War in Europe: The Role of Turkey

Ein russisches Militärschiff passiert den Bosporus in Istanbul

picture alliance / AA | Emrah Yorulmaz

While Russian President Putin was building his military threats around Ukraine in the past few months, American and European politicians were not the only ones trying to de-escalate the situation with lively travel and telephone diplomacy. Turkey, as a country with many ties to both Russia and Ukraine, has repeatedly offered to act as a mediator. Before the war began, these advances met with little attention, at least in Moscow. In the meantime, the world has changed, and Turkey's efforts to mediate have intensified. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not only in regular contact with the parties to the conflict, but also with NATO partners - for example, Olaf Scholz's inaugural visit this week was all about the war in Europe. Turkey also managed to bring together the foreign ministers of Russia and Ukraine, Sergei Lavrov and Dmytro Kuleba, for their first post-invasion talks. The meeting on March 10 in the run-up to the Antalya Diplomacy Forum was moderated by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and was considered a diplomatic success by Turkey. However, it did not yield any results, neither in the direction of a ceasefire nor in solving humanitarian issues. On March 16 and 17, Turkey continued its mediation efforts with personal visits by Çavuşoğlu to Moscow and Kyiv. The country is thus one of the possible mediators who maintain good relations with both parties to the conflict. Israel, India and China are also under discussion.

Turkey in a Special Role

For years, Turkey has played a special role in relation to Russia and Ukraine within the NATO countries by trying to balance its relations with both countries. Like Great Britain or the USA, it is one of the countries that support military aid for Ukraine and supply weapons technology to Kyiv. It agreed to a military reinforcement of NATO's presence in countries bordering Ukraine and Russia, which was decided in January, but without promising to participate. 

At the same time, the country considers sanctions against Russia to be ineffective. Turkey had already sharply condemned the annexation of Crimea and signed UN Resolution 68/262 on the invalidity of the Crimea referendum. Erdoğan also described the recent recognition of the so-called People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as unacceptable. However, Turkey has so far not participated in the sanctions against Russia. Instead, Ankara repeatedly emphasizes the need for dialogue and refers to Russian security interests. A few days after the beginning of the war, Turkey agreed to block the Bosphorus passage for Russian warships, as far as this is possible under the Montreux Agreement of 1936 - ships of the Black Sea Fleet can therefore not be prevented from returning to their home port. President Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu clearly describe the Russian aggression as a "war", while the Russian side only speaks of a "military operation". On the other hand, Turkey is not taking part in the now almost Europe-wide closing of airspace for Russian aircraft, which would hit the Kremlin harder than blocking the waterway. There is also a shift in international voting: Turkey was the only country to abstain from the suspension of Russia's membership of the Council of Europe, but voted on the same day to suspend Russia's accession process to the OECD. The reasons for this special role and the repeated mediation initiatives lie in the diverse interests and dependencies that connect Turkey with both states.

Turkey and Ukraine: Strategic Partnership

Since the Maidan revolution, Turkey has built up a strategic partnership with Ukraine, the main focus of which is on armaments cooperation. Ukraine has purchased an estimated 20 Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground control stations and missiles since 2019, and deployed the drones in Donbas for the first time in October 2021.They have also already contributed to repelling the current invasion. Ukraine has also ordered Turkish-made Ada-class corvettes, which should significantly strengthen its defensive position in the Black Sea and Sea of ​​Azov. Conversely, the Turkish arms company Baykar had begun building a production facility for armed Akinci drones near Kyiv. The Ukrainian aircraft company Motor Sich was to supply important machine parts for drone construction - a consequence of the American sanctions against Turkey because of the acquisition of Russian S400 anti-aicraft missiles.

However, the partnership with Ukraine goes far beyond armaments cooperation. In 2021, Turkey was the largest foreign investor in Ukraine with an investment volume of USD 4.5 billion. More than 700 Turkish companies are active in Ukraine, the mobile operator Turkcell owns the third largest Ukrainian provider Lifecell, and there are large joint infrastructure projects. A free trade agreement signed on February 3 of this year should increase the trade volume from USD 5 billion in 2021 to USD 10 billion. Since 2017, citizens of both countries have been able to travel to the other country simply with their identity card.

The Crimean Tatars form a special bond between the two countries, not only because Crimea, conquered by the Russian Empire in 1783, has symbolic value as the first territorial loss of the Ottoman Empire. Between three and five million Crimean Tatars live in present-day Turkey. When the Crimean Tatars deported under Stalin were able to return to newly independent Ukraine in the 1990s, the Turkish Agency for Cooperation and Development (TIKA) financed housing and cultural projects. Currently, 500 houses for Crimean Tatars who left Crimea after the annexation in 2014 and moved to the Ukrainian mainland were built with Turkish funds in Kyiv, Cherson and Mykolaiv. Last but not least, leading personalities of the Crimean Tatar People's Assembly Medshlis were released from Russian captivity in 2017, largely through President Erdoğan's personal mediation. 

Politically, Ankara has repeatedly spoken out clearly in favor of Ukraine's sovereignty, which Kyiv - like the arms deliveries - rewards with gratitude. However, there are good reasons why Turkey has not yet participated in the sanctions against Russia.

Turkey and Russia: Energy Dependency and Complex Security Balance

Turkey is highly dependent on Russian gas supplies. Although it is striving to diversify its energy sources, it has expanded storage capacities and relies on liquid gas, 34 percent of the steadily increasing demand for natural gas is still covered by Russia. The first Turkish nuclear power plant is being built by the Russian state company Rosatom. The volume of trade with Russia is six times higher than that with Ukraine. For Turkish construction companies, Russia is the leading foreign market; Russian tourists, at 20 percent, are the largest group of visitors to Turkey. Moscow has repeatedly used these trade links to express discontent with Turkey's support for Ukraine. In 2021, immediately after Erdoğan met Zelenskiy, all flights from Russia to Turkey were suspended, allegedly due to the pandemic. The Russian authority for veterinary and plant protection supervision, Rosselkhoznadzor, also regularly bans the import of Turkish products in connection with undesirable political behavior from Ankara. After the first use of the Bayraktar drone by Ukraine in the Donbas, a ban was imposed on Turkish mandarins because of "excessive pesticide contamination". In view of the Turkish economic crisis, Turkey is highly sensitive to any kind of economic pressure measures.

However, Turkey's close and ambivalent relationship with Russia is not limited to energy and trade. In several regional conflicts - Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh - both countries are involved on different sides of the conflict and maintain close coordination with each other. Joint military patrols in Syria and a joint ceasefire monitoring center following the Armenian-Azerbaijani war over Nagorno-Karabakh are just examples of intense coordination at the highest level.

Risks of Escalation for Turkey

Putin's war is now further constraining the leadership in Ankara: NATO is likely to urge Turkey to take a clear stand against Russia in the foreseeable future. But in view of the dramatic economic and financial crisis and the falling polls for their policies, the Turkish leadership can hardly afford an economic or tourism boycott. The real Achilles' heel, however, is probably in Syria's Idlib, which, with Russian consent, is de facto under a Turkish protectorate as the remaining rebel stronghold. If Putin gave the green light for an attack by Assad's forces, two to three million more people could flee to Turkey - given the already strong hostility to refugees, this would be difficult for the government to cope with domestically. 

Even if Turkey is not at the center of the current Russian war of aggression, it could be severely affected by its consequences. The next few weeks will not only show what place the country will find in a changed European security order, but also whether the current position of balancing offers opportunities for conflict management or whether Turkey will be doomed.