Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow at the Rondeli Foundation
Turkey on the one hand supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity and supplies it with arms, but on the other hand, needs to maintain trade and economic ties with Russia, especially in light of the recent difficulties facing the Turkish economy.
Official Ankara pursued a balanced policy at the initial phase of the Russia-Ukraine confrontation. Following the Russian invasion, however, it had to take a more decisive stance on many issues, among them more military and diplomatic support to Ukraine and closure of the straits under the Montreux Convention.
For NATO member Turkey, an active foreign policy actor, several factors are important in the Russia-Ukraine confrontation when planning its next moves:
1) Ankara’s support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and the mitigation of further growth of Russian influence
It is in Ankara’s interests not to allow Russia to further strengthen its position in the Black Sea, where the balance of power has changed against Turkey since the annexation of Crimea. That is why Ankara fully supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the aspirations of this country, as well as those of Georgia, to join NATO.
Turkey’s support for Ukraine has been expressed repeatedly. The last such position we saw was on 22 February 2022, voiced by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs shortly after the recognition of the independence of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic” and the “Luhansk People’s Republic”. The statement issued by the Ministry reads:
“The decision of the Russian Federation to recognize the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk republics, in addition to contradicting the Minsk agreements, is a clear violation of the political unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
“The decision of the Russian Federation is unacceptable and we reject it.
“We reaffirm our commitment to the political unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine and call on all concerned parties to act in good faith and to uphold international law.”
The same day, a similar position was expressed by the President of the Republic of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during a telephone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky. In particular, Erdogan criticized Russia’s decision regarding the so-called “recognition”, and underlined that Turkey supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.
2) Maintaining trade and economic relations with Russia and Ukraine
Ankara has close trade and economic ties with both Ukraine and the Russian Federation. Maintaining this relationship is very important for the troubled Turkish economy, and this is especially true of exporting energy carriers, tourism, and the sale of Turkish agricultural products.
Yet, from Moscow’s perspective, Ankara does not appear particularly neutral, largely due to its support of Ukraine (including militarily), as illustrated by a program broadcasted on Russian state television “Russia” on February 21, 2022, where President Erdogan was listed among other world leaders who “aspire to inflate the Russian-Ukrainian war.”
TV show on the “Russia” channel, where Erdogan was included on the list of those aspiring to inflate the war and, as a consequence, one of Russia’s enemies.
As such, it came as no surprise that after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Erdogan’s peace initiatives on a ceasefire were left unanswered by Moscow.
3) Cooperation with Ukraine in the military-industrial sphere
After the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, as a result of Armenian lobbying, the supply of engines to Turkish “Bayraktar” (a world-renowned Turkish brand) was restricted, and it became necessary for Turkey to find an alternative, one that soon appeared in Ukraine, where, since the Soviet-era, a great tradition of military industries has existed, which includes the production of military aircraft engines.
Thus, it was only natural that when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan headed to Kyiv on February 3 to reaffirm his support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, the leaders of the two countries signed an agreement to launch joint production of drones, which includes the opening of a joint plant on the territory of Ukraine, as well as a drone management training center.
Official welcoming ceremony in Kyiv on February 3, 2022, prior to the Erdogan-Zelensky meeting
Change in Turkey’s position since the start of the war
One the war kicked off, it became clear to Ankara, as it did to the whole world, that the geopolitical threats and challenges posed by Russia had increased with lightning speed. Turkey has taken several concrete steps with this in mind:
- It locked the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits to Russian warships (allowed by the Montreux Convention in the event of war). However, the effect of this move has been minimal, as most Russian ships had already sailed into the Black Sea. Only four Russian ships were prevented from entering the Black Sea from the Mediterranean after the lockdown.
- It started sending additional military equipment (most likely Turkish “Bayraktars”) to Poland by air, which was then delivered by land to Ukraine. Although Ankara has not made an official statement about this, it is clear from the radar application that cargo planes belonging to the Turkish Air Force have been carrying military cargo from Turkey to Poland in recent days.
The flight of a Turkish Air Force cargo plane to Poland
– Turkey also sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine to help the war victims.
What Turkey has not done is join (at least as of time of writing) the economic sanctions imposed by the West on Russia. Nor has it closed its airspace to Russian airlines. In this way, Ankara is trying to maintain relations with Russia in both the political and economic sense.
Finally, it should be noted that at this stage it is difficult to predict how the big picture will change in and around the Russia-Ukraine war, a picture that will inevitably affect Official Ankara’s next moves.