Analysis - Political Transformations

Calculated Risk

What is Turkey’s position on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
Tuesday، February 22، 2022
Calculated Risk

Tensions peaked between Russia, on one side, and the United States and NATO, on the other, when the Western powers accused Russia of deploying 100,000 troops, heavy equipment and weapons systems along its border with Ukraine before it launched a large-scale invasion of its neighbor. Moscow denied the accusations then, while the Western powers responded to Russia by reinforcing their military presence in Eastern Europe and sent more arms to Ukraine to help it repulse the Russian invasion. 

Amid these tensions, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, on February 3rd, visited Kyiv, where he met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for talks about tensions with Russia. In a joint press conference with Zelenskiy, Erdogan reiterated Turkey’s support to Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. Erdogan further announced that Turkey was prepared to do whatever is necessary to resolve the crisis between Ukraine and Russia and renewed his initiative for a summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President, or technical talks in Ankara, in a bid to resolve the crisis between the two countries. 

At the start of escalation over Ukraine late last year, Turkey took a dual position. While it rejected a potential Russian military invasion of Ukraine and, as a member of the Western alliance NATO, showed preparedness for backing Kyive, Ankara offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine to resolve the crisis. The position shows that Turkey’s calculations over the crisis are complicated due to considerations related to its relations with the West, Ukraine and Russia, in addition to its concerns that war between Ukraine and Russia would negatively impact its interests.

Backing Ukraine

Turkish officials expressed rejection of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. In a televised interview on January 26th, President Erdogan said he hoped that “Russia will not make an armed attack or occupy Ukraine”, and described such a step as an “unwise” act for both Russia and the region. In his answer to a question about Turkey’s position if Russia launches an attack against Ukraine, Erdogan said “Ankara has supported Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty from the very beginning. We have demonstrated a clear position against Russia's actions, especially those in Crimea, that are detrimental to Ukraine's territorial integrity.” He further reiterated that Turkey will continue to meet its obligations as a member of NATO and that “there is no hesitation in this.” He reiterated this position during his visit to Kyiv on Febraury 3rd. 

Turkey intensified political, military and economic support to Ukraine. During Erdogan's most recent visit to Kyiv, the joint high-level strategic council held its 10th meeting to discuss cooperation between Turkey and Ukraine. The two countries signed eight cooperation agreements including a free trade agreement, a memorandum of understanding on technical cooperation between the revenue department of the Turkish Ministry of Finance and Treasury and the Ukrainian State Tax Service, as well as a protocol to establish a joint customs committee. The two countries also signed a cooperation agreement on aerospace technologies. 

In a joint press conference with the Turkish president, the Ukrainian President said that an agreement was signed to significantly expand Turkish defense company Baykar’s production of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, in Ukraine. Earlier, in September 2021, Ukrainian ministry of defense signed an agreement with Baykar to build a joint center for maintenance, repair and modernization of UAVs, as well as for  training on the use of the Turkish UAVs near the Ukrainian city of Vasylkiv.

On February 3rd, Ukrainian Minister of Defense, announced that his country handed a list of weapons and equipment needed to counter any potential invasion to military attaches at foreign embassies, including that of Turkey. He pointed out that Kyiv will hold talks with Ankara about the possession of Turkish defense systems. For his part, Director of Communications at the Turkish Presidency Fahrettin Altun, said that Kyiv expressed its interest in purchasing more Bayraktar combat drones. Ukraine already has 12 Bayraktar drones and used them against Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas region, east of Ukraine, in October 2021, which angered Moscow. 

Mediation Bids

Turkey offered to act as a mediator in the Ukrainian crisis for the first time in November 2021, when President Erdogan said that he presented Russian President Vladimir Putin with this offer aiming to hold a summit meeting with the Ukrainian President to take a step towards de-escalation. But the Kremlin rejected the offer saying that “Russia is not a party to the conflict in the Donbas region.” Turkey also proposed a meeting for the Minsk Group in Istanbul to work on a settlement for the Ukrainian crisis, bringing together representatives of Ukraine, Russia as well as the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. 

Erdogan, on several occasions, reiterated his initiative for mediation. His most recent attempt was  made on February 3rd, during his visit to Kyiv. However, while the Ukrainian President thanked his Turkish counterpart for the initiative and for his readiness to do whatever it takes to achieve peace in Ukraine, Russia continues to have reservations about a summit meeting between both leaders in Ankara, as proposed by the Turkish initiative. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow, on February 4th, that “no agreement was reached yet. The possibility of holding such a meeting was not practically discussed.” While Erdogan, ahead of his recent visit to Ukraine, said that “President Putin informed us that he will visit Turkey after his trip to China,” Peskov said “no date has been set for Putin’s anticipated visit to Ankara.”

Ankara’s Calculations

1- Maintaining strategic relations with Ukraine 

Turkey has close strategic ties in several areas with Ukraine. Politically, both countries, in 2011, agreed to create a joint high-level strategic council, and promoted their relations to the level of strategic partnership. Economically, the volume of trade between the two countries stood at USD 7.4 billion in 2021. Moreover, the two countries are planning to increase their trade to USD 10 billion following their recent free trade agreement. Militarily, Ukraine is a major  importer of Turkish-made UAVs, and even takes part in building this equipment. In addition to building Bayraktar drones on its territory, Ukraine manufactures engines for Turkish-made UAVs such as new-generation Bayraktar Akıncı combat drones. Moreover, in August 2019, Turkey and Ukraine jointly established Black Seas Shield, a new joint venture company to develop and produce new-generation long-range UAVs, missiles, radars and navigation systems. Additionally, Ukrainian companies are providing Turkey with engines for its combat helicopter ATAK-2, which is scheduled for its first test flight in 2024. Earlier, in July 2021, Ukrainian President announced that the first hull of Ukraine’s modern Turkish-built corvette was already laid in Turkey and will be completed in Ukraine by the end of 2023. 

2- Turkey’s taking advantage of the crisis to mend relations with the West. 

Turkey seeks to use the Ukrainian crisis to emphasize its central role in Europe’s security, as well as the significance of its geographical location for the US and NATO strategies for containing Russia. This came after Turkey’s regional policies and rapprochement with Russia over the past years strained its relations with Western powers. This even prompted some to call for expelling Turkey from NATO for embracing aggressive policies towards other NATO members in violation of the alliance’s strategy and goals. That is, Turkey controls vessel traffic in the Black Sea through the straits of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, allowing NATO ships to pass through them. The Bosphorus is Russia’s only gateway from the landlocked Black Sea to the Mediterranean. Historically, Turkey has always been considered Europe’s first line of defense against threats posed by the former Soviet Union. 

Turkey bets that backing Ukraine and identifying with NATO on the crisis will resolve its disagreement, and improve its relations with the United States. Most importantly, Turkey was excluded from the F-35 fighter jet program following its possession of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems. Additionally, Turkey seeks to take advantage of the Ukrainian crisis to buy 40 US-made F-16 fighter jets using the USD 1.4 billion it allotted for the F-35 fighter jet program, to counter mounting threats posed by Russia in the Black Sea. Yet, the deal is facing objections from Congress members known for criticizing Turkey for its growing relations with Russia, and its policies in the Middle East. 

3- Fears of provoking Russia 

Turkey’s offer to mediate between Russia and Ukraine is based on Ankara’s desire to peacefully resolve the crisis and prevent its escalation into a war, where it will have to take either side. As a member of NATO,  it will side with Ukraine and Western allies, which will cause a collapse of its growing political, military and economic relations with Russia. That is, Turkey relies on Russian natural gas to meet domestic demand. Moreover, Turkey is a favorite destination for a large number of Russian tourists, while Russia is a major importer of Turkish agricultural products. 

Turkey has concerns over the negative consequences of the war between Russia and Ukraine on existing coordination between Moscow and Ankara over conflict zones such as Syria, Libya, the South Caucasus and Central Asia. It also fears that fighting would resurge in these zones in response to its potential siding with the West against Russia, especially because Russia and Western powers are scrambling for influence in these zones. This would pose a major challenge to Turkey, which will not bear the cost of renewed conflicts. 

In conclusion, escalation over Ukraine can be both an opportunity and a crisis for Turkey at the same time. While Turkey seeks to use the crisis to improve relations with the West, the Russian invasion of Ukraine may be forcing Turkey to make a difficult choice: it will have to either side with Ukraine and its NATO allies, thus losing its relations with Russia, or take a neutral stance causing its relations with the Western powers to collapse. In either case, the Turkish economy would suffer from substantial losses because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the sanctions imposed already by the West on Moscow. That is why Turkey has been striving to act as mediator to resolve the crisis through diplomatic means and prevent the war. 

Yet, Russia seems to continue to have reservations about Turkish mediation. It views Ankara as a non-neutral mediator because it is a member of NATO and maintains close military cooperation with Ukraine. Additionally, Russia’s security demands from Washington and NATO over Ukraine are too difficult for Turkey’s mediation to address. Russia wants the West to stop its eastward expansion of the alliance and give up plans to deploy attack weapon systems close to the Russian border as well as to reset NATO’s military presence in Europe and withdraw its forces to positions occupied in 1997.

Keywords: RussiaTurkeyUkraine