Why Turkey and Ukraine have more in Common Than Turkey and Russia

6 Mins read

Prof Taras Kuzio

18 July 2021

Russia and Turkey have little in common and cooperation is purely for short-term pragmatism and not long-term national interests. Russia is useful to Turkey’s leaders as they seek to carve out an independent foreign policy. Turkey is useful to Russia to try and sow divisions in NATO and split Turkey from the West.

Turkey and Russia’s co-existence in Azerbaijan and the South Caucasus goes against the tide of history. The Ottoman and Russian Empires fought 12 wars between the 16th and 20th centuries. Since the late 1980s, Turkey has been an ally of Azerbaijan while the USSR and Russia has supported Armenia which won the First Karabakh War in the early 1990s with Soviet and Russian military assistance.

The expanding nature of Turkish-Ukrainian relations is very different and built on far more enduring and long-term interests. Ukraine and Turkey are natural allies with no historical baggage to obstruct cooperation or geopolitical competition to heighten tensions.

Turkey and Russia have diametrically different national interests in the Black Sea. Russia has always seen the Black Sea as a ‘Russian lake’ denying and downplaying the interests of NATO members Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria. Russia’s attempt to monopolise the Black Sea has grown since the 2014 crisis, as for example its blockage of the Azov Sea to Ukraine.

Ukraine has always had close national interests to Turkey in the Black Sea, opposing Russian monopolisation and supporting the right of countries to operate in international waters. In June, a NATO member sought to show it did not recognise the peninsula’s annexation and sailed in what are recognised as Ukrainian waters leading to a confrontation between a British naval ship and Russia off the coast of Crimea.

Turkey does not recognise Russia’s annexation of Crimea and did not protest at the actions of Britain’s navy off the coast of Crimea. One factor why Turkey is opposed to Russia’s illegal action is the plight of Crimean Tatars, millions of who have lived in Turkey since the nineteenth century. Crimean Tatars suffered genocide in 1944 when Soviet tyrant Joseph Stalin ethnically cleansed them and on route to Central Asia half of them died.

Crimean Tatars were loyal citizens of Ukraine until Crimea was invaded and annexed by Russia. Crimean Tatars are suffering from Soviet-style persecution at the hands of the Russian occupation authorities. The Crimean Tatar unofficial parliament (Mejlis) has been banned, schools and publications have been closed, Crimean Tartar leaders have been exiled to Ukraine, 20 Crimean Tatar activists have been murdered by a local death squad and hundreds have been imprisoned on false charges. Ukraine – like Turkey – have protested Russian policies and both countries have supported the national rights of Crimean Tatars in international organisations.

The USSR and Russia have always seen NATO as a threat to their national security; the Russian Federation has always opposed NATO enlargement to former communist states. Turkey is a NATO member, has its second-largest army and hosts two U.S. military bases.

Russia has never been interested in joining NATO and the EU. Russian foreign policy declared Russia to be a member of the ‘common European home’ for only a decade under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in the second half of the 1980s and under President Borys Yeltsyn in the first half of the 1990s. Since 1996, Russian foreign policy has declared Russia to be a Eurasian country. Russia builds its a great power status through its demand for an exclusive Eurasian sphere of influence.

Ukraine has always supported NATO enlargement and has sought to join NATO since 2002. Turkey has backed Ukraine’s membership of NATO while Russia has always opposed its neighbours, such as Ukraine and Georgia, joining.

Since 1991, Ukraine has always opposed joining Russian-led integration projects in Eurasia and instead sought – like Turkey – to join Europe. Armenia, in contrast, has joined every Eurasian integration project, seeing Russia as its main ally and Turkey and Azerbaijan as its main security threats. In the early 1990s, Yerevan joined the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) – Russia’s attempt to create a NATO-type structure among former Soviet states uniting the Russian Federation, Armenia, Belarus, and Central Asian states in a quasi-military pact.

In 2010, when the EU established the Eastern Partnership for former Soviet states, Russia also began to oppose the EU and viewed its enlargement to Ukraine and the South Caucasus as a threat to what the Kremlin sees as its right to have an exclusive sphere of influence in Eurasia. In 2013, Russia exerted intense pressure on Armenia and Ukraine to not sign Association Agreements with the EU.

Armenia backed out and joined the CIS Customs Union which in 2015 transformed into the Eurasian Economic Union with the same members as the CSTO. Ukrainians rose in support of their country’s European integration in the Euromaidan Revolution, overthrew pro-Russian kleptocrat and President Viktor Yanukovych and signed an Association Agreement with the EU in 2014.

