Between Ukraine, Russia and the West: Can Turkey Keep Its Balance?

Adriana Lima
By Adriana Lima 9 Min Read
origin 1Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech at the International Ombudsman Conference at the Presidential Complex in Ankara, Turkey on January 11, 2023. ©AFP

Turkey has walked a tightrope between Ukraine and Russia, trying not to damage the relations it has with both countries.

So how did we get here, and is it a viable long-term strategy for Ankara?

Less than two weeks after the Russian invasion of Ukraine on March 10 last year, Turkey stepped in to play a mediator role between the countries, but meetings held at foreign minister level in Antalya left participants empty handed.

A few more attempts were made in the following days, including talks in Istanbul, praised at the time as “significant”, by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Peace talks that yielded little fruit came to a halt on May 17 when Kiev withdrew from the negotiating process.

A beacon of hope was lit last July when Russia agreed to a UN-brokered initiative on the export of grain from the Black Sea by Turkey. The deal will expire on March 18, but unless there is a ‘formal objection by both sides, the grain export agreement will continue.

Dr. Ali Bilgicassociate professor at Loughborough University says Turkey has a unique position in the war in Ukraine, given its long-standing good relations with both sides.

“Russia has been an important economic partner of Turkey, which also had trade relations with Ukraine. Turkey was a major soft power in Ukraine even before the war,” he tells RockedBuzz via Euronews.

Growing trade relations with Russia

Seeking to reconcile the two sides in the course of the war, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has expanded existing cooperation in the energy sector with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

At the same time, leaders also talked about turning Turkey into a “gas hub” for exporting gas to Europe; while Russian President Vladimir Putin said he might consider Turkey as a transit country for a possible future pipeline.

As ties draw closer, concern has grown among the opposition in Turkey. Questions have been repeatedly asked in the Turkish press: Would this friendship pave the way for Russian manipulation of the Turkish elections in favor of Erdogan?

‘Turkey’s trade relations with Moscow were already at their peak, against the backdrop of a series of sanctions imposed on Russia by the US and the EU,’ says Professor Bilgic.

According to Turkish Statistical Institute (TUIK)Turkey doubled its trade volume as imports from Russia rose to $58.85 billion (€55.44 billion) in 2022, up from $28.96 billion (€27.28 billion) in ‘last year.

Dr Bilgic said Ankara and Moscow have also frequently cooperated in Syria since 2015.

“It goes without saying that Turkey has deep political, economic and military relations with the West. It is quite difficult to find a state like Turkey, and Ankara has used this unique position quite effectively.”

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While Erdogan and his “close friend” Putin shook hands on financial deals, Ankara continued to support Kiev in the political arena and was one of the first to provide much-needed humanitarian aid.

Turkish defense firm Baykar Tech has sold and donated drones to Ukraine and plans to complete construction of its production facility in the country within two years.

Turkey has also tried to avoid an escalation by closing the straits leading to the Black Sea, with the authority granted by the Montreux Convention.

“Warships would be prevented from entering the Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, whether or not they come from countries bordering the Black Sea,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu announced in March 2022.

According to Dr. Bilgic, the three countries depend on each other:

“Russia needs Turkey because, through Turkey, Moscow breaks its international isolation by maintaining economic relations with Turkey,” Dr. Bilgic explains.

“Ukraine needs Turkey militarily. But Turkey also needs Russia and Ukraine. In the case of Russia, Turkish exports have filled the gap created by international sanctions to some extent and this works for Ankara as l he country’s economy has been in significant decline in recent years”.

“In the case of Ukraine, Turkey sees Ukraine’s advantage as an obstacle to Russia’s military build-up in the Black Sea region,” he adds.

origin 1FILE: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Sochi, Sept. 2018 Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

But what about the West?

Turkey has maintained its position by not joining the sanctions imposed on Russia by the EU and the US, going one step further by also hindering possible NATO expansion with offers from Sweden and Finland.

Despite this, the West has not completely turned its back on Turkey because, according to Dr. Bilgic, “also needs Turkey”.

“Since the beginning of the war, China has tried to play a mediator role in the conflict and Beijing’s efforts have recently intensified. Particularly for Washington, this role is not acceptable given the growing tension with China. Turkey as a NATO state is a preferred option,” she argues.

On the other hand, Erdogan’s willingness to push relations to the limit has not been entirely without consequences.

Dr Bilgic says the main loss has been economic, but there is also reputational damage in the West from continuing to block Swedish and Finnish NATO offers.

At this point, Bilgic says, Western capitals are not questioning Turkey’s value politically, strategically, militarily or economically to the West, but there are some voices starting to question Turkey’s position in NATO.

origin 1French President Emmanuel Macron, right, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan talk during a bilateral meeting as part of the NATO summit in Madrid, June 29, 2022 Bertrand Guay/AP

What’s still in for Turkey?

According to Dr. Bilgic, Turkey has won two major points with its continued diplomatic balance between Russia, Ukraine and the West.

First, he says Turkey has “put its name on the map as a defense exporter” after investing heavily in the defense industry for a decade – and the war in Ukraine has shown the rest of the world that Turkish weapons can be very effective.

“Secondly”, says Bilgic, “Ankara has managed to show the countries of the South of the world that Turkey does not necessarily follow the West and can have an independent foreign policy”.

So how long can Turkey walk this tightrope without falling? This remains the bigger question.

“The main risk for Turkey is that if the fight escalates and Russia starts gaining, Turkey’s equilibrium patience in Western capitals may run out,” says Dr. Bilgic.

“Ankara may feel pressure to join international sanctions. This can significantly disturb Ankara’s position in the war.”

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