’s security preoccupations better that Ankara’s own western allies, if the countries had a serious falling-out, Moscow could immediately smash the gates of Idlib by unleashing an assault on the province. There have already been some direct clashes, leaving at least 30 dead among the Turkish military. Such a move by the Russians would push two million Syrian refugees towards Turkey where, on top of four million refugees already there, they would be a serious problem for the Turkish government with a public which appears in no mood to welcome new waves of migrants. Faced with this geo-strategic dilemma, Ankara’s best way out would be to take on the role of mediator - and that is what Turkey has chosen to do.
2Pavel Baev, “Turkey-Russia: Strategic Partners and Rivals”, IFRI, 2021.]. Curiously, it is in the more recent areas of friction between the two countries, in Syria and Libya, rather than the traditional ones, that relations became more conflictual. Ankara and Moscow found themselves on opposite sides of the conflicts in those states, ravaged by the failure of the “Arab Spring”. Despite everything, the two countries were able to construct a relationship which could be termed “rival cooperation” or “cooperative rivalry”, with their leaders keeping up communication even at difficult times. So much so that at present, their relations could be deemed both bad and good, depending on the subject under discussion.
Among the elements of a rapprochement, Turkey receives more tourists from Russia than from anywhere else, and Turkey has some major investments in public works and construction in Russia. What is more, Turkey has asked Russia to construct a civilian nuclear power station, work on which is well advanced. In the energy sector, Turkey is dependent on Russia supplying 35% of its gas needs. In the military domain, despite its NATO membership, Turkey has bought the Russian S400 air defence system, much to the annoyance of NATO, which condemned the purchase and punished Ankara by excluding it from the programme to construct a new warplane, the F35.
But Turco-Russian relations also have their stumbling blocks. [[Daria Isachekno, “Turkey and Russia. The logic of conflictual cooperation”, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, SWP), 2021.
3Guillaume Ptak, “What Is Driving Turkey’s Increasing Military Cooperation With Ukraine?”, thedefensepost.com, 25 January 2022.
4Translator’s note. During the current conflict, a popular song is circulating on the Ukrainian side praising the performance of the Turkish Bayrakdar drone.
5Cemil Doğaç İpek, Mehmet Çağatay Güler, “Turkey and Russia in Syrian war: Hostile friendship”, Security and Defence, 27 July 2021.