The vast mobilization of Russian forces across the Ukrainian borders in the past few weeks has been fueling anxiety among Ukrainian civilians and Western leaders. Russian President Vladimir Putin has adopted an aggressive agenda towards the neighboring country while raising demands and voicing accusations against NATO, increasing the possibility of an armed confrontation. Amidst this unstable and uncertain environment, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking to serve Turkey’s strategic interests as his country copes with unprecedented economic problems and internal challenges.
Mediation Proposals for a Diplomatic Solution
On January 21, President Erdogan publicly stated that he was willing to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv, in order to rebuild trust and peace between the two belligerents. This is not the first time Erdogan expressed his peace-making intentions. He seems exceedingly keen on finding a diplomatic solution for Russia and Ukraine, whose repetitive standoffs since 2014, when Russia invaded then annexed Crimea from Ukraine, have again been monopolizing international attention.
President Erdogan publicly stated that he was willing to mediate between Moscow and Kyiv.
Turkey’s willingness to get involved in the Russo-Ukrainian crisis has a two-fold explanation. First, President Erdogan is seeking to re-establish its international standing as recent financial problems at home, rocketing inflation, and the continuous freefall of the Turkish lira have raised questions about the viability of his regime. Once again, Erdogan is looking to return Turkey to its glory days by initiating changes in his foreign policy. A successful mediation during such a delicate and tense moment, concerning the post-Soviet zone of influence and the Western world, would significantly boost Ankara’s position in the global arena.
At the same time, Turkey’s vested interests can be traced back to its relations in both Ukraine and Russia. Given that a forthcoming conflict would have an enormous impact on both countries, Ankara should expect respective bilateral trade volumes to shrink in the upcoming months, which could be catastrophic for Turkey’s already vulnerable economy.
The political leverage, which Erdogan has established through those respective bi-lateral ties, would be put at risk if he sits on the fence as a passive observer waiting for further developments. In order to understand how Ankara can benefit from the current Russo-Ukrainian situation and capitalize on international anxieties, it’s crucial to consider the individual factors that dictate the relations between Turkey, Russia, and Ukraine.
Turkey’s Strategic Relations with the Opposing Sides
Turkey has had a high-stakes relationship with Ukraine, particularly in Crimea – one of the key points of friction between Moscow and Kyiv – since the annexation of the peninsula in 2014. The presence of the Crimean Tatars constitutes a fundamental part of Turkish foreign policy.
The presence of the Crimean Tatars constitutes a fundamental part of Turkish foreign policy.
Currently, around 300,000 remaining Tatars account for an estimated 13% of the Crimean population, after some 30,000 fled after 2014; the overwhelming majority of Crimean Tatars are Sunni Muslims and are considered to be of Turkic origin. As per his established practice, Erdogan is publicly standing up for the rights of this repressed Muslim community. Indeed, one of Turkey’s larger aims has been to strengthen its role as a supporter and reliable force for vulnerable Muslim populations worldwide. In this case, the Turkish president’s strategic goals align with the Ukrainian government’s interests, as Kyiv welcomes Turkey as an ally in the struggle to overturn the status of the Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia.
The political rapprochement between Ankara and Kyiv has further enhanced their bilateral relations. As of 2019, the Ukrainian government recognized Turkey as one of its key economic partners. Turkey has recently been designated as Ukraine’s top foreign investor after investing over $4.1 billion into the country. This has been achieved through targeted grand initiatives, such as key Public-Private Partnerships in the Turkcell expansion project, a mobile network operator.
The growing cooperation between the two states has also moved into the defense sector and resulted in a major drone deal estimated to be worth over $60 million. As Ankara expands its drone business and diplomacy, the acquisition of dozens of Bayraktar TB2 by the Ukrainian government has drastically upgraded Kyiv’s operational capabilities.
Turkish bilateral relations with Russia are trickier. Regardless of their tensions and competing interests in the foreign policy arena – as depicted in the Syrian and Libyan conflicts – Moscow and Ankara have built strong ties that cannot be overlooked.
Moscow and Ankara have built strong ties that cannot be overlooked.
The major S-400 missiles defense deal with Russia has significantly boosted Turkish Air Defense capabilities, but it has also been a thorn in Turkey-NATO relations, especially from a US standpoint. The $2.5 billion S-400 agreement, signed in 2017, has made Turkey the only NATO member to hold and operate such a sophisticated strategic weapon of Russian origin. The deal raised NATO concerns around Moscow’s potential access to top-secret intelligence and prompted top US officials to call for and implement targeted sanctions against Ankara.
Furthermore, in the economic sector, Russia remains one of Turkey’s top trading partners, with the two countries aiming to reach a mutual $100 billion annual trading volume in 2022 – a realistic goal, according to the Turkish Trade Minister, Mehmet Muş. In addition to their extensive cooperation in the energy sector, agreements on tourism and agriculture are significant to the bilateral Russo-Turkish commercial activity.
However, critical infrastructure projects will still be prioritized. The colossal development of the Akkuyu nuclear plant in southern Turkey represents the largest joint venture between the two countries. The project is managed and run by the Russian conglomerate Rosatom, a major shareholder of the initiative that owns approximately 75 percent of current shares. This is an example of the strategic collaboration between the two countries, which ultimately dictates political meeting of minds in many areas.
Chasing the Win-Win Narrative
Considering Turkey’s vested interests in both countries, it is easy to understand Ankara’s perspective. Yet, a potential wide-scale and prolonged confrontation between Ukraine and Russia – while unlikely – could also be instrumentalized by Turkey to Erdogan’s advantage even though such a development would surely increase tensions between Russia and the West. But Turkey’s regional position with NATO and EU nations would be improved.
Considering Turkey’s vested interests in both countries, it is easy to understand Ankara’s perspective.
By providing access to the Black Sea and controlling the straits, Turkey can do much to assist Ukraine tactically and defensively. Erdogan’s reputation would no doubt be ameliorated. Furthermore, from a broader perspective, Ankara could undermine one of Russia’s key leverages and contribute to enhancing the European energy security landscape while staying mindful of the Russia-Turkey TANAP-TAP pipeline project’s long-term goals and assessing how the EU’s critical energy supplies framework could be diversified via Turkey.
By no means will Erdogan unconditionally stand against Moscow simply to serve vital Western interests. Instead, he will continue negotiating with all sides, pumping defense sales to Kyiv, selling the West the idea of Turkey’s position as a unique geostrategic barrier against Russian expansion, while maintaining a modus vivendi with Putin behind the scenes.
Currently, Turkey is dealing with an unfolding crisis and it seems that President Erdogan may secure a win-win situation for his country, either through supporting a peaceful solution or by getting indirectly involved in a potential conflict.