Turkey and Ukraine have both had similar difficulties in seeking to join the EU because Western Europe has always been unclear where Europe ends. Although the concept of ‘Europe’ has widened since the 1990s, Western Europe continues to remain ambivalent about whether its eastern fringes – Turkey and Ukraine – are part of ‘Europe.’

The EU is therefore as ambivalent about Turkey as it is about Ukraine joining its organisation. Turkish policy makers have reacted to Western Europe’s Orientalism by adopting a more independent foreign policy, especially since 2015-2016. Disillusionment with the EU blocking Ukraine’s membership is still in its early stages.

In the eyes of the EU, Turkey was not only on the edge of Europe, but was also for Western European populist nationalists’ part of the Greater Middle East. Without Britain, the EU’s understanding of what constitutes ‘Europe’ will shrink as France was always more in favour of deepening in contrast to Britain’s support for widening.

France and Germany have always had the greatest difficulty in seeing Turkey and Ukraine as part of Europe. As France and Germany’s recent initiative to increase dialogue with Russia showed, they have always sought to cozy up to Russia irrespective of its hostile actions against its neighbours and the West.

France’s Russophilism and Armenian bias is a problem for both Ukraine and Azerbaijan respectively.Three of the four leading candidates in the 2017 French presidential elections  on the extreme left and right as well as centre-right were pro-Russian. Although a member of the OSCE Minsk group to resolve the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict, France has always been biased in support of Armenia and at the end of 2020, both houses of the French parliament voted to recognise the ‘independence’ of Karabakh.

Turkey and Ukraine have similar geopolitical views of their neighbourhoods and are extensively expanding their military cooperation. Turkey also cooperate militarily with Azerbaijan which proved to be important in securing Azerbaijan’s military victory in the 2020 Second Karabakh War. Turkey and Ukraine are undertaking joint production and purchase of military equipment, research into new military technology and NATO standards officer training. In January, Ukraine announced an agreement between the Turkish company Baykar Makina and Ukraine’s state-owned arms trader UkrSpetsExport to purchase 12 Bayraktar TB2 operational and tactical-level strike unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for the cost of $69 million. Turkey is very interested in Ukrainian engines for its military aircraft from the Motor Sich company which had been the biggest producer of aircraft engines in the USSR. Turkey is installing Ukrainian Zaslon active protection system (in a licensed form made by the Turkish Aselsan firm) on Turkish M60 tanks.

Turkey and Ukraine are upholders of the territorial integrity of states and strongly opposed to separatism. Turkey and Ukraine have identical interests on Azerbaijan where both countries supported the right of Azerbaijan to liberate its sovereign territory in Karabakh and seven surrounding districts which had been occupied by Armenia for nearly three decades. In the same manner as Turkey has condemned the annexation of Crimea in 2014 it has always supported the restoration of Azerbaijani territorial integrity, as shown in last year’s Second Karabakh War. Turkey supports Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Crimean Platform initiative to raise international awareness of the occupation of Crimea. Turkey and Ukraine will support the demarcation and delimitation of the Azerbaijani-Armenian border which Armenia is not keen to do because it is still unwilling to accept that last year’s defeat means it must recognise Karabakh is Azerbaijani sovereign territory.

Russia does not support any these steps backed by Turkey and Ukraine.

Since 1991, Russia has manufactured separatist conflicts, intervened, and positioned itself to be recognized as the ‘peacekeeping’ force in frozen conflicts in Eurasia. This has never resembled real peacekeeping but instead the freezing of the conflict on the ground in Russia’s favor. By keeping the conflict simmering, Russia’s so-called ‘peacekeeping’ forces remain there indefinitely, as they have in Georgia and Moldova.

Russia will attempt to renew the mandate of its so-called ‘peacekeepers’ in Karabakh after their five-year term ends. Turkey and Ukraine will support their replacement by a UN peacekeeping force. Turkey and Ukraine support the withdrawal of Armenian military forces from Karabakh and Russian forces from Ukraine. Russia denies its military forces are in eastern Ukraine and Armenia denies its armed forces remain in Karabakh. In both cases Russian and Armenian soldiers simply removed their military uniforms and became local proxy forces working for Moscow and Yerevan.

Russia and Armenia are supplying military equipment and personnel to their proxy forces in eastern Ukraine and Karabakh using civilian trucks disguised as ‘humanitarian’ convoys or transportation trucks.

Turkey and Ukraine have common national interests over a wide range of areas ranging from geopolitics, peacekeeping, frozen conflicts, territorial integrity and separatism, Azerbaijan, military industrial cooperation and relations with Russia and the EU. Without antagonistic historical baggage or geopolitical rivalry, cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine can only continue to expand. 

Author: Prof Taras Kuzio –  Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, Johns Hopkins University.

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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