PublicationsSamuel Ramani

Turkey’s Balancing Act Between Russia and Ukraine

3 Mins read
by Samuel Ramani
12 May 2021

On April 10, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky met with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul. At a press conference following their meeting, Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s opposition to the Russian annexation of Crimea and emphasized the need for stability in the Black Sea region. Turkey’s solidarity with Ukraine, which could extend to drone and weapons exports, alarmed Russian officials. In an implicit reference to Turkey, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged countries to avoid fuelling Ukraine’s bellicose policies and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov suggested that Russia would scrutinize its military-technical cooperation with Turkey if Ankara aided Ukraine.

So why has Turkey risked undermining its partnership with Russia by aligning with Ukraine? There are many factors at play, but two reasons particularly stand out. First, Turkey has viewed Ukraine as an increasingly important economic and security partner for at least a decade. In January 2011, Erdogan discussed establishing a Turkey-Ukraine free trade zone with then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Turkey’s support for Gazprom’s South Sea pipeline, which cut across its Black Sea exclusive economic zone, rankled Ukraine and free trade zone negotiations collapsed in 2013. Turkey’s consistent condemnations of the illegality of the Crimean referendum that integrated the peninsula with Russia and defence of the rights of Crimean Tatars facilitated closer relations with Ukraine’s post-Maidan authorities. In March 2016, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko praised Ukraine’s “strategic alliance” with Turkey and emphasized their common aversion to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Syria.

Under Zelensky, the Turkey-Ukraine economic and security partnership reached new heights. In September 2020, Turkey and Ukraine revived free trade agreement negotiations and have set a $10 billion bilateral trade target. Burak Pehlivan, the chairman of the International Ukrainian-Turkish Businessmen Association, noted that Turkey was the largest foreign investor in Ukraine from March to August 2020. Ukraine purchased 6 Bayraktar TB2 drones last year. In November, Ukrspetsexport established a joint venture with Turkey, which would allow it to domestically produce a further 48 Bayraktar TB2 drones, and on April 9, Ukraine flew its first TB2 drone over Donbas. This collaboration in the stealth weaponry sphere has strategic underpinnings, as Turkey and Ukraine have signed a series of military cooperation agreements that sought to contain Russia’s hegemonic ambitions in the Black Sea.

Second, Turkey’s expanded role in preserving Black Sea security, which is reflected in its partnership with Ukraine, elevates its standing within NATO. On February 12, the U.S. and Turkish navies held joint military drills on the Black Sea. Turkey’s Konya facility acted as a base for NATO’s Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft (AWACS) during the security bloc’s joint Baltic and Black Sea military exercises on March 3. As Turkey’s relationships with the United States and some European countries are fraught with contradictions and episodic tensions, Ankara’s resolute support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity has helped compartmentalize disagreements with its NATO allies. This cooperation will likely continue, even though Russia’s April 23 withdrawal of forces from its border with Ukraine reduces the risk of an immediate escalation of hostilities.

Now that the prospects of an imminent Russia-Ukraine conflict have receded, where will Turkey-Ukraine relations go from here? Turkey will likely continue to expand its trade and security cooperation with Ukraine, while setting clear parameters for its support for Kyiv in the event of a future escalation of Russia-Ukraine hostilities. In October, Turkey endorsed support Ukraine’s accession to NATO. However, it will likely defer to the U.S. and other European countries to spearhead Ukraine’s entry, if Zelensky makes a formal membership request. While Turkey might provide Ukraine with military technology that would assist it in a future conflict with Russia, it is unlikely to emulate its support for Azerbaijan in last autumn’s Nagorno-Karabakh War. Turkey’s engagement with Ukraine will certainly not come at the cost of its diplomatic engagement with Russia on Syria and Libya, potential negotiations to purchase Su-35 or Su-57 fighter jets and long-term desire to take trade with Russia to $100 billion.

As Turkey’s geopolitical interests are maximized by striking a delicate balance between Ukraine and Russia, it could emerge as an interlocutor between the two conflicting parties. Turkey’s persistent calls for Russia-Ukraine dialogue during last month’s standoff lend credence to this possibility, as does Erdogan’s consultation with Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 9, one day before Zelensky’s arrival in Istanbul. Since Turkey is one of the few NATO countries that has robust relations with both Ukraine and Russia, it could play an important role in de-escalating future tensions between both nations and upholding the Minsk II Accords.

The marked expansion of Turkey-Ukraine cooperation over the past year bolsters Ankara’s standing as a Eurasian power but also poses challenges for its partnership with Russia. To advance its material interests and bolster its status, Turkey will likely thread the needle between Russia and Ukraine in future disputes that will inevitably flare up between the two countries.

Turkey will likely thread the needle between Russia and Ukraine in future disputes that will inevitably flare up between the two countries.

The opinions expressed in this article represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Circle Foundation

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