The roots of Turkey’s balancing act with Russia on Ukraine
Often exasperating to Western powers, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is performing a difficult balancing act ultimately designed to help him retain power in the 2023 elections despite a deeply troubled economy.
Just a few days before reports came out about the territorial gains of the Ukrainian army in the country’s northeast region, Erdogan had warned the West not to “underestimate Russia” and criticized its “provocation-based policy” toward Putin.
It was one of several previous episodes where Turkey surprised its watchers, wherever they might stand on the war in Ukraine.
I have given more than a dozen interviews and lectures on Turkey’s foreign policy in Ukraine since the start of Putin’s “special military operation” in February 2022. Two questions came up in nearly every single one of them. The first was whether Turkey was effectively on both sides of the war in Ukraine. The second asked if Turkey’s positioning was an asset or liability for the Western alliance, especially in the context of NATO’s support for Ukraine. The answer to the first question is a simple yes. The second, however, needs a lot more elaboration.
Turkey (or Türkiye, as the country now demands to be called) stands at a key juncture between the West and Russia. This position, both politically and geographically, has fundamentally shaped its Ukraine policy.
On the one hand, Turkey is a U.S. ally and a longstanding and critical member of NATO as the alliance’s second largest troop contributor. The country served key roles in the NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Even though it was not taken up, Turkey had also offered to operate the Kabul airport after Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer. And even though its relations with the United States have strained more than quite a bit over the last decade, Turkey still considers itself a U.S. ally and has no intentions to sever ties.
On the other hand, Turkey maintains strong relations with Russia especially in terms of trade. The country is one of the biggest buyers of Russian natural gas and exports food products and chemicals worth billions of dollars. Turkey also attracts millions of Russian tourists each year with its affordable beach resorts and visa-free travel regime with its Black Sea neighbor. Most importantly, the two countries have forged increasingly critical security and defense relationships in the last few years. The most critical of these include their military coordination in Syria and, of course, Turkey’s controversial purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system in 2017.
That is quite some baggage. And Turkey has been maintaining a balancing act in Ukraine precisely because of it.
For instance, Turkey declared the “special military operation” in Ukraine a “war” soon after its onset. Doing so, Ankara exercised its Montreux Convention rights to close the straits, the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, to outbound Russian battleships. Ankara also provided the now infamous Bayraktar TB2 drones to Ukraine early on in the conflict, and once again more recently. The drones helped Ukraine achieve some early tactical gains that bolstered morale when it was most needed.
Yet, unlike its Western allies, Turkey did not close its airspace to Russian aircraft, nor did it impose any economic sanctions on Russia. In fact, the country has doubled its gas imports from Russia and monetized its visa-free travel regime at a time when it has become increasingly difficult for Russians to get Schengen visas for Europe.
Clearly, Turkey is on both sides of the war. But is its position an asset or liability for the West?
There are two ways to answer that question. Some would argue that Turkey’s positioning is an asset not just for the West but for the developing world as well. Ankara was able to negotiate the deal that lifted the Odessa port blockade and allowed the shipment of Ukrainian grain, potentially mitigating a global food crisis. Turkey was able to mediate between Ukraine and Russia precisely because it has chosen to hedge its bets on both sides of the conflict. Further, Turkey’s position may also have played some role in preventing further escalation between NATO and Russia, such as stalling Finland and Sweden’s NATO bids earlier this spring.
Others would certainly argue, however, that Turkey has proven to be an unpredictable ally that undermines the West’s determination to stand against Russian aggression. After all, one man’s balancing act is another’s lack of commitment. Given the importance of credibility in international relations, especially for organizations of democratic states like NATO, Turkey’s “half-hearted” approach to the war in Ukraine can be considered a liability for NATO’s resolve and its ability to deter Russia in the future, further destabilizing the region.
So what is Erdogan’s endgame?
It has become impossible to understand Turkey’s foreign policy, including its Ukraine policy, without understanding the country’s domestic politics and Erdogan’s future in it.
National elections in Turkey are coming up in 2023, which will also mark the republic’s centennial. The race has enormous political and symbolic significance for Erdogan and his AKP. After having lost the mayorships of Turkey’s three largest cities to opposition candidates in 2018, Erdogan has vowed to renew his and his party’s mandate next year. That looks like an increasingly difficult challenge, however, given the country’s grim economic outlook. Turkey’s currency, the lira, has lost more than half of its value against the dollar since 2021. Interest rates remain shockingly low (it’s personal for Erdogan) and prices have shot up nearly 100 percent in major cities like Istanbul. The opposition bloc is energetic and hopeful even though they have yet to decide on their presidential candidate.
Perhaps for the first time, electoral defeat is a very likely outcome for Erdogan next year. Turkey’s position in Ukraine is directly tethered to his political future. He cannot turn his back to Russia and send the country’s economy into a tailspin. Instead, he pursues this difficult balancing act that he packages as Turkey’s “strategic autonomy” in foreign policy while scoring additional points by mediating high-profile negotiations between the warring parties. “Turkey doesn’t take orders from others; we are a key actor in the region and the makers of our own foreign policy” is a powerful and compelling message that attracts voters from every corner of Turkish society. He needs popular support more than ever, and his Ukraine policy might just help him get it.