During the course of the conflict in Russia-Ukraine, Ankara has managed to preserve its strategic autonomy and has avoided siding with the West in placing sanctions on Russia while yet managing to maintain its connections with both Moscow and Kyiv without jeopardizing its own geostrategic calculations. Turkey has managed to position itself in the middle of the conflict, not just between Russia and Ukraine but also between Russia and the West, and even globally between the West and the many non-Western countries that have chosen to play a more cautious and balanced approach to the war. It is important to understand Turkey’s role in the war and what has been determining its strategic foreign policy towards the west. The most important determinant is Turkey’s Geographical location followed by its historical and transactional relations with the West and Russia. In addition, the Individual level also influences its strategic alliances and foreign policies.
Strategic Location of Turkey
The geographical location of Turkey in the region has the most influencing determinant in its foreign policy and strategic position. It is a giant Isthmus between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, connecting two regions: Europe and North Africa to Asia and provides a passage between the two seas through the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits. The Black Sea has over ten major ports, among these are the three conflicted ports: Mariupol, Odessa and Sevastopol ports. The geographical position of Turkey is exploited by NATO and the European Union as it is the southern flank against Russia and a buffer zone to hold and slow down the refugee influx from North Africa and the unstable Levant region. For Russia, Turkey provides it with secure warm water ways to the Sea of Marmara, the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean for transport of its goods and ships. Turkey’s existence in this geography also includes challenges like the civil wars in Iraq and Syria, a divided Cyprus, tensions with Armenians and agitation with the Kurds. And now with the Russia-Ukraine war, it is inevitable that Ankara has to take multiple approaches to hold its balance between the West and Russia.
Turkey-West Equation: EU-NATO
Turkey and EU:
After the Cold War era, Turkey pursued to strengthen ties with the West and the US for its security and its economy was integrated into the European Union through its full membership candidature and achieved “strategic partnership” with the US. However, during the process for accession, Turkey’s relation with Europe started to antagonize because of the growing anti-establishment, anti-enlargement and xenophobic political groups’ positions against Turkey. The exhaustive appeal and influence of European institutions, policies, norms and values on Turkey led to skepticism and antagonism towards the EU. However, the relations between Turkey and the EU have moved to a transactional level, through strategic bilateral and multilateral partnerships for short term goals.
Turkey and NATO:
Turkey has been a member of NATO for more than 70 years, serving as the alliance’s Southern Flank against Russia during the Cold War and continues to do so. Ankara has been one of the major contributors to NATO’s largest and longest mission in Afghanistan. However, Ankara is an “unpredictable ally,” as it has frequent demands from the US and the alliance pertaining to its neighborhood and domestic issues. Turkey also does not offer stability to NATO’s neighbours. A tenuous truce in Libya has so far prevented the conflict from entering a new phase, but Turkey is defying a number of regional powers. A larger dispute between Turkey and Greece over Cyprus, maritime boundaries, and oil development is also present, regardless that Athens is also a member of NATO. Frequent fights along tight, convoluted lines of control in northern Syria have the possibility of turning into direct confrontations with the Assad government, Russia, and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. And in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Caucasus has been quickly redrawn, with Turkey and Russia once more at odds with one another, as well as monitors and proxy forces from both countries close by along a disputed border. It is being a bad ally instead of a full fledged opponent to NATO.
Turkey is the only NATO country which holds relatively friendly relations with Russia and has refrained from imposing sanctions on Moscow since 2014. Moscow has always been a more valuable economic and security partner for Ankara than Ukraine. Turkey was willing to disregard not only Kyiv’s but also the opinions of its Western friends in order to further its national interests, as was the case when it agreed to join Russia’s TurkStream pipeline project in 2016 to avoid Ukrainian territory as a passage and send Russian gas to Europe. In addition, it bought S-400 missile systems from Russia against opposition from NATO and the US in 2020.
In addition to national goals, individuals also play an important role in foreign policy. Turkey’s President Erdogan and Russia’s President Vladamir Putin have a strange relationship. They both openly cooperate but also fight proxy wars in Syria and Libya. For Russia, Turkey has become a safe harbor, the only country in Europe to welcome Russian business and tourists. For Turkey, Russia is a valuable trade partner and a source of cash.
Role of Turkey in the Russia-Ukraine War: An ally and a Mediator
Since the start of the conflict, Turkey has carefully balanced between the West and Russia in a pursuit for its Strategic Identity in the region. Ankara has played the role of both an ally and a mediator in the conflict.
Since March 2022, Turkey has supplied Ukraine 32 TB2 drones supplied by the company Baykar Tech to Ukraine. An additional 15 were sold to Ukraine at a price that was between 30% and 50% less than the USD five million original price. Also, five drones were donated by Baykar Tech after Lithuanian, Polish, and Ukrainian individuals’ crowdfunding campaigns successfully gathered enough money to buy the equipment but were instead used to support humanitarian help. One of the largest supplies of a single armored vehicle model by a non-American nation, was 200 Kirpi MRAP armored personnel carriers made domestically by Turkey, in addition to drones.
The balanced approach has allowed President Erdoan to engage both Putin and Zelensky in diplomatic attempts to achieve agreements on several fronts since the start of the conflict. They have produced some noticeable outcomes, including the grain deal and the agreement on the exchange of prisoners of war, highlighting the significance of maintaining open lines of contact with both parties to produce noticeable outcomes on a humanitarian level. It also emphasizes the necessity of communication with Russia. Ukraine and Russia signed a historic grain agreement on July 22 in Istanbul, mediated by Ankara, to establish the Joint Coordination Centre (JCC), which will handle grain shipments from the two countries through the Black Sea to Turkey’s straits, allowing vital crops to reach global markets and providing a lifeline for humanity.
On the other hand, Turkey was able to convince both sides to open the Ports through the Black Sea Grain Initiative, easing food shortages and soaring prices by letting the warring nations sell their crops to global markets. Many ships have transported millions of tonnes of grain from Russia and Ukraine to nations that are in dire need since the JCC opened. On September 22, 2022, Ukraine and Russia came to an unexpected prisoner exchange agreement under Turkish mediation that resulted in the release of over 250 prisoners, including 215 Ukrainians and 55 Russian and pro-Russian fighters. The agreement, which also resulted in the release of 10 foreign nationals from the US and the UK, was praised by the international community. London and Washington thanked Ankara and Riyadh for their assistance in making the agreement possible.
What does it mean ?
First, maintaining a transactional relationship. By officially declaring Russia’s invasion as a war against Ukraine and supporting it with drones and vehicles, Ankara is able to keep the transactional relationship with the US, EU and NATO. This is to avoid the crossing of the ‘Red Line’ with NATO in its frequent gambit of demands and disagreements.
Second, to take over the place of Western Markets for Russian Goods. Turkey is riding the tide and acquired considerable gains through its diplomatic moves. It has taken the place of Western businesses on the Russian market, attracts Russian tourists and money to avoid sanctions
Third, hospice to Russian tourists and investors. a large number of Russians have emigrated to Turkey out of fear of Western sanctions, spending millions in the country’s real estate market and setting up enterprises, which is also profitable for Ankara. Western companies as well have opened offices in Turkey to circumvent sanctions in order to trade with Russia. This will help Turkey to walk steady in its crippling economy.
Fourth, Turkey sees the chance to fulfill its long-held ambition of turning into a major transit hub for Europe. Turkey is offering its services and advocating for a long-discussed new subsea pipeline between Israel and Turkey, one that would allow eastern Mediterranean gas to reach Europe through Turkey, as the European allies are more determined than ever to reduce their dependence on Russian gas imports